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The Mortenson Saga

Posted by: Annie Voy | April 18, 2011 | 11 Comments |

There’s no shortage of news outlets reporting on the charges made by 60 Minutes against Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute. While I do believe some valid concerns have been raised, it saddens me to think how these allegations might impact the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and charitable giving in general.

Here’s an article from the New York Times about the controversy, and a response from the Central Asia Institute’s Board of Directors. In addition, the CAI Board of Directors and Mortenson himself have issued a statement answering the questions raised by the 60 Minutes reports. Thoughts?

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Responses -

I think it is a valid concern that news like this will have a negative impact on charitable contributions in general. As The Bottom Billion and the End of Poverty pointed out, many people assume that donating money to foreign causes will not be well spent or managed, and that very few cents of a donated dollar will reach the final goal. It is unsettling that the same may even be true of domestically raised funds by people that the public trusts.

Going forward, it seems that the CAI and Greg Mortenson need to be more independent. Right now it seems that the CAI collects funds for its executive director Mortenson and distributes some of them back to him, while primarily promoting his books and lectures by which he generates more revenue. A more independent board should help oversee the company, or CAI should employ other speakers that have been doing similar work.

Thoughts on Letter from Board of Directors:

While reading the first paragraph, I noticed something—Greg Mortenson was listed as a co-founder. I thought he was the founder, not a co-founder. Who is/are the other co-founder(s)? “Greg’s speeches, books and public appearances are the primary means of educating the American people on behalf of the Institute and he is CAI’s principal fundraiser.” This might sound odd, but what about social networking sites? He could start putting part of his story out that way, as well as to interviews with schools and classes (like ours) via Skype—saving time (for transportation) and money, but I don’t think people would still have the same opportunities via Skype as if they met him or heard him in person.

“Late last year, an attorney retained by CAI questioned whether these practices might raise issues of CAI providing “excess benefits” to Greg – an issue that was also raised by the American Institute of Philanthropy. […] As a result of this analysis, counsel concluded there is no “excess benefit” — that is, CAI appropriately receives a greater benefit from Greg’s activities than Greg does himself.” Once again, this might sound odd, but isn’t there a way we can see the inflow and outflow of donations to the CAI, much like we can see a firm’s earnings statement? I think part of the problem here is that we don’t know exactly how much Greg personally earns and how much goes to the CAI. Also, as the letter stated, Greg worked for quite some time without compensation—so if he’s being overcompensated, the CAI may be trying to reimburse him for any financial problems he had in the past (late bills, etc.).

Thoughts on 60 Minutes Story:

“But last fall, we began investigating complaints from former donors, board members, staffers, and charity watchdogs about Mortenson and the way he is running his non-profit organization. And we found there are serious questions about how millions of dollars have been spent, whether Mortenson is personally benefiting, and whether some of the most dramatic and inspiring stories in his books are even true.” To me, Greg benefits from what he does, and as the letter stated, Greg worked years without compensation. Higher compensation today and little or no compensation years ago—I still think the CAI is trying to value Greg’s past time he spent working and possibly giving Greg more money than people think is deserved (the idea of the time value of money shows up again).

“Strangely enough, Krakauer’s version of events is backed up by Greg Mortensen himself, in his earliest telling of the story.” I realize this partially begs the question as to whether or not the stories Greg tells are true, but then we could have another problem. This could be almost as bad as James Frey’s book and what happened. (To refresh our memories, James Frye wrote the book A Million Little Pieces and was ultimately turned into one of Oprah Winfrey’s book club selections. However, the story was parts of the book were fiction or fake.) What I’m trying to say is this—isn’t it okay if we are allowed to introduce fiction and nonfiction in the same book and still keep it on the nonfiction shelves?

“According to the documents, the non-profit spends more money domestically, promoting the importance of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan than it does actually constructing and funding them overseas.” I think this might actually be okay . . . within reason. Allow me to relate it to Collier’s book. Pretend we are spending money to be used in Africa in the U.S. with the intention of whatever funds we raise to be used in Africa. We spend $1 million, but we only receive $10,000 to spend in Africa. That might be part of the problem with Greg and the CAI.

I think if Greg wanted to build schools, he might have been more persistent in sending letters to people and networking. However, his story could be used as a vehicle for him to grow at the expense of his story.

I looked at some of the links CBS offered at the end of the article and saw some of the questions they wanted Greg to answer.

Book related expenses included “advertising, events, film and professional fees, publications (books & freight), and some travel. In addition to directly furthering CAI’s education and outreach programs, these expenditures have contributed to the dramatic increase in CAI’s fundraising success.” Some of these sound odd to me. When he spoke at Gonzaga, there were advertisements all over campus and in the Spokesman-Review, money Gonzaga spent on advertising. We paid his speaking fee, but we don’t know about how much it was. I remember the bookstore had copies of his books available, not the CAI.

I truly wonder what happened . . . or if it all is truly real.

Wow. Mortenson might have just pulled an Enron for the non-profit world. How difficult is it to hire an accounting firm to audit your financial statements? CAI has a grand total of one audited financial statement during its existence. Morons. Will we see Sarbanes-Oxley type legislation as a result of CAI lack of transparency and accused inept management of funds?

