I’m sure it’s been an exciting week, to say the least for Greg Mortenson. Greg is an American humanitarian, professional speaker, writer and former mountaineer. Mortenson is the co-founder (with Jean Hoerni) and director of the non-profit Central Asia Institute as well as the founder of the educational charityPennies for Peace. He is the co-author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mortenson has told an inspiring story about his work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, educating girls, building schools, and encounters with terrorists. He’s raised millions of dollars for the CAI and has benefited well from the books he has written about his work.
However, all of this has come under question.
Earlier last week, 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer both gave alternative viewpoints about Greg and his work in Central Asia, accusing him of basically lying, misappropriating funds from the CAI, and inappropriately benefiting financially from his work with the CAI. Others from all over the web have piled on additional accounts and accusations.
I respect 60 Minutes (I’ve watched it for years) and Krakauer (Into Thin Air was a favorite book of mine years ago). It’s hard not to take their allegations seriously. However, to be completely dismissive of Mortenson’s work would be without merit also. Even Krakauer admits that Mortenson has done much good. There are two sides to every story. For Krakauer, he seems to feel personally duped for donating money to the CAI and has produced a compelling expose’.
This is a complicated story and I will not pass judgment. The allegations are serious, deep, and damaging. As I learned from Maynard Olsen, the truth is all most always in the middle.
However, regardless who is right, there are important lessons and questions here for nonprofits.
Tell the Truth. This sounds obvious. Lying can’t be good whether Mortenson or Krakauer. Both have a point of view to express. Mortenson tells a “Creation Myth,” and its factualness is a key accusation against him. If the allegations against Mortenson are true, it seems his lies hurt the very people he says he wants to help. When viewed against the creation story of Ebay, do we hold Mortenson to a higher standard? Should we?
Be Transparent. This too sounds obvious. Basic questions about delivery of program services, operations, and finances are raised by Krakauer and others. Should CAI and Mortenson be more forth coming? Nonprofits more so than most (private) for-profit operations, are held to a higher level of transparency standards by some measures, both legally and otherwise. Of course, if you aren’t telling the truth, transparency might not help much.
Money Earned at/around a Nonprofit Is Complicated. Was Mortenson’s compensation and benefits from the CAI excessive? Is it wrong for him to personally benefit from his book sales and appearances — benefits that were built on top of his work with the CAI? Should the CAI re-imburse Mortenson for any expenses related to his promotion of his book? Were funds just simply misappropriated by Mortenson in general? Krakauer alleges Mortenson “regards CAI as his personal ATM.”
These are complicated questions. Clearly defined policies, board oversight, and transparency help clarify these issues. Whether we agree or not, at least we’d understand how donor money might be spent.
Truth. Transparency. Trust. At Charity Blossom, we believe these should be cornerstones of all nonprofits. If Krakauer’s point of view is correct, indeed, Mortenson is a man who took a wrong turn down the mountains and never quite managed to find his way home. Regardless of who is right, there are important lessons here for leaders of both nonprofits and for-profits alike.