Greg Mortenson’s Story and His School-Building Charity Both Too Good to be True

April 17, 2011; Source: New York Times | The Newswire commented on Washington Post article about Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and founder of the Central Asia Institute in early February. We noted that Mortenson's charity to build schools for girls in rural Pakistani villages didn't quite add up. The fund balances looked large compared to its operating expenses and the financials were a little difficult to understand. Mortenson's story about being nursed to health by Pakistani villagers after his failed attempt to climb K2, inspiring him to build schools, sounded hard to believe, but apparently the book was generating money that in some way or another made it to his Central Asia Institute's school construction program.

But this past Sunday, CBS's "60 Minutes" dashed cold water over Mortenson's story and his charity. CBS quoted Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer saying that Mortenson's story is "beautiful" and "it's a lie," a bit of an about-face since he was one of Mortenson's earliest backers.

Not only Mortenson’s stumbling into Korphe in Pakistan in 1993 a lie, but his 1996, story of being kidnapped by the Taliban while looking for school sites from his second book, Stones into Schools, is also a fabrication. "60 Minutes" interviewed Mortenson's "kidnappers" stunned to find out they were Taliban; the lead "kidnapper" actually runs a Pakistani think tank that does work with the New America Foundation.

Dan Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy clarified what we suspected, that the charity was spending a ton of money promoting Mortenson and his book, but there was little evidence that any of the book sales or Mortenson's speaking fees were going back to the charity. Krakauer cited the charity's former treasurer saying that Mortenson used the Central Asia Institute as his "personal ATM machine."

Finally, "60 Minutes" visited many of the 141 schools Mortenson claims his charity built, only to discover that many were built by people without connections to CAI, at least 30 were simply empty, and the numbers of pupils were pretty clearly inflated.

Mortenson's not talking personally to the press, but CAI denied all and Mortenson emailed his staff to say that he is going under the knife for a "heart ailment" after suffering for 18 months from "low oxygen."

Isn't it time the nonprofit sector got off the too-good-to-be-true celebrity bandwagon and stopped looking for the charitable equivalent of "Balloon Boy"?—Rick Cohen