The Halo Effect and Nonprofits

The discussion around Greg Mortenson and his organization the Central Asia Institute made me realize how many organizations that I admire are built around a charismatic leader: John Wood’s Room to Read, Jaqueline Novogratz’s Acumen Fund, and Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank. Two years ago I read Wood’s “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World”, Novogratz’s “A Blue Sweater” and of course Mortenson’s “Three Cup of Tea”. On my nightstand lays Yunus’ “Banker to the Poor”. Most of these books describe a personal journey and how the leader discovered a certain need and acted upon it. And in most cases these experiences resulted in the founding of a new organization. I learned many valuable lessons from these books and they are a great resource for everybody in this field (and beyond).

But the incidents around Mortenson (and Yunus who recently got fired from the Grameen Bank due to alleged legal violations) made me think of the so-called halo effect. Wikipedia describes the effect as follows:

“The halo effect is a cognitive bias whereby the perception of one trait (i.e. a characteristic of a person or object) is influenced by the perception of another trait (or several traits) of that person or object. An example would be judging a good-looking person as more intelligent.”

I’m wondering if this is what happened to us and Greg Mortenson: We were so inspired by his culturally sensitive approach to development, his ability to build hundreds of schools and give thousands of girls an education that we assumed everything he is doing or saying must be right. And we throw any caution or critical fact checking over board when even President Obama donates a part of his Nobel Peace Prize money to Mortenson’s organization.

Kent Annan (co-director of Haiti Partners) gives another explanation and says that Mortenson made himself the hero of his own story and he warns us that “we do well to check our anointing of saints.” And though the halo effect brings (financial) benefits to an organization, if the leader comes under scrutiny the entire organization comes under scrutiny and maybe even the entire field. Some, such as Kevin Starr from the Mulago Foundation, fear that these events will scare donors away from international giving.

I can not judge if Mortenson is guilty, but I think as sad as the discussion is, it is a reminder that we should make the people we work with the centerpiece of our story and avoid hero worship. A good example of a leader and an organization who did exactly that is Paul Farmer and Partners in Health. Although there is a fantastic book about Farmer (Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder) it avoids hero worshipping and focuses on the work that needs to be done!

Posted by Kathrin on Monday, May 9th, 2011 at 8:09 pm and tagged , , , .