Nonprofits & NGOs

It’s Not About the Tea

By and large, the Central Asia Institute's supporters went for a feel-good story, didn’t do their homework, and didn’t ask the right questions with the Three Cups of Tea dust up.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and the mountains of northern Pakistan, so family and friends have been asking me what I think of the Three Cups of Tea dust-up.

As it happens, I went to see Greg Mortenson’s work in 2000. I was en route to Kabul when I got word that the friend with whom I was to work had been unexpectedly jailed by the Taliban for overstaying his visa. He got along with his captors pretty well, and they said they’d let him out soon, but I was left with couple of weeks on my hands. I had heard of Greg’s work and knew the region, so I thought I’d go up and have a look. I got in touch with Greg, who was in China, and we agreed to meet up in Hunza.

Long story short, he never showed up, so I went off on my own to meet his people in Skardu, the jumping off point for K2. Things didn’t look good. The local Central Asia Institute (CAI) staff was up in arms about his reckless promises, lack of follow-up, and refusal to stay in touch—the country program manager lamented: “He is ruining my good name in the marketplace.”  The whole thing had an unhealthy cult-of-personality vibe. I tried to follow up when I got home, but Greg never returned my calls.

I didn’t think about it much subsequently; certainly our Mulago Foundation wasn’t going to get involved. However, I ran into the story again in 2008 while working in the remote Wakhan corridor of northern Afghanistan. Traveling with local Wakhan conservation rangers, we came across a couple of empty schools put up by CAI a few of years before. Asking around, local villagers portrayed Greg and CAI as cowboys who parachuted in and didn’t listen. Now they had schools in the wrong places and no one to teach the kids.

During my time in the valley, I got to know Ted Callahan, who lived with local Kyrghyz herders for a year while doing his Ph.D research. He’s an honest, straight-up guy who’d hoped CAI would succeed and did what he could to help. By the time I met him, he was pretty disgusted about the whole thing. His story about the bogus school up in the Kyrghyz high country—the one he told on 60 Minutes—was unsurprising in light of what I’d seen.

People seem most outraged by the apparent fabrications in the book (and yes, it’s not nice to portray one’s hosts as kidnappers), but the real crime is that CAI appears to have raised 60 million dollars and doesn’t have that much to show for it. No one really knows how many schools are actually are up and running. CAI says 170; my own tiny random sample and the 60 Minutes investigation indicate that there are probably a lot less. Even if you allow for a generous figure of 150, that represents $400,000 of donor money per school. That’s ridiculous. Jay Kimmelman and Bridge International Academies in Kenya are building hundreds of classrooms for $1,800 each. Greg’s first school in Korphe was built with only $8,000 worth of materials. The Agha Khan Development Network built 280 schools in a small corner of the same region and achieved more than 95% female literacy—for a fraction of the cost. The argument about what’s fabricated and what’s not will rage on for a while, but what we really should be asking is how did CAI spend so much to accomplish so little and why did people keep giving Greg money?

Jon Krakauer (author of Three Cups of Deceit) and 60 minutes have been slammed by many for having the temerity to expose CAI, when in fact, they seem to be the only ones who’ve done any meaningful due diligence. Nicholas Kristof and others offer the classic noble-visionary-as-poor-manager defense, portraying Mortenson as a flawed hero who nonetheless accomplished great things. He didn’t. One hundred schools in 15 years is a sideshow. He didn’t have anything to say that lots of people more accomplished than he weren’t saying already—he just had a lot more donor money to spend on promotion. “Creating awareness” is not the same as creating impact, and it too easily becomes a black hole that seems to justify almost any expenditure. I’d argue that CAI didn’t even have the right solution: The biggest threat to peace in that region is that there are legions of pissed-off young men who don’t have even the faint hope of a job.