Its hard to know how this will affect Mortenson. On the one hand, his credibility is somewhat tarnished, but at the same time his philosophy of building schools has had success where it has been done. One may tend to have some sympathy in this respect. Just because Mortenson exaggerated does not mean there still isn’t a problem that needs fixing. Still, one might venture to guess that any future work from Mortenson will be under intense scrutiny.

I understand the concerns that people have raised in regards to how this negative media attention will negatively effect the goals of Mortenson’s cause. Surely the Central Asian Institute has done many great things and this negative attention will be quite a significant bump in the road for them. However, it is important to remember that these allegations effect much more than just the Central Asian Institute.

We must not forget how significant the book Three Cups of Tea has become. It speaks to the center of an issue that is one of our Country’s most significant social debates: our position in the middle east. The book has changed the way that many people view this issue convincing others that the spreading of education is more effective than our traditional use of military force. I’m not arguing with the book’s position. All I’m trying to do is point out how significant the book is. The book is a call for action to make a significant change to our strategy in the middle east; one of the most debated topics of the century.The book’s status as a best seller on the NY Times list is a testament to how many people have received this message so the book has has already made quite an impact.

If a book that has made such an impact is based of lies and exaggerated stories we should all be concerned. People read the book expecting to get an accurate representation of what’s happening overseas and it doesn’t sound like that’s what they’re getting. These allegations need to be researched further even though it might hurt the goals of the CAI.

I’m really hoping that, throughout this whole ordeal, people remember to focus on the positive things that have come out of Mortenson’s work. As humans, we always seem to concentrate on what went wrong, who messed up, etc, but tend to not award merit when it is deserved. Everyone was raving about the good things that CAI and Mortenson did, up until this came up. Yes, it is not exactly merit-like to lie about things and make up figures, but we need to keep in mind those lives that Mortenson has truly touched. I also hope that the Institute itself isn’t negatively impacted to the extreme; that would be really unfortunate because it does do some good in an area that needs much help. Yet, I can see people refusing to donate to the organization because of the recent drama surrounding it.

Though Mortenson may have have embellished some of his stories, or maybe he is not helping with foreign aid in the most effective way, but he is still helping. Who is to say what Mortenson is doing is wrong, at least he is attempting to better the lives of others, and obviously like any intelligent human being he is going to write books and attempt to make money off his efforts in helping those in need. However, I do feel it is wrong of Mortenson to have embellished his stories (if the accusations are true), mainly because it was not necessary, his books still would have sold fine with out anything added.

Although I’m writing this after reading Kristof’s article, I still am hoping that the allegations are false and that Mortenson is indeed telling the truth about his work. Of course this could drastically affect the Central Asia Institute and we’ll probably see some decline in the amount of money donated to the organization. However, I have to believe Mortenson is a man of his word and that he did in fact do everything he has claimed he has done.

Katie makes a valid point on just how much this effects the vision Mortenson has imposed on his followers and supporters. His two books speak of changing the futures of children who could potentially change the world we live in. He’s a brilliant man with a personal belief that these schools will change the fabric of our society and help promote peace and justice to the varoius nations around the world.

This could potentially be not only the downfall of Greg Mortenson, but of his message of hope for our world.

I agree with Austin that the CAI really needed to have an accounting firm doing the auditing. There is simply too much money involved to be relying on a few unqualified people to be in charge of the funds. However, I also agree with Katie that despite these problems and accusations people really need to focus on the good that has come about from the program. I hope that these problems don’t affect the organization too much because I’m sure that it is already looking to move forward and regain its reputability.

I found these articles surprising mainly because we have heard nothing but good things about Greg Mortenson and now he is under attack. I am not sure if this is happening now because he is becoming increasingly famous and well-known for promoting education in Afghanistan and Pakistan for girls, but I do think there is most likely some validity to some of these issues. Too many people have come out and claimed some issues with the CAI and how Greg Mortenson runs his non-profit organization. It is a shame that the girls will most likely suffer from these acusations, but maybe this will encourage the CAI to be properly structured and represented/

Because I have commented on a number of these Mortenson posts, I would like to bring a different element of thought into my previous opinions. That is that as skeptical as I am about the CAIs accounting practices, I am just as hesitant to believe 60 minutes is conveying the whole truth. Every story has two sides and I am sure it is not too far fetched to think that the show would be willing to bend the truth themselves to characterize Greg in a certain way. For example that comment about the schools being out is totally obvious but they probably didn’t think about that while they were visiting all the schools, mostly likely at the same time of year too. There is also the important notions that some of the main accusers like Krakou might not be the most reliable sources themselves. He definitely seems like somewhat of an asshole and he is probably trying to garner publicity to sell his new book. I think the moral of the story is that its really easy to incriminate people when all of the evidence isn’t apparent but that we should wait to hear the other side and let the professionals evaluate before casting any judgements. Again, and even though I have stated it early I think its important, even if only a single girl got educated amidst a sea of corruption, that still one Afghani girl thats going to be better off.