Has the Central Asia Institute Changed Enough to Regain Public Trust?

Correction notice: This article was corrected on September 26, 2011 at 2:12 p.m. EDT to reflect the correct spelling of Karin Ronnow’s name and at 7:03 p.m. EDT to correct the spelling of Greg Mortenson’s name in one instance.

September 25, 2011; Source: Bozeman Daily ChronicleSeven months after a searing expose on “60 Minutes,” some things have changed at Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute (CAI), while other things remain the same. CAI now has a communications director: Karin Ronnow, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s former assistant managing editor. The organization is making a concerted effort toward more transparency about its work to “empower communities of Central Asia through literacy and education, especially for girls; promote peace through education; and convey the importance of these activities globally.

In response to criticism of program effectiveness, CAI has bolstered its website with new information, including a comprehensive list of projects and status, stories of impact, and a blog describing current initiatives and beneficiaries. While organization leaders admit in their blog that “through a period of rapid growth, organizational weaknesses and deficiencies occurred,” they identify the project list, policy revisions and more as evidence of sincere efforts to correct problems. At the same time, citing what they call “cherry-picked data, manipulated information, and misrepresented context” by critics, they provide numerous rebuttals of the personal attacks on Mortenson.

On the legal front, CAI is no longer defending itself from a class action lawsuit alleging fraudulent fundraising. It is, however, still the focus of an investigation by the Montana Attorney General’s office into its financial practices. As previously reported in NPQ, the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP) has criticized CAI for a “lack of separation between the organization’s finances and [Executive Director] Greg Mortenson’s personal financial interests.”

What’s the same? Despite an appeal from AIP for his resignation as “the most generous contribution he could now make to the people of central Asia,” Mortenson remains CAI’s executive director after returning from medical leave. He also remains a member of CAI’s undersized three-person board of directors. Even though he’s still personally the target of the above-mentioned lawsuit, he’s beginning to schedule public appearances again. It appears as if CAI’s leaders believe that the organization’s good deeds—which have made a difference in an exceedingly volatile and impoverished region—compensate for the questionable management skills and judgments of its founding director . . . or that people will forgive and forget.

Perhaps CAI does recognize its severe case of “founder’s syndrome” and is just awaiting a window of opportunity for Mortenson to move on gracefully. We hope so: a leadership change is needed if there is any hope of recovering public trust.—Kathi Jaworski