Three Cups of Disappointment

Posted on 05 April 2012

In what is hopefully the end to an embarrassing nonprofit scandal, an investigative report from the Montana Attorney General’s office found that Greg Mortenson, the author of “Three Cups of Tea” and co-founder of the Central Asia Institute, must reimburse the organization $1 million for improper use of charitable contributions.

As always, this kind of story doesn’t just hurt the organization and the people it purports to serve, it damages the philanthropic community as a whole. When the head of one organization is found to be fraudulent, doubts are cast on all nonprofit leadership, and the general public becomes even more skeptical of the nonprofit community.

But the case of Mortenson is more disconcerting than most of the scandals that infect the philanthropic community because he was the founder of the organization and actively solicited the very money he pocketed for his own gain.

I saw Mortenson speak once at New York University several years ago, and I was struck by the hold he had on his audience. His harrowing story of how he dedicated his life to building schools in Central Asia after being lost on a hike in Pakistan and wandering into a small village was inspiring. He spoke with a passion and commitment I find hard to believe was insincere. And perhaps, at the time, it wasn’t. Perhaps Motenson really was dedicated to his cause. Perhaps the lure of fame and money simply meant more to him in the end.

Sadly, Mortenson’s tale will have a negative impact on the nonprofit community as a whole. The public’s trust, always such a vital component of the donor-nonprofit relationship, will be further shaken. But there is a lesson here for both sides. An organization takes on a major risk when it allows one person to be its face to the public (just ask Invisible Children). And donors too need to be more educated about the organizations they support. A worthy-sounding mission and a splashy website is not enough. Donors must examine how a nonprofit spends its money and make sure that they are comfortable with how their donations will be used.

Yes, there are lessons to be learned here. But there is also the cold truth that nonprofits are run by people, and people are corruptible, no matter what causes they support. Unfortunately, the philanthropic community is not immune to the sad realities of human nature.

1 Response to Three Cups of Disappointment

  • Edith says:

    Reminds me of the Komen foundation debacle, too.

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