Ripple Effects of the Mortenson Issue

Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling book, “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time” has been accused by Jon Krakauer on the CBS 60 Minutes show that the story, “while beautiful, is a lie.” Greg is co-founder of Central Asia Insittute, a U.S. 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization with a mission to build schools and to support girls’ education in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The issue for me is not so much that Greg lied or not about his journeys – they could be fiction and could still encourage people to give and understand the importance of education for girls. The issue is his character and the work of CAI now being called into question. Many donors gave to the organization assuming that the funds were being used to build schools and classrooms. The 60 Minutes show interviewed and visited the grantees of CAI. Many of the classrooms were abandoned or not used at all. Some of the alleged schools never existed.

CAI raised more than $14 million in 2009. In the CNN article, Three Cups of Tea: Served with a Grain of Salt?, the author says that “less than half of that money actually went to building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan….. $1.7 million went to promote Mortenson’s books, according to the institute’s board of directors.”

The alleged mis-use of donor funds will deeply affect the philanthropic community.  Donors give because they believe in the leadership and work of the organization. Reports, project monitoring, site visits, and knowledge of the work on the ground are all important pieces used to assure donors that the organization is doing its due diligence and fulfilling the trust given to them. Pictures, videos, and even stories of the constituents – children, teachers, families, reinforce the impact of the work done.

Transparency, accountability and trust are very important when working with overseas groups. Working in Afghanistan and Pakistan is difficult enough with the various rules and regulations of countries where the funds are sent and where it is received (i.e., U.S. Patriot Act). In addition, funding and receiving groups have to abide by strict guidelines, whether imposed by law or self-regulated by the board or organization itself. Day-to-day working conditions, language, and expectations of funder and grantee all add to the difficulty of working overseas. However, donors have various ways to “check” on the organization, including the use of several watchdog organizations. But watchdog organizations, and their paper reviews, are only the beginning research work that donors have access to. Donors can also look at past reports, annual reports, audited statements, etc., and talk to other donors and staff of the organization to learn more.

The philanthropic community does not need bad press like this. There are many groups working in difficult places that are providing positive influences in communities around the world. Bad examples create tension for many stakeholders including government, donors, and charitable organizations. I hope donors will continue to work with the organizations they wish to support or are supporting so they can increase their understanding of how the organization is structured and how it runs its programs.

In turn, organizations must take steps to be as transparent and accountable as possible to further the public trust. While staff should be loyal to the organization, they must also respect certain ethics when working with donors – and do the right thing – such as being honest about how effective their own due diligence and grantmaking process is, the fees they charge and the outcomes or impact of their programs. Fundraisers follow certain Code of Conduct guidelines but these should also apply to everyone inside the organization – especially to the CEO.

For more information:

’60 Minutes’ investigates “Three ups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson. USA Today quotes from CAI’s website: “Through his work empowering communities in some of the most remote areas in the world, and through his successful books that share the stories of his experiences, Greg has accomplished the real and extraordinary work of bringing education to girls and boys in Pakistan and Afghanistan who otherwise would have no educational opportunity to enable them to help themselves and their communities,” the board wrote. “It would be truly tragic if the sensationalized allegations against him were to harm the future of this crucial work.”

American Institute of Philanthropy issues a “?” rating for CAI. It found questionable audited statements, concerns over conflict of interests between CAI and Greg Mortenson, and noted that “a donation to Central Asia Institute, at least in 2009, was more likely to be spent on costs related to educating people in the U.S. about problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan than on helping children in central Asia with their education.

Charity Navigator – 4 star rating. Charity Navigator reviewed CAI’s FYE 09 information and gave it a 4 star rating (out of 5). A quick visit to the review section (powered by Great Nonprofits) has comments asking Charity Navigator to explain their rating.

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