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What has Greg Mortenson Done to the Future of the Nonprofit Celebrity Spokespeople?

2011 April 27

I’m in a quandary about the use of celebrities to promote charitable causes through their public-relations-team-written statements of personal commitment and request for your support.  Does the celebrity stamp of approval mean anything?  Is it beneficial?  Detrimental?   Has anyone run the numbers on this?   I mean, we market test everything now, so I assume someone’s checked out the benefits.  But, I wonder how?  Do they test the same message but delivered by different celebs? Same celebs, different messages?  Celebs by gender, ethnicity, area of “celebrityhood”?

At this moment, I have back-to-back emails sent to me personally by celebrities Scarlett Johansson and Sarah Jessica Parker asking me personally to join them in supporting Oxfam America and UNICEF respectively. Both are gilded with the title “Ambassador,” so their messages seem especially full of good will, urgency and lack of self-interest. Right?

It takes much more than a famous face or best-selling book to ignite meaningful change.

Well, I’m jaded this week because 60 Minutes dethroned nonprofit rock star Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools and founder of the Central Asia Institute. Greg was an ordinary Joe doing good before the book about his work building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan vaulted him to the stratosphere of do-gooders that includes the likes of Bono and Angelina Jolie.

The first book came out full of riveting if not entirely truthful stories that crescendoed, proving his truly was “One Man’s Journey to Promote Peace.”  Readers loved it! They read, and they gave. Greg himself became the celebrity spokesperson for his nonprofit CAI and got a little too big for his britches. Turns out he didn’t want to have to deal with all that auditing, donor stewardship or board development hokum.

So, dear reader, beware the cause that relies on a thriving cult of personality to sell its story. A mission to create real change is bigger, much bigger than any one person or personality – quirky and charming though it may be.

I’ll bet if we could ask Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela what is required to create real change, they’d tell us to crowd that celebrity platform with as many worker bees as possible who share the message, the mission and the work. Greg Mortenson has a three-person board (himself counted as one) and one and one-half paid staff at CAI.

Maybe a charismatic and familiar face in the front ain’t so bad, but I better see (or at least hear about) all the average Joe’s who share the stage before I consider getting out the checkbook.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sharing the Stage

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  1. May 5, 2011

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  1. What has Greg Mortenson Done to the Future of the Nonprofit Celebrity Spokespeople? « University of Cincinnati Humanitarian Design : : Spring 2011

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