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

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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

  • Edward Needham

    On the upside, (if there is one) this latest media meme has thrust the issue of the Taliban and human rights, especially in relation to young women, back into the spotlight for at least another 15 minutes of infamy. Let us hope, and give us momentum, that the situation becomes the better for it and that it doesn’t merely flame brilliant and quick, leaving a generation in darkness.

    Cont’d analysis, links to reputable charities and full video of 60 Minutes report:

  • Keith Oberg

    Yes, and whereever or not the truth lies in this particular case, too many in the press, the award-giving foundations, and the public-at-large fall for the “great story” without even visiting websites, or talking to peers, or checking out very easy-to-very facts about non-profits. I am personally familiar within my own sector of an organization whose “founder story’ substitutes for actual delivery of donated items to legitimate charities overseas–who won awards before delivering a single bike directly overseas; and another whose principals lift copyrighted material from other organizations and hide behind website puffery providing absolutely ZERO concrete information on who they are, with whom they work in the United States, where they work overseas and what they have delivered, what their finances are, etc.

  • Jayne Cravens

    Actually, Mortenson’s story has NOT been fully debunked, as your editorial implies. Facts have been called into question, but while much is in dispute, not all information from the book has been disproved (such as the kidnapping – based on what I’ve read since these allegations came forth, it still very much sounds like a kidnapping, even if the kidnappers thought they were doing the hospitable thing by taking his passport and wallet and putting a blanket over his head whenever they moved him). I’m really shocked at the veracity of your claims when this is still an unfolding story.

    There has definitely been a lot of financial mismanagement going on, no question – we know enough to be able to say that – but having read Krakauer’s account (which is what the 60 Minutes story is based on), I think this is much more nuanced story of misunderstandings, mismanagement and exaggeration. And let’s remember that Krakauer got a lot of slack for his own inaccuracies and exaggerations in “Into Thin Air.”

    Granted, it sounds like Mortensen was and is completely out of his depth of competency in running a nonprofit, but I have yet to read anything that makes it sound like he, and his work, is **completely** fraudulent. Some of the accusations sound to me – as someone who has worked in aid in Afghanistan – as misunderstandings and miscommunication, not fraud. By all means, call into question Mortensen’s accounting and call for a verification of results. I look forward to further investigations. But let’s hold off on the outright condemnation before all the facts are in, shall we?

  • Geri Stengel

    The reality is that many of us do get dazzled by the celebrity bandwagon. Sometimes the celebrity does good work and sometimes as in this case he doesn

  • kevin

    im pretty sure that they have a four star rating on charity navigator. so that is not a great indicator of an organizations fiscal responsibilities. If your good at appropriating the right amount of money and count for instance “book promotion” as program expenses, it makes it easy to deceive the shallow formula created by charity navigator. If you really want to get the goods on an organization, you got to dig deep into the form 990 and approach the charity directly as to why they have “book promotion” under programs. If you cant find alot of information as to how the program truly works, then you might reconsider. Our organization keeps receipts for every dollar spent and including receipts for every purchase made by the recipients of the money. We have strict reporting laws in place, so that when we get these kind of inquiries, we have the proof to back it up.