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Famous founders: A blessing or a curse?

Famous founders: A blessing or a curse?

By Anna McKeon & Natalie Jesionka

Bob and Jane take a sabbatical from their careers in Sydney to travel the world. On their trip, they travel comfortably but authentically and are moved by the poverty and daily struggle they encounter for the first time in their life. They are especially moved by the children they see begging. Having had a transformative experience, they talk about how they can “give back” in some way. When Bob and Jane get back to Australia, they decide to establish their own non-profit organisation to promote education, so the children they saw will never have to beg again. Enlisting high-powered friends to help publicise their mission, they raise half a million dollars within two months. They’re bombarded with requests from radio and TV shows, get featured in magazines and are soon hailed as heroes.

The rise of the hero NGO founder is becoming an all-too-familiar story in the development sector. Whether it’s people we know or individuals we discover through magazines and TV, we quickly place a trust in those who inspire us, giving them our respect, our support, and often our money, with few questions asked.

As a result, such individuals can quickly become beyond reproach. Blessed with unrestricted – often private – donations, they’re working in a system with few checks and balances. It is in these circumstances, when the PR machine can take over, that the individual begins to overshadow the organisation, and significant problems go unchallenged.

What we as supporters don’t often see is what happens when Bob and Jane actually go back to the country they visited to launch their project and their NGO. We don’t hear much about their struggles in establishing an education organisation without a background in teaching, dealing with legalities in a language they cannot speak or working in cultures they don’t understand.

While they may remain dedicated to their mission, they now inhabit two worlds – and neither one properly understands them.

Inevitably, the times we do hear of those struggles is when problems become too big to be ignored. The exposé of Somaly Mam earlier this year is perhaps the most compelling example of a hero NGO founder whose public profile overshadowed not only her whole organisation, but also her entire cause. Mam’s was the classic hero’s journey, complete with the tragic fatal flaw and fall from grace. As Laura Agustin points out, even in apparent disgrace, the media is still focused on the founder: most people became involved with the Somaly Mam Foundation because of Somaly Mam – not because they were interested in understanding how to change the structures and systems that create and sustain human trafficking.

It’s time for a reality check: in order to improve the way founders and organisations do good, we need to start talking about the challenges of managing a high profile. Here are some ideas of how to recognize the red flags and avoid falling into the trap of Founder’s Syndrome:

  1. Overshadowing the organisation

The problem that frustrates many people in the development sector (aid professionals and commenters alike) is that the focus on an individual founder’s story often quickly overshadows the mission and activities of their organisation. One way to demonstrate that your passion is for your cause and not your profile is to refrain from propagating such an attitude. Lose the “About Me” or “My Story” page from the organisation’s website. Organisations demonstrating a strong foundation try to reduce the focus on any one individual and ensure their visual media and narrative represent the people they’re working with.

  1. Believing the PR machine

Somaly Mam’s story (and Greg Mortenson’s before hers) demonstrates that it’s all too easy for a PR machine to run away with itself. If some details are slightly wrong, but the coverage is generating donations for a good cause – where’s the harm? Once a hero has been created, few people are keen to question their standing. As Daniela Papi put it,

With aid, it often seems that all you need to do is state the dedication of your life to some cause, and that statement of altruistic intent alone is all you need to get the media and donor community supporting your stock.

This can mean the opinions of high-profile founders are sought above experts, regardless of their actual level of knowledge of an issue. The founders become the face of the movement, the coveted photo-op and editorial, but may not have the skills or knowledge to actually implement what they represent in the field.

Some founders keep connected with reality through talking openly about their organisation’s challenges. If the media does get caught up in your personal story, make sure to correct their version of events. Make it clear that there are always things the organisation can do better. All NGOs are (or should be) constantly learning, constantly developing. In role modeling this attitude, you’re less likely to get caught up in a cycle of PR fluff and fabrication.

  1. Threatening organisational sustainability

How Matters has a great overview of some of the problems of Founder’s Syndrome. If an organisation relies solely on pedaling an individual’s profile, donors will likely dry up if that individual leaves the organisation. In addition, the presence of a high-profile founder can make staff or board members more likely to defer to their opinions. This may not only result in misguided choices, but may also leave a decision-making vacuum when the founder moves on.

To ensure that your organisation can function without your involvement, prioritise capacity building and local leadership, encouraging program and strategy decisions to be made by those with the most knowledge and experience. Decide how to evaluate your impact, and use measurables to back it up. Go beyond the anecdotes and the easy visuals.

  1. Perpetuating unhelpful “saviour / victim” concepts in aid and development.

Representations of founders as “saviours” and communities as “victims who need saving” are not helpful to overall portrayals of global inequities. It’s all too common for such “victims” to be turned into commodities in the name of fundraising. To try to avoid this, integrate your communications into your organisational structure. Let your staff tell the stories of their work, and decide as an organisation how best to communicate about the issues you’re tackling. Be respectful of those you serve, and know where to draw the line when fame does hit. Having a media policy can help you avoid exploiting individuals or communities in the name of publicity.

It’s clear the top-down founder model needs serious overhaul, but new models of social good and high-impact development are still lagging behind (or getting lost in the hype of the next founders like Bob and Jane trying to change the world). Just as we look at corporate CEOs and politicians, we need to start looking at founders with a critical eye–understanding that it’s a difficult place to be in, but also pushing them to be better, more accountable and ever more transparent about their work. With this in mind, we’ll be able to move beyond sensation-driven development work and really consider our impact and best practices on the ground.

Anna McKeon is a communications consultant, specialising in research and strategy development for social change initiatives. She has a background in television and digital media in the UK, and has recently worked with Save the Children UK and The Better Care Network to lead a global, inter-agency project aimed at discouraging orphanage volunteering, as well as with Bigger Boat and PEPY Tours. Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict and human rights at Rutgers University. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.

Featured image is the Karakoram mountain range, the site of Greg Mortenson’s now disproven story about launching an NGO. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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