What can you say about Greg Mortenson?? The ubiquitous author of two book club smash hits: Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, was featured on a 60 Minutes’ breaking news story Sunday night that rocked the philanthropy world and shocked millions of readers and givers who have donated $60 million to Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The dethroning of Mortenson, who has been lauded by luminaries from Tom Brokaw to Thomas Friedman and Admiral Mike Mullen, started with a demure little column in the Sunday New York Times, page 19, titled “60 Minutes’ Casts Doubt On Book.” It culminated with a 10-minute segment featuring Jon Krakauer, one of the world’s most thorough reporters (and original supporter of Mortenson) calling Mortenson the purveyor of “..a beautiful story. And it’s a lie.” Numerous Pakistani and Afghani individuals who were named and photographed in Mortenson’s books totally undermine his version of dramatic events. And the head of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog organization, tells Steve Kroft that the Central Asia Institute has filed only one audited financial report in the past 14 years.
I didn’t give my $100 day to the Central Asia Institute last year, although numerous readers suggested it as a favorite cause. I’d like to say it was because of my brilliant intuition – but honestly, I had a mixture of unsightly writers’ envy (he has sold over 4 million books), and the distinct feeling that Mortenson was already getting plenty of attention and money. But when I saw him on 60 Minutes, looking like the prototype of a deer caught in the headlights, I have to tell you that I felt nothing more than pity. Frankly, I cannot imagine the horror of not only living a lie but being wildly celebrated for it –while waiting for people to find out the ugly truth about you and your elaborately embellished tales of bravery.
For me, the disconnect that should have originally raised a red flag was that none of Mortenson’s books’ proceeds were donated to the Institute. You can’t write a book about your own philanthropy and then pocket all the proceeds! Not only that, but Institute funds actually supported the book tours, the speaking engagements and the marketing of Mortenson – to the tune of $1.7 million last year. What a cockamamie scheme!
I feel so badly for the thousands of schoolkids who diligently sent in their Pennies for Peace, believing they were helping build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan (Central Asia Institute raised $23 million last year alone). While no one disputes that Mortenson has built some schools—and that’s a very, very good thing – it defies the understanding to imagine why he would feel entitled to take the money intended for schools for the poorest of the poor, and use it to fund his own travel and “marketing.” Or how his board of directors could possibly have endorsed those actions.
So what can we learn from all this? Certainly, the lesson is not to stop giving; it’s simply to try to learn as much as possible about an organization – and the people behind it — before you give. Check an organization’s status with American Institute of Philanthropy or Charity Navigator. Do an online search and see if negative stories come up. Don’t ever believe the bigger the charity, the better. And trust your intuition, not a culture that insists upon creating “heroes” out of ordinary good people.
The one thing in this story that makes me eternally grateful
is that we still have a 60 Minutes and New York Times doing investigative reporting and practicing real journalism. In an era where opinion-spewing and celebrity-swooning routinely pass for news, it’s good to know a few people are out there doing the hard work of covering–and uncovering–things we need to know.