Our Hero and Heroine Addictions

Reconsidering why we give in the wake of Somaly Mam.

Tobias Rose-Stockwell

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Consider these two stories:

— I—
A young man growing up poor in the countryside of a developing country is beaten, sold into slavery and forced into a life of a hard labor. He lives through much trauma and eventually escapes, founding an organization dedicated to preventing the violence and horror he endured. He needs your help to carry his mission forward. Will you help him?

— II—
A nonprofit that works to prevent human slavery in poor nations provides victim services to 6,000 people, healthcare to 6,500 people, and educates 4,000 more. Their work is recommended by Charity Watch and is audited regularly. They need your help to carry their mission forward. Will you help them?

How much would you give after reading the two stories above? A new study suggests that if you are an average donor, you will contribute more to the story describing the founder’s difficult but inspiring journey. The second appeal with data will likely garner less financial support — and possibly turn you off entirely.

This is not surprising. Deep down we know that we require stories and heroes to care. Bodies of research shows that we are programmed to empathize with the plight of individuals far more than groups. We intuitively ‘feel’ the truth of someone’s hardship far faster than we can quantify their issues with data.

The narratives above are a thinly veiled analogue of a woman named Somaly Mam and her foundation, which has worked with thousands of prostitutes in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. She has become a relative superstar in the world of activism and social work: receiving Glamor Magazine’s Woman of the Year Award and being listed in Time’s 100 Most Influential People. Her cause was championed by many, particularly New York Times contributor Nicholas Kristof, who named her one of his personal heroes.

Her organization has provided services to thousands of people in prostitution, and has educated many more about the issues of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. She is now the subject of a recent exposé by Newsweek, revealing that large portions of her personal story of being trafficked and sold into sexual slavery were fabrications, and that she coached members of her staff to lie in order to inflate contributions and media attention.

The media establishments that supported her have been left reeling, and have turned pointed criticism on their own staff and writers that supported and promoted Somaly’s story. Margaret Sullivan, the public editor for the New York Times chastized Kristof publicly demanding an explanation for his support and advocacy without due journalistic process. Kristof in turn, responded with a long blog post threading his way between perceived truths and difficulties of relying upon unchallenged sources with high-profile supporters.

To me, this speaks to something else deeply wrong with our systems of charitable intent.

I lived in Cambodia for five years, and ran a nonprofit organization that worked to rebuild infrastructure destroyed during its civil war. My introduction to the country and the work came through it’s own pithy narrative, one that I have repeated thousands of times, but one with it’s own share of complex difficulties.

These difficulties were not truths I could easily share with donors or press. I knew personally how our organization solved problems, but it was far from perfect, and we learned from our failures. I felt tremendous pressure from donors to report on our successes, which always ended up being the best version of the truth. This cognitive dissonance pushed me further and further away from doing fundraising in general — it was the worst part of my job. The heartwarming and simplified narrative required by donors took me far away from the interesting and complex work at hand.

The emotional doorways that lead us into a place of caring for others are well-crafted and ornate. The heroes and villains that stand at these thresholds are human like us, and its up to us once we’re inside to remember the real issues that require our help— not the stories that brought us there. There is something selfish about supporting a cause because the story is good, and it’s important to recognize our tendency to gravitate towards tales of hardship. A cause with strong narrative provides us with validation about our own lives, but does not necessarily improve other people’s.

Somaly at a recent foundation Gala

Ms. Mam possibly did endure abuses during her working in prostitution. She may have personally witnessed some of the horrors she described in her memoir The Road of Lost Innocence. As with many people who suffer from psychological and physical trauma, historical narratives and memories can become categorically unreliable. It is indefensible that she lied to her supporters and possibly encouraged children in her care to do the same. The backlash to her story has eclipsed the cause itself, and people will recall this scandal before they remember the victims of trafficking from this moment forward.

In business, consumers purchase a product. In nonprofits, donors purchase a story. Donors very rarely have the free time or surplus energy to evaluate the outcomes of their contribution, and they rely on a range of other reference points as a proxy for successful giving: Who else is supporting this cause that I can trust? What is their administrative overhead? How does their story make me feel?

How these questions are answered dictates the allocation of billions of dollars in philanthropic aid. These are natural inquiries, but are not suitable replacements for a real investment in outcome. Our reliance on these emotional stand-ins actually creates an environment that discourages the most important piece of the conversation: What really works in helping people and how are we providing it?

There are tremendous pools of research available about the best ways to save lives and solve problems. Most of this work is done by people who have no hero’s journey that fits cleanly into a sound-bite. They are academics, aid workers, and public health advocates sifting through spreadsheets doing things like designing randomized studies on traffic safety in Nigeria. They gather at conferences that most donors would consider exceptionally dull. They rely on funding from institutions that understand how hard it is to actually solve many of society’s problems. They are supported by data, and their results are measurable, disciplined and real — but not sexy.

They are heroes, not because their work is a fit-to-print story about personal triumph over adversity, but because they work on solutions that quietly improve one small piece of humanity. Let us take a moment, slow down our thinking, and become connoisseurs of the causes we support. If we take the time to look, stories of hardship become distinct from the solutions that truly save lives.

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