Public Challenges “Three Cups of Tea” Charitable Charlatan Greg Mortenson

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June 27, 2011; Source: The Daily News | Remember Greg Mortenson whose stories about his mountain-climbing travails and rescue by Pakistani villagers helped create a lucrative “charity” for himself — until his “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into Schools” bestsellers were revealed to contain huge pieces of whole-cloth fabrication? The problem with a charitable scam is that the scammer frequently lives on and collects money long after the news of his or her frauds gets revealed.

For example, the kids at the Walcott Street School in Le Roy, N.Y., had spent the past few months raising money for the “Pennies for Peace” program to help schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, after raising $1,600, someone clued them in to the fact that “Pennies” was associated with Mortenson, who was under investigation for diverting money from his charities for himself. The  National Education Association, which like so many groups had officially lauded Mortenson, recommended that the Walcott kids find a different charity to help.

At the time he was exposed, Mortenson offered a defense, then went in for heart surgery, and has generally not been heard from in public since. His various websites are still up, including for his Central Asia Institute charity and others —,,,, and  Somehow, investigations into this guy (the “60 Minutes” expose and the commentary written by author Jon Krakauer were compelling and believable) have been slow. 

Two Democratic legislators in Montana have filed a class action suit against Mortenson whose charity is based in Montana (CAI itself was dropped as a defendent in the lawsuit). In addition, a Lake County, Ill., teacher named Deborah Netter has filed a class action lawsuit against Mortenson “seeking compensation for all readers ‘who purchased ‘Three Cups of Tea’ and did not get what they paid for, but instead, were wrongly induced by each of the defendants to buy a phony and fictional story as opposed to the truth.'”

The problem is that the machinery of oversight and accountability moves quite slowly.  Even after the spurt of commentary, with plenty of evidence of actionable causes, Mortenson and his charities are still around. The cue for the public might be that Mortenson was a sloppy bookkeeper, but a good honest guy. While waiting for firm answers, people are still raising money for him. In Missoula, Mont., people collecting pennies for his charity expressed support along the lines of this schoolteacher’s comments:  “I honestly think Greg Mortenson is doing good work and truly believes in what he is doing. I don’t think this is a man who is trying to raise money in an illegal way and to pad his pocket – I do think he is doing this work for the good of mankind . . . If he can ride the storm and get good people under him to manage this organization, I think it will survive. To me, this is a wonderful project and the disappointing thing about this are the families with children who donated and felt a little jaded.”

If this isn’t a case for putting money into government examiners of nonprofits at the Internal Revenue Service and state attorneys general offices, we don’t know what would be.—Rick Cohen

  • Guy Montag

    In April 2011

  • Charlotte McCann

    I’m frankly stunned that Nonprofit Quarterly would publish an article labeling Greg Mortenson a charlatan. If this is an example of the quality of Rick Cohen’s reporting, it reflects poorly on NPQ.

    Several individuals, usually affiliated with NGOs, have responded to the 60 Minutes/Krakauer hit piece to attest that they have traveled to Pakistan and seen several CAI schools and the benefit they bring to communities.

    One of the Pakistanis mentioned Krakaur’s story, who challenged the truth of Mortenson’s visit to a tribal area, was exposed as lying.
    “Even after the spurt of commentary, with plenty of evidence of actionable causes, Mortenson and his charities are still around,” Cohen says. Really? How reliable is the evidence of actionable causes? Did Cohen do any serious investigating or just surf a few web sites? Mortenson is an imperfect messenger for his cause, but no evidence of fraud has yet been produced. Cohen’s piece is shoddy journalism and shouldn’t be associated with a reputable organization.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Charlotte: thanks for your comments. We don’t agree. There’s plenty of information out there that takes on the falsehoods in Mortenson’s bios (Krakauer’s piece is a good read and very persuasive) and the shoddy operations of his charities in terms of their accountability. You don’t have to be illegal or go to jail to be doing things wrong in the nonprofit (or for-profit) sectors. But you’ve given me the impetus to go much deeper than we have in our past commentary about Mortenson (read the things that NPQ has posted in the past about him). But there is more to the story than Mortenson’s stories. There are serious questions about what CAI actually does. I’ve talked with people who know something of what CAI does in Pakistan and have serious questions about what it actually accomplishes. Others are raising similar questions, see this piece from Fast Company ( But I appreciate your comment–even though it wasn’t very complimentary–and will return to the Mortenson story with a longer piece. Thanks for the motivation!

