I heard yesterday about Oprah Winfrey's South African-based Leadership Academy for Girls. It is a secondary school for girls who have showed exceptional promise. The school, which opened yesterday with 152 students will eventually have 450 girls in classes 7 to 12 (South African equivalent of JSS 1 to SSS 3).
About $40 million has gone into this leadership academy and along with the chorus of kudos have been the critical voices that have asked why Oprah would choose to spend so much in a country that she isn't even a citizen of - especially when there is vast room for improvement in the US public school system.
Well, firstly and most importantly it is her money to do with as she pleases. I realised a long time ago that any philanthropic effort - no matter how well meaning or carefully thought-out - will be subject to some degree of scrutiny and criticism: Why do it like this? Why not like that? What is the point of this project? Wouldn't the money better be spent by doing A, B or C? This effort is just a drop in the sea of what's required. The problem is too big and complex and your solution is too small and simplistic.
Having worked in a non-profit, I certainly have some experience of this. Imagine defending your work at a conference to a sceptical audience who feel like they have seen your project in a variety of similar reincarnations already. Well, luckily for me, it wasn't quite so bad - the gender and technology field was rather more nurturing than that. Most projects were seen as a good thing - bringing attention to an important research area; adding to the body of work; and reaching out to young women and girls - and thus welcomed. A project had to be really, really bad (and I mean, badly thought out, poorly implemented and with highly questionable motives) to be on the receiving end of a barrage of disparaging feedback.
In general, a lot of the criticism that we did receive turned out to be a good thing as it helped us to refine our work. But then, we trusted and respected our critics.
In general though, some critisicm will be valid and some will just be sour grapes and bad belle. You just have to be able to discern between the two. I doubt very much that Oprah will lose any sleep over what her detractors will say. And I feel that's a good thing. Use whatever feedback you can and lose the rest.
News Story: PR News Wire; Reuters