Sometimes even smart people ask the wrong question.
In his Feb. 23 SSIR op-ed, “So What’s It Take to Get Fired Around Here?”, Kevin Starr does just that.
Starr rehashes details from the 2011 controversy surrounding Greg Mortenson and his books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. These now-dated allegations—poor financial management and that Mortenson’s memory of some of the events detailed in his books were not entirely accurate—led him to question just why Mortenson continues to be involved with Central Asia Institute (CAI), the organization he co-founded in 1996.
So what’s the right question? Let’s start with: Why didn’t CAI fire Greg Mortenson?
After much soul-searching, the overwhelming consensus by the CAI board and its supporters was that Central Asia Institute could do much more with Mortenson than without him. Particularly valuable, they decided, were the decades of relationships and experience that made it difficult—almost impossible—to replace him.
We think we made the right decision, particularly in light of the contributions Mortenson is making today on the frontlines in Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as the United States withdraws its forces from the region. Mortenson was instrumental in helping CAI