So here is a question I’d like to pose…”Can we fundraisers, sports fans, philanthropic donors and nonprofit leaders, etc., learn from the recent actions of Michael Russell, Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong?” Russell, an Indianapolis based foundation leader, was the center of the recent scandal and pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering earlier this year. Te’o is the All American NCAA football player from Notre Dame who has been in the middle of a media frenzy regarding his role in an apparent hoax surrounding the fictional death of a made up “girlfriend” and Armstrong… unless you’ve been under a rock, you know what he did.
So what have we learned from all of this? For starters, we understand more than ever, that trust and earned relationships should be cornerstones of forming opinions, being a fan, or supporting a person or organization. In my experience , it’s not about perception, popularity or what we assume to be true... it’s about developing real relationships with the organizations we partner with and doing our due diligence. As for us sports fans, we have to learn not make heroes out of ordinary men and women who are carved from the same mold as the guy sitting next to us on the bus. Not that the guy on the bus is a bad guy, but the point is athletes, celebrities and other high profile people, are no different or no more worthy of our trust, interest or fanfare than anyone else until they earn it. Appearances deceive and trust is earned through a proven relationship or through our own due diligence.
Need more proof or want the scoop? Here goes.
According to the The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis prosecutors have accused Michael Russell, who founded the Russell Foundation in 2003, and two other men, that they persuaded an area dermatologist to invest significant money in an ethanol-production company, promising a more than tenfold return, but instead they spent the $1.7 million on sfor their own personal “needs”in less than one month.
Lance Armstrong who has been the face of American cycling for years, finally came clean and admitted to cheating during his notable career which includes winning the sport’s most notable competitions (too many to name quite frankly). He strategically and thoughtfully, told the media, his fans and the world that he won cleanly and fairly, and laughed in the face of accusers. He vehemently told anyone who would listen, that he'd be a fool to use performance enhancing drugs after battling cancer and being such a scrutinized international athlete with a household name. This may be the truest words he has spoken in a long time.
Te'o convinced the sports world and unsuspecting fans (like me), that he had a loving girlfriend who got into an accident, was diagnosed with leukemia dying within hours of his grandmother. All coincidently, while he was in the front running for receiving votes for his sport’s most prized award –the Heisman Trophy. It’s a movie script that not even ESPN, Disney or George Lucas could muster up.
All have been proven to be liars. Russell pleaded guilty, Armstrong admitted to Oprah that he misled the public and at the very least Te'o, embellished a story that made him the poster boy for athletic character inquiriesand legendary college sports mishaps.
The bottom line is that millions believed these men had integrity and intelligence making them people we wanted to support and believe in. As a former NCAA athlete, a personal friend of a few professional athletes, a sports fan and a veteran fundraiser, I think this is probably as close as you can get to the pinnacle of lies,mis-truths and disappointment. But we can ALL learn from it.
So if that’s the case, what have we learned as fundraisers, donors, sports fans and concerned citizens? Where is the TRUTH? Well, this goes back to the fundamental question of who can we trust - especially when it comes to our time, interest, feelings or philanthropic priorities. My answer is that we can only trust a shrinking number of people and organizations. We have to be more careful when it comes to supporting those whom we don’t really know, understand or have a relationship with. In reality it’s a personal journey and requires thorough individual due diligence and even faith in some instances.
The major victim in the three cases I’ve written about is the philanthropic public and the trusting sports fan. We all want so badly to believe in everyday heroes (not necessarily a guy with a cape) and we definitely want to trust our nonprofit organizations and their leaders. We whole heartedly want to root for people (especially when we perceive them to be winners) and we will sometimes turn a blind eye to any flaws that they may have in order to keep the dream alive. We want to tell to our kids that these are heroes to look up to and tell our philanthropic peers that these are organizations that we invest in.
My advice is to admire athletes ONLY for what he/she does on the field and to support those organizations with whom we have a real relationship with and have researched thoroughly. Look up to sports figures for their unique athletic abilities and their commitment to compete and support organizations that have EARNED your dollars and PROVEN to be worthy (however you personally define worth in this case).
Remember, being great on the field does not mean that someone is person of character and just because you think you know an organization, you can’t base decisions solely on what the Executive Director presents in a single presentation, letter or interview. We are ALL human and we ALL want to trust, but we also ALL have flaws. Many people have skeletons in the closet and a not so acceptable personal agenda.
Think about it…you really don't know that person who carries the ball for your home team or the Executive Director at your latest philanthropic interest. So we should not put our favorite athletes on such a pedestal or think of them as anything more than human and most importantly we should not invest our time, talent or treasure in an organization unless we have done our homework. Otherwise we stand to be duped again. The choice is yours…Choose wisely