  • rick cohen

    Dear Guy: thanks for your comments. It strikes me as sort of ludicrous that a best-selling author like Krakauer would need to boost his book sales by attacking Mortenson, but who knows? Krakauer’s books have been bestsellers and among the finalists for major awards. It’s hard to imagine that he needed the Mortenson boost or that he wrote “Deceit” to benefit the launch of We’ll look. Thanks for the interesting commentary–even though I find it really kind of hard to believe.

  • Patricia

    WELL PUT, CHARLOTTE. Is this a responsible use of Internet technology? Or is this the Wild West? Krakauer’s 75 page manifesto couldn’t get past the legal department of a publishing house, but with this “brand new format” – smooth sailing…

    Seems like a new form of “reputation hacking” to me. Unfortunately for Mortenson, his organization’s struggles provide the “red meat” to get up and running… 🙁

  • Kate Ohehir

    What Guy said about it being a sales war is true. See below, I wrote it and it was published online and so far has received thousands of hits.

    JK may have a case of PTSD after his research in Afghanistan, but he does have his own book to peddle and GM was outselling him by a wide margin. He succeeded in killing Mortenson’s book sales immediately.

    The man just had open heart surgery. This is not breaking news, and JK could have waited, he was aware of the medical situation but he chose to kick a man when he was down.

    The whole issue says more about JK than it does about GM not having receipts

  • Kate Ohehir

    It’s true about this being a war over book sales. See below:

    JK does have his own book to peddle which GM was outselling 2 to 1 prior to 60 Minutes. He succeeded in stopping the sales of a competitor when the man was scheduled for surgery. He waited 5 years after his donation to make these claims? He could have waited a few more months when GM has his health back and can truly defend himself and his words.

  • willow

    Actually, Patricia, it was apparently vetted by the legal department of Anchor Books: Krakauer’s book has just been released as a paperback.

    For what it’s worth, I found it to be meticulously researched and very persuasive.

  • Patricia

    Really, Rick?
    A “Fast Company” article link from April 19th?

    Cheesus… there’s been more digging since then – but apparently not from you…(!?) 😐

  • Patricia

    So – Krakauer “wins”?… Reminds one of the philosophy in Vietnam – “in order to save the village – we must destroy it”. Nice work. There are many ways this could have been handled. But it had to be a COMPLETE decimation of the man, his organization and his character. So much for his being “the best and most successful spokesperson/advocate of women’s education in that region of the world”…Empty words from Mr. Krakauer – judge and jury.

  • Gregg

    The key thing is that Greg Mortenson hasn’t responded or spoken publically about the allegations at all. He has gone into hiding, using a medical condition (that he had for 18 months) as a screen to avoid public attention. It makes him look bad.

  • Leland

    The sad part about this is that all the name calling (charlatan? really?) distracts from the real issue, which is that the problems with Mortenson and his charities are common to organizations all over the world. It is clear that CAI is poorly managed financially. Which makes it not at all different from a thousand other single cause non-profits, except that his became “hot” and saw a major influx of money. I challenge anyone here to dump millions of dollars on a tiny NGO anywhere and see how well they manage it. Put that in the public eye and raise a furor over it. Rinse, repeat.

    Personally, I don’t think CAI addresses the real issue by building schools; I’d rather see teacher training or curriculum development. And I don’t really care if he fudged details of exactly when he visited what village. But neither is relevant and we are missing the greater story. Provide better financial management and training services for non-profits, instead of dogpiling the guy who messed up.

  • Susan Hale Whitmore

    Thank you, Leland, for a responsible and multi-faceted comment.

    Let me put in a couple of corrections, if I may:

    First, yes, CAI does fund student scholarships at some of the schools it has built, supplies and uniforms at some, AND teacher training to support getting qualified folks out to some of these rural schools. It depends primarily on what needs are expressed by each village’s elders.

    Second, it is probably NOT wise for outsiders (especially Americans) to dictate the curricula for Pakistani and Afghani schools. Much better to keep that in the hands of the teacher-training colleges and the villagers.

  • peter

    Of course GM was outselling JK .Gregory with his two person board was buying his bit of fiction at retail with charity funds