In the end, though, the responsibility for this mess lies with the donors. By and large, CAI’s supporters went for a feel-good story, didn’t do their homework, and didn’t ask the right questions. It appears that there was never a systematic attempt to verify whether schools were up and running, and the fact that there was only one audited financial statement over CAI’s history is jaw-dropping. If you smothered me with adulation and gave me a ton of money without much oversight, I’d probably run amok too.

If this turns out as bad as I think it will, it’s going to have some big ripple effects. I’m worried that some donors will be scared away from international giving, or that they will react by requiring more of the wrong kinds of due diligence. And paradoxically, more NGO’s may get away with a relative lack of impact because CAI has now—very publicly—set the bar so low. It’s going to be even harder to look bad.

On the whole, though, this stuff is healthy, and we owe a lot to Jon Krakauer. If nothing else, I’m grateful I no longer have to grit my teeth when people start raving about Three Cups of Tea.

Read more stories by Kevin Starr.

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  • BY Jesse-Douglas Mathewson

    ON April 27, 2011 09:43 AM

    ‘In the end, though, the responsibility for this mess lies with the donors.”

    That is a ridiculous statement. The donors did not do their homework, but they’re not the ones guilty of an 8-figure embezzlement. In the end, the responsibility for the crime lies with the criminal.

    Either way, thank you for bringing these issues to light.

  • I would add that the media, particularly in the US, is partly to blame with it’s endless search for a “character” with a “story” that can be sold. It’s continual hunger for heroes and changemakers. It seems Mortenson participated in this story fabrication and lost track of his mission.

  • BY Al Huntoon

    ON April 27, 2011 11:14 AM

    Having closely followed this issue like so many others, I deeply appreciate your personal perspective and candid appraisal. 

    It seems to me there is plenty of blame to go around.  I would agree that the primary contribution is Mortenson’s.  I also think that it isn’t just the media that seeks out and glorifies social impact superstars, the field of social entrepreneurship itself has been guilty of this as well. I suspect that this is where some hesitancy to criticize Mortenson is coming from.  I think one of the enduring lessons here ought to be that while the role of individual charisma can’t be discounted, it is organizations, teams and networks of people working together that create real change and impact.  We need to stop focusing so much on celebrities and attend more to the work of making the “larger message of the possibility of change”  into a reality.

  • BY H. Art Taylor

    ON April 27, 2011 12:46 PM

    If the recent controversy surrounding Three Cups of Tea and the Central Asia Institute (CAI) tells us anything, it is that donors would be wise to investigate before they give.  While watchdogs are not positioned to uncover every charity shortcoming, donors who checked out what we had to say about CAI were rewarded with enough evidence to be wary.
    The BBB Wise Giving Alliance began reporting on CAI in 2004. Based on a review of materials provided by the charity at that time, we reported that CAI did not meet a number of our BBB Standards for Charity Accountability ( including, but not limited to, concerns that it had fewer than five voting members on its board (Standard 2) and did not have audited financial statements (Standard 11).

    When CAI failed to respond to our requests for information in 2009, 2010 and 2011, we changed its status to “nondisclosure.” Our report on CAI ( other nondisclosure charities carry this caution: “While participation in the Alliance’s charity review efforts is voluntary, the Alliance believes that failure to participate may demonstrate a lack of commitment to transparency. Without the requested information, the Alliance cannot determine if this charity adheres to the Standards for Charity Accountability.” My point is simple: while many donors might choose to support CAI despite our findings, others would have asked for clarity from the charity before making a donation.  Others still would have passed on contributing to CAI.

    I point out, too, that broad accountability standards that cover charity finances, governance, fundraising and promotional materials, effectiveness and donor privacy produce greater opportunities to uncover issues with charities than do ones focused on finances alone.  The Wall Street Journal made it clear that reports based on financial ratios did not identify any issue with CAI and gave it high ratings.  ( So simply asking how much CAI spent on overhead or fundraising would not have helped.

