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

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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

  • Guy Montag

    “It’s [

  • Anne Beyersdorfer

    I need to make you aware of several inaccuracies and exclusions in your piece.
    1. Karin Ronnow’s name is misspelled
    2. While CAI’s co-founder Greg Mortenson is currently on medical leave following his open-heart surgery in June, Anne Beyersdorfer is currently acting Executive Director. Jennifer Sipes has been CAI’s Operations Director since 2005.
    3. In respect to the people and processes involved with the MT AG inquiry, CAI has delayed release that the organization received an un-qualified ‘clean’ audit with recommendations for FYE 9/30/10. An Interim Report showing CAI’s audited financial statements will be posted on CAI’s website this week.
    4. Mortenson and CAI’s Board of Directors embrace a long term vision, committed to community-based leadership, participation and sustainability. This vision includes the Talim (which means education in Pashto) Fund, which ensures that students and teachers will be able to pursue their goals into the next generation through training and scholarships. In addition, CAI has restricted funds, including all the Pennies For Peace funds, designated for overseas education support for years to come.
    5. CAI’s Board of Directors is updating the strategic plan for the organization, which includes board expansion, executive management, expansion and review of current operational and financial policies and procedures. In the meanwhile, organizational communication tools and practices have been implemented to help employees at every level adhere to policies.
    6. Central Asia Institute is a strong organization with a solid foundation.
    Lastly, Greg Mortenson stands by the stories conveyed in his books, and by the value of CAI’s work in empowering local communities through education for tens of thousands of children since 1996.
    Thank you,

  • Chris Hartman

    Anne, thanks for pointing out our misspelling of Karin Ronnow’s name. We’ve made the correction.

    As far as the leadership of CAI is concerned, the Staff page on the CAI website lists Greg Mortenson as Executive Director. As far as we can tell, Anne Beyersdorfer is not listed anywhere on the CAI staff page.

  • Anne Beyersdorfer

    Thank you Chris,
    You are correct that I am not included on the staff page, yet it is public knowledge, and has been reported in the press, that I am honored to be Interim Executive Director while Greg is on medical leave.
    I hope that the Nonprofit Quarterly would remain an unbiased and well-researched publication in future ‘news’ items regarding Central Asia Institute, with subjective opinion left out.
    Thanks again for your attention to presenting accurate information and the importance of CAI’s mission to promote peace through education.
    Best regards,
    (PS) Greg Mortenson’s name is spelled incorrectly as well in the 4th graf.

  • Chris Hartman

    Not a good day on the spelling front here at [i]NPQ[/i]. I’ve corrected the spelling. My apologies!

  • C. Ross

    This is a brief continuation of a comment I wrote yesterday.

    I became curious about how the Central Asia Institute is governed. While the organization has somehow functioned with a very small board, I was wondering how the board groomed or recruited new members. Many NGOs use their ‘advisory boards’ as training grounds. I checked CAI’s advisory board and found four names. Two of the ‘advisors’ are former board members, and the two others are dead.

    This appears to be a very insular organization.

  • Stuart

    Please explain your comment: “Lastly, Greg Mortenson stands by the stories conveyed in his books”
    Are you saying he denies any fabricating?

  • Kathryn OHehir

    I’d like to make a point about “tone” in charity watchdog writing about this issue. CAI is dealing with what can objectively be called a “hostile” press that uses “tone” to convey continuously the organization is guilty of SOMETHING, yet neither the Attorney General for Montana, nor the class action Plaintiff’s have found any legal wrong doing. The class action motion is “swiss cheese” the court must “imagine” the crimes Mortenson has committed against humanity for none are specified.

    You have all based your opinions, and yes, NPQ, even you have opinions, that underscore the “objective tone” you have chosen in covering this story without, I might add, reading any of the legal documentation available to to all media.

    Outside of Jon Krakauer’s allegations, what proof, what evidence, what legal reasons are reporting on to justify your “doubt”? What do you have that will hold up in court? Nothing. You have nothing, because there never was anything, other than a family-owned and run NGO that hit the big time, to the great surprise of all.

    The only thing more surprising than the success of Mortenson’s books or the charities efforts and successes is the vile and bile in which Krakauer took in attempting to assassinate Mortenson’s character. He is in no position to judge any one.

    The media hung Greg Mortenson out to dry as a warning, as an example to small NGOs, as meat of the day for the news mill.

    Own up to your part in this media conviction. You will have egg on your face when this whole thing is thrown out without merit within the coming weeks.

    Kathryn O’Hehir
    Aoji International School

  • April Fletcher

    As I have read over the accusations made against Greg Mortenson in various articles on the Web and his responses, I have concluded that this whole “scandal” is a consequence of American’s thinking that every other culture of the world thinks just like Americans, and that our press can just march into another culture and get “facts” as they might in the US (though they aren’t very good at that either). Greg’s responses to the accusations make sense to anyone who has experienced a culture that does not think like Americans do and who understands the backdrop against which he must work. Let us hope that this whole thing blows over soon and Greg can get back to the very important work he is doing with the CAI without the sensationalistic, scum-seeking press on his neck questioning his integrity. I have to seriously question why the press went after Greg in the first place as it could not have been for the good of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan!. There are much bigger fish to fry on Wall Street and in D.C. many of which truly deserve to be fried!