What lessons does the Mortenson controversy have for nonprofits?

Robert Moreau

Research Analyst/Outreach

Everyone has heard the story.

Greg Mortenson poses with children. Mortenson's Central Asia Institute has been rocked by a recent scandal over transparency.

When a failed 1993 attempt to climb K2 ended with a sojourn in the Pakistani village of Korphe, Greg Mortenson found his calling. When he noticed a group of schoolchildren forced to write out their work on the ground outside, he vowed to return one day and build a proper building for them. And so a life’s work began.

 Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute (CAI) has since claimed sponsorship of (as of 2010) over 170 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a total of 68,000 students in classes or graduated. He has received renown to the point where his book “Three Cups of Tea” is required reading for U.S. servicemen going to Afghanistan.

 But is it a fiction? An April 17 60 Minutes segment, featuring interviews with writer and former CAI supporter Jon Krakauer and others, made a case that Mortenson’s story and achievements are not true. Afterwards, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock announced an investigation of the nonprofit, which promised “full transparency” in its records.

 Without question, the controversy casts a pall on the perception of NGO development work as a whole. In its wake, we must ask where the lines between fabrication and miscommunication blur. And how can nonprofits such as the GENESIS Network create public confidence? 

The charges

Jon Krakauer, a former CAI supporter, has accused Mortenson of using funds to pay for self-promotion.

The “60 Minutes” report went along with an e-book entitled “Three Cups of Deceit” written by Krakauer and published by Byliner. Though the book is no longer free, a list of its main claims can be found here.   

 Main charges of the “60 Minutes” segment itself included:

  • Krakauer disupted the account of Mortenson’s visit to Korphe; a second version stated that he did not go there until about a year later.
  • An incident in “Three Cups of Tea” where Mortenson was kidnapped by Taliban was disupted, with one of the men saying the group was acting as Mortenson’s protectors and not Taliban.  
  • A lack of transparency within CAI, which raised about $23 million in donations in 2010. Concerns over CAI acting as a book tour fundraiser for Mortenson were shown by costs including $1.3 million for travel in 2009. Krakauer claimed four board members resigned in 2002 over spending concerns.
  • 60 Minutes visited or otherwise investigated almost 30 CAI schools and found “roughly half were empty, built by somebody else, or not receiving support at all.” Some had not received support in years.
  • Krakauer claimed that Mortenson built only three schools in one province of Afghanistan in 2009, not eleven as publicly claimed.
  • The school Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” sequel “Stones into Schools” discusses the construction of was found empty and unused.

 In an interview with Outside magazine, Mortenson claimed his Korphe experience was accurate and some license was taken by his “Three Cups” co-author David Oliver Relin in sometimes combining multiple trips into one. He also claimed that the accounts of his capture were correct though he wasn’t sure if his abductors were in fact Taliban and he was treated kindly.

 On discrepancies in “Three Cups,” Mortenson said “I should have taken off several months and really focused on the book. But I was trying to raise a family, be gone most of the year, and work 16- to 20- hour days without stopping.”

 On the schools CAI sponsored, there may be confusion regarding the extent of its involvement with each. Jeff McMillan, a personal assistant to Mortenson, told the New York Times in an April 17 article CAI’s work with various schools differed, with some built directly by the organization and others receiving assistance such as teacher salary funding.

 The most heartbreaking aspect of the controversy is whether Mortenson has indeed made false claims or not, his critics and advocates agree he has made positive change in the region. Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and friend of Mortenson, wrote in an April 21 column

 The critics have raised serious questions that deserve better answers: we need to hold school-builders accountable as well as fat cats…But let’s not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children’s lives than you or I ever will.”

The Mortenson scandal thus raises a deeper issue: How can NGOs hold themselves accountable and ensure public confidence in their work?

Alignment and transparency

The Sarhad-e Brogil school is an example of flourishing CAI project. From the New York Times piece "Two Schools in Afghanistan, One Complicated Situation."

 The field of development work is complex, and the success or failure of a project is reliant on its compatibility with the needs of its intended beneficiaries.

 An April 23 New York Times piece compared the unused “Stones into Schools” building with another successful CAI project  and found the contrast in outcomes lay with community buy-in. The building was an hour walk away, in often sub-zero temperatures, from the Kyrgyz village of Bozai Gumbaz, whose inhabitants wanted their children home to take care of sheep. And the Afghan government a year before construction completed had finalized plans to send teachers to the village during summers.

 Thus, this project failure was not due to any attempt to mislead supporters, but not recognizing the desires of the community it was supposed to serve.

 Along with making sure initiatives are workable, nonprofits must take the lead in holding their spending accountable. One example is CAI’s involvement with different schools. There should have been a way for the organization to note its specific involvement with each. Which ones are receiving what types of support? Which ones were no longer receiving donations from CAI? And why?

 Within its own model, the GENESIS Network is working to provide its users:

  • The ability to create an online profile and connect with projects as well as others who support similar interests.
  • Specific project pages, including objectives and plans, current status, finances, and the ability to interact with leaders and donors as well as volunteers and others in the community. Ratings are given in three categories: staff, donor, and third-party, with transparency being a critical factor in evaluation score.
  • Beneficiary pages to directly connect with the people who are being helped. Who are they and how do they feel about how things are going?

As NGOs face an increasingly-skeptical public, what steps do you think they should make to create public confidence in their work?  What special problems do you think development agencies have in making this possible? And how can GENESIS improve its own model? Any and all comments on these questions as well as other points are more than appreciated.

Robert Moreau is Research Analyst/Outreach for the GENESIS Network. A 2008 Master’s graduate of the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Regional Economic and Social Development, Moreau has been working for GENESIS since July 2009. His work has included freelance newspaper pieces and a newsletter published for a Lowell-area social services agency in 2008.

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