OPINION: We’re All Liars: Creative Storytelling Is the Nonprofit Sector’s Drug of Choice
Thursday, May 29, 2014
On May 21, 2014, Newsweek funneled years of speculation and doubt into a single piece that, once and for all, brought the legendary Somaly Mam into the spotlight for a type of fraud that has become the Achilles heal of the nonprofit world. Following the narratives of Greg Mortenson, Lance Armstrong and countless others, Somaly Mam’s story has begun to unravel. Former classmates remember her graduating high school, a time when she claims to have been a sex slave. Anonymous employees state that behind closed doors she can be cruel and tyrannical, a far cry from the saintly woman who has sat down with leaders ranging from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to the Pope. It has even come to light that the girls who have served as the face of her organization were coached to share heart-wrenching but fabricated stories to attract more donor dollars.
What isn’t being brought into question is the work of her organization, the Somaly Mam Foundation. That might be a battle for another time, but it’s evident that she has created some good. She has brought attention to a horrible problem (sex trafficking), created a safer space for women in her native country, and continues to fight for women’s rights to health care, safety, and equal opportunity. Her organization might not be perfect, but it does exist, and (arguably) it does do good work.
So what do we do now?
When critics discovered that Greg Mortenson, Author of Three Cups of Tea and Founder of the Central Asia Institute, had mishandled donor money, embellished an already unlikely story, and mislead thousands of school children through the educational nonprofit Pennies for Peace, Mortenson was brought to trial both in the headlines and in court. His story was discredited; his work declared a farce, and three years later the organization that had to separate itself from him for any hopes of survival is still on its knees. However, he still built more schools than I probably ever will.
- Health Care