    H. Art Taylor, President & CEO
    BBB Wise Giving Alliance
    Arlington, VA
    Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  • Vanessa's avatar

    BY Vanessa

    ON April 27, 2011 02:05 PM

    Starr makes a great case about socially responsible philanthropy. Many people want to “feel good” about a cause, but aren’t interested in seeing how their investment has helped to maximize the impact of a project. I don’t agree that he sou…nds bitter, rather he comes off as frustrated knowing that so much money ($60M) was wasted when he has on-the-ground knowledge of how that money might have served to impact millions of pepole living in devastating conditions. CAI just helped to perpetuate those conditions, it seems.

  • Sad, but hardly new or unique.  Read Christopher Hitchen’s _The Missionary Position_:  give to Mother Teresa’s sisters in Calcutta, and the Pope will use your money to fight gay rights in California, or condom use in the Philippines.

    I don’t have the solution.  If we want to change the world, perhaps we should do it with our own hands, or only give to organizations with which we are personally affiliated.

  • Michelle C.'s avatar

    BY Michelle C.

    ON April 28, 2011 12:33 PM

    One of the things that puzzles me is that, if so many people were worried about misuse or misappropriation of funds, to the point where board members would resign, did no one alert any of the potentially relevant authorities?  The IRS?  The police?

  • BY kevin starr

    ON April 28, 2011 01:05 PM

    Thanks for these comments - they’re great.

    Jesse - you’re right; the main actor here bears enormous responsibility.  Human frailty being what it is, though, the ultimately enablers (or not) of bad behavior in the social sector are the donors.

    Marc and Al - Hugely important points to make: the cult of celebrity and the proclivity for hype in the media have been nothing but unhealthy for the sector as a whole.  A number of people have written thoughtful columns and blog post on this over the past few days.

    Art - congratulations to BBB on getting it right.  Was stunned to learn that Charity Navigator gave CAI four stars - I hope there is some serious soul-searching going on over there right now.  The charity-ratings overall industry has done a disservice to the social sector by not making impact the major determinant of an organizations eventual rating.

    Venessa - You’re right, I’m not remotely bitter. I’ve no reason to be.  Prolonged moral outrage is exhausting and tedious - and I have to admit that there are aspects of the story that have been entertaining, in a twisted sort of way. I happened to have stumbled down the exact same trail in 1995 (having lost 25 lbs. on a climb that lasted longer than our food supply) and never could figure out how Greg could have bumbled into the village of Korphe without a superhuman swim across an impossibly fast and icy river (see ). We too visited our cook’s home village, but being of a much grubbier nature, we had a huge party and completely failed to notice the absence (or not) of a school. 

    And you have to admit that the emergence of a photo showing showing the kidnapee brandishing an AK-47 in the middle of his kidnappers was pretty funny…..

  • Linda Fitzgerald's avatar

    BY Linda Fitzgerald

    ON April 28, 2011 01:16 PM

    I read, reluctantly, Three Cups of Tea, about a year ago after too many people convinced me I would find it relevant given my own involvement in international development.  My reaction was, essentially, What a waste!  Not because I knew of or even suspected malfeasance on the part of Greg Mortenson, nor did I know much more about the region than what I read in the newspaper.  I was stunned by the inefficiency.  Spending a year sending hundreds of solicitation letters blindly to people unlikely to so much as read them?  Piling lumber and supplies into the bed of a truck to deliver them to a spot that lacked a bridge?  Putting up four walls of a school as if that were the end of the problem?  Economic development is hard and money is scarce and I was alarmed that this story of a reckless and misguided attempt to do good was being promoted as inspirational. And now we learn that even the inspiration may have been built on falsehoods.  If this story results in potential donors—unable to distinguish between potentially effective programs and those led by charismatic people without a good plan—choose to withhold funds for development, then we will have suffered a very hard lesson.

  • BY Wendy Smith

    ON April 28, 2011 01:32 PM

    Michelle C hit it on the head. As a member of a board of directors, one is responsible for protecting the interests of the donors and the organization’s beneficiaries. By resigning, board members issue a small wave of protest. By reporting, they start the wave of investigation that unveils the kind of fraud perpetrated by CAI. Please don’t join a board of directors if you do not have the moral fortitude to blow the whistle.

