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Building our Collective Knowledge

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I vividly remember growing up reading about and admiring the work of Mother Teresa.  Her unselfish dedication to helping the poor in India, a place I had never been, in conditions so bleak and with no obvious concern for her own health was amazing to me.  In most of the photos of her she looked so wizened and frail but so thoroughly humble and dedicated to helping the poor.  Forty plus years ago Calcutta was a remote outpost in India on the Asian continent. From everything I could tell Mother Teresa appeared to have landed in Calcutta by accident as a nun on assignment by the Catholic Church.  When I learned that the Catholic Church had made Mother Teresa a saint their actions only confirmed that which I already knew.  While I didn’t expect to achieve sainthood I did aspire to be like Mother Teresa when I grew up.

As I reflect back on Mother Teresa all these years later from my position as founder and executive director of Philanthropiece, a nonprofit organization dedicated to international community empowerment, I feel concern.   For several years now I have witnessed destructive patterns developing in the not for profit world.  The first of these came to light in a significant way with the exposure of Greg Mortenson and his sometimes exaggerated, sometimes fabricated nonprofit work dedicated to building schools in Afghanistan.  He came to Boulder several years ago to speak.  I had tried to get tickets but the event was sold out so I settled instead for reading his book Three Cups of Tea.  As I was reading it I started doing the calculations on the numbers of schools he had claimed to have opened.  I knew that the numbers were fabricated.  I knew what it took to open and operate a school.  I put the book down without finishing it and felt disappointment that Mr. Mortenson, whether for ego purposes or donor dollars, felt he had to significantly overstate his accomplishments.  I have experienced this same sense of sadness and frustration as I read articles about nonprofits claiming to have opened thousands of libraries in a few years time or having  impacted  millions or tens of millions of people with a certain grant or loan program.  These fabricated statistics are harmful because they diminish the impactful work of other nonprofit organizations and lead to mistrust by donors who believe their hard earned donor dollars are being put to good use

When individuals such as Mr. Mortenson make such grandiose claims they garner hero status for their supposed accomplishments. Unfortunately one of the unintended consequences of achieving “hero status” is that these individuals, now on a pedestal, can no longer admit or discuss any failures in their work or methodology.  They fear sharing detailed information about their process, or documents evidencing their actual impact.  Unlike public “for profit” enterprises, not for profit organizations aren’t held accountable and often escape scrutiny regarding their true impact.  To be fair, it is often difficult to evaluate the true impact of certain programs.  Our organization, like many others, continues to hone our evaluation methodology in an attempt to discern the effectiveness of our programs.  Maybe because we aren’t seeking hero status and we don’t rely heavily on individual donations we strive to offer an accurate representation of our impact using numbers we can verify.

I believe it is time for nonprofit organizations to be held accountable for their claimed impact and not be able to hide behind the cloak of “doing good” for society. My challenge to individuals running nonprofit organizations is that they set aside their egos and their territoriality.  Once that happens I believe we will begin to make real progress in using our collective knowledge to alleviate poverty worldwide. To achieve this goal I believe that all nonprofit organizations must strive to be transparent by: (1)open sourcing all documents that might be helpful to other nonprofit organizations (e.g. Listing all available documents on their websites might be a good place to start – Philanthropiece will start implementing this soon); (2) working collaboratively on addressing the greatest needs of a given community  in a culturally sensitive and sustainable manner; (3) sharing successes, failures and evaluation methodologies that rely on  verifiable numbers; (4) documenting the best practices of organizations working in the various areas of poverty alleviation so that efficient replication can occur; and (5) merging NGO’s with similar missions and goals to create greater collective impact and to reduce fragmented, isolated and unsustainable impacts.    I hope our partner and collaborator NGO’s will agree with me and support my call to action on this issue.

Libby Cook is the Founder and Co-Executive Director of Philanthropiece.  When not actively engaged in helping guide the vision for Philanthropiece, Libby can be found mentoring new start ups, playing volleyball or drinking wine and sometimes all at the same time!


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