    Wendy Smith, author, “Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World”
    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  • BY Paul Schmitz

    ON April 28, 2011 01:36 PM

    I see this as another example of charismatic, priviledged white male whose celebrity and story drive dollars without scrutiny. People trust him and buy his vision and plan because of his celebrity not because of any rigorous research. We see this every day in this country where donors give to causes based on their social networks, not based on what is the best cause. A white ivy league kid starts a nonprofit that does something that a community leader has been doing for 20 years successfully without adequate resources , and the white ivy league kid is called a social entrepreneur and celebrated with resources. Donors need to more often ask “Is someone else doing this? Has this been tried before? ARe there community-based efforts that are promising that could be built up? Instead, people get attracted to the shiny new leader with the charisma and new idea and fund personality more than impact. That seems to be what happened here, but on an international scale.

  • Julia Pfaff's avatar

    BY Julia Pfaff

    ON April 28, 2011 02:04 PM

    This story is a cautionary tale for those of us who work in the sector, serve on boards, or are thinking of starting our own nonprofits.  Paul, in response to your comment, I have often thought that the IRS and states should not approve tax-exempt status without an incubation period where the leadership of the new organization works under the guidance of an existing 501(c)3.  This could be a community foundation, another organization working in a similar area.  The purpose would be to help guide and train the new organization.  As part of the incubation period, a review can be made whether it is best to become a stand alone entity or be absorbed into the larger organization or maybe it is an idea which just doesn’t work. Don’t know if this would work and it maybe a little idealistic.

    In the meantime we all need to learn from this mess.

  • Jane Milmoe's avatar

    BY Jane Milmoe

    ON April 28, 2011 03:07 PM

    I certainly don’t blame the donors.  Why should donors be experts in philanthropy?  There are watchdog organizations, the IRS, and other pros to do that!!  I would imagine the vast majority of CAI donors are not the super-rich, donating in order to placate their consciences & get tax breaks; they are middle class Americans busy trying to create a decent life for their families, send their kids to college, and so on.  They heard Greg Mortenson’s story and were moved by it, so they gave him whatever donations they could manage to build schools for girls. 

    I think it’s wonderful that people still want to give like that, to deplete their bank accounts to help people who are not their kin, not even their cultural kin—-whose language, religion, laws, and customs are all alien. 

    Greg Mortenson did a great job of inspiring this kind of generosity.  I happen to believe Mortenson was sincerely trying to do good——working hard at it for years; unfortunately (and by his own account), he was poorly organized and inexperienced.  Had he been less successful at winning people’s admiration and donations, he might have been forced to adhere to the guidelines issued to him (but apparently ignored by him) by his top notch Board, and forced to learn from other foreign aid workers in the region how to be most effective.  But it seems as if his remarkable success at raising money made him feel he must be on the right path and should keep going.  Too bad!!  Can you imagine how great it would be to have a nonprofit for which Greg Mortenson did PR while others handled finances and decisions/arrangements to do with spending the money he raised?  Too bad Krakauer and 60 minutes couldn’t have dealt with the situation in a way that allowed Greg to change rather than ensuring his destruction.

  • Consuelo Peeters's avatar

    BY Consuelo Peeters

    ON April 28, 2011 03:46 PM

    What a great deception, although I must confess that while reading the books there were quite a few stories hard to believe.  First I thought that writing a book was an effective action for looking for support to a cause.  Now I am not quite sure, but then, what is a better alternative if you are not looking for personal attention?

    People’s need for “doing good” is reaching dangerous proportions where large amounts of money could be mishandled.  If we want to “change the world” wouldn´t it be better if each of us does its own effort according to his capacities?

  • BY Carol Steinfeld

    ON April 28, 2011 04:43 PM

    As part of a small project that supplies ecological sanitation information and expertise, I long doubted the Three Cups of Tea story—-simply because we see with toilets that you can’t drop a solution on a community and leave. The Three Cups story didn’t make sense to me, so I imagine that other aid organizations also saw that it was a tale of an American cliche. I’m glad that both of these harmful falsehoods—-the Mortensen cult of personality/do-good celebrity machine and the notion that aid happens fast with a checkbook—-have been exposed. Nick Kristoff tends to feed this machine. I enjoyed reading this piece and Julia Pfaff’s suggestion above. Many organizations do not know how to be nonprofits.

  • Zohar Rom's avatar

    BY Zohar Rom

    ON April 28, 2011 07:15 PM

    Mr. Starr, if you don’t think that education is the solution, then you are blind to reality. Afghans are eager to lift themselves up and when you ask them what they need, “schools” are what they say first and loudest.

    What else do you think will change lives for people “who don’t have even the faint hope of a job”?

  • BY Collective Responsibility

    ON April 29, 2011 07:24 AM


    for me one of the interesting, and somewhat disturbing elements, of this story is that your story and others like it are coming out AFTER the fact. 

    Why did it take 60 minutes journos, who flew in after millions were donated, to expose the problems (some would say frauds) when there were so many ON THE GROUND unwilling to expose the issues? 

    For me, more focus should be on those who knew and turned a blind eye vs. those who saw/ believed what they wanted to.

  • If you had suspicions as early as 2000, why not do something about them?  The result of inaction (collusion?) is people/potential donors become more and more cynical, less and less likely to give….

  • Melanie Audette's avatar

    BY Melanie Audette

    ON April 29, 2011 11:12 AM

    The heartbreaking part on the personal side is “What to tell the Kids?” here in the U.S. who were taught about philanthropy through Three Cups of Tea?

    My daughter’s entire school read the book and focused on this story for months. I know there were many others elsewhere, as well. And penny drives, and personal talks by Greg…

    These developments are confusing, disappointing and disillusioning to so many young people. Hopefully, he will turn this into a lesson and make good to all of the children here and abroad whose lives he has touched.

  • I still don’t like Jon Krakauer; and what parts of his books are absolute truths with no exaggerations, mistakes—I mean how do you know what dead man is thinking, but I digress. Didn’t like him before and his attacks, warranted or no, and I haven’t changed my mind.

  • Much good can come out of this yet.  I hope this encourages people to take an active interest in the school districts closer to home that are in great need of support and involvement by local citizenry.

  • It’s stories like this that remind me why my husband and I try to make sure we know where our donations are going. We learned to do that many years ago when he was just out of college and working as an auditor. He had to audit a number of very well known charities - and he was appalled how much of money donated was wasted or not well accounted for. It didn’t stop us donating internationally, but it did leave us with a healthy skepticism - how something is portrayed is not always how it is in reality.

  • BY Evonne Smulders

    ON April 30, 2011 09:17 AM

    A response to Melanie Audette’s comment regarding the children that gave their pennies and learned about giving through Three Cups of Tea: Don’t tell them. Do children need to be crushed by the turn of events with this charity. Fact: they learned valuable lessons regarding giving and social responsibility. Let them grow up believing good things do happen. There is more than enough time for their innocence and wonder to be crushed. 
    Just a thought, let’s start teaching children to take more personal responsibility for change. I know that’s not so Hollywood glamor to give resources to the underprivileged in your own community. There is something to be said about seeing the results of your actions on a daily basis.

  • BY Ken Miller

    ON April 30, 2011 09:30 AM

    An outstanding piece! I’d accepted Nick Kristoff’s “nuanced” take on the controversy until I read your essay, and have to say, am convinced. It’s tale of dishonesty, the gross misuse of funds, and expensive self-promotion with money generously donated for schools, not book tours. Even with its massive corruption and endless sub-contracting arrangements, constructing schools in Afghanistan there should never cost anything near $400,000.

  • Michelle Anderson's avatar

    BY Michelle Anderson

    ON May 1, 2011 12:51 AM

    A few months ago I read ‘three cups of tea’ for the first time and
    was completely inspired by Greg Mortensons story. It motivated me to what to learn more about cultures I had never really taken the time to consider. It is difficult to know what to make of all the controversy and what to think of the unaccounted for funds. However, it cannot be denied that G.Mortenson has raised significant awareness worldwide highlighting the value and need for education in deprived communities.

  • Jstaguy's avatar

    BY Jstaguy

    ON May 1, 2011 06:10 PM

    I was part of a team which came up with hypothetically successful means to educate afghan adults using distance learning. As soldiers, we were able to execute beta tests with limited success. Now we are all home and had plans in place to start an NGO based around this mixture of low technology and printed materials into a program replicable everywhere literacy and other education is a problem. Since these revelations came to light, most of my crew now wants nothing to do with philanthropy. It’s pretty clear now that the mass media has developed a taste for fallen heroes. The resulting sort of microscopic public analysis of difficult and often problematic executions makes those of us with the brains and the guts to take action in harm’s way decline to become heroes, at all.

  • BY Justin Pollack

    ON May 2, 2011 10:40 AM

    Great piece. We just posted a response on our blog, as well. Thank you for this additional insight.

  • EyeNeverSayNo's avatar

    BY EyeNeverSayNo

    ON May 5, 2011 03:47 PM

    So many of Mortenson’s supporters have been trying to shoot the messengers, 60 Minutes and Krakauer, and yet the corroboration is right there in the source material, in particular in CAI’s 2009 Form 990 covering the 2008 fiscal year. And one can downlaod it from the CAI website. Note in Schedule J (page 25) the two boxes checked for CAI’s payment for private jet charters for Mortenson and his “companions.” Then note the nearly $2 million spent on said book tour travel in 2008. More than twice what was spent on staffing and supplying the schools already built (whatever that number ay actually be). I wonder how many donors would like to know that the money they gave Mortenson for some of the neediest children in the world actually went to pay for private jet charters while he was out promoting his books? There is also no indication in the Form 990 that any of the royalties from his two books (Three Cups alone having sold 4 million+ copies) made it into the CAI coffers… indeed Mortenson has already admitted to keeping that money, along with appearance fees, for himself.
    I’ve also seen no indication that Mortenson ever reimbursed CAI for his book tour travel costs, even while collecting a reported $3,000 travel stipend per paid appearance. This kind of double dipping is a huge no-no with the IRS, and like Al Capone’s proverbial burnt out taillight, could be a major factor in Mortenson’s eventual legal undoing.

    Read Mortenson’s financials here:

    It’s not a pretty picture, but Mortenson justifies it all by saying that it’s okay because CAI benefitted more from his rock star lifestyle on the road then he did! One has to wonder how much would be too much in Mortenson’s view? If he spent one dollar less than CAI brought in, while private jetting around promoting his books and his personal brand, would that still be okay? Of course not, and his juvenile justifications are simply outraegeous.

  • “In the end, though, the responsibility for this mess lies with the donors.”

    To some degree, but by and large a patently ridiculous statement.

  • Paul Hudnut's avatar

    BY Paul Hudnut

    ON September 13, 2013 03:46 PM

    Montana Attorney General: “We entered into a settlement agreement with Mortenson and CAI which guarantees in excess of $1 million in restitution from Mortenson for his past financial transgressions. We have also implemented stricter organizational and financial controls within CAI that will help ensure charity dollars are spent as intended so that the donating public’s trust can be restored.

    This includes removing Mortenson from any position of financial oversight and as a voting member of the board of directors. He will be allowed to continue in a role that best complements his goals as they pertain to CAI’s mission. A new executive director will be hired to better manage the day-to-day operations. After a transitional period of 12 months, the settlement also calls for the two remaining board members to step down while, in the meantime, a new board consisting of at least seven members will be appointed.”

    More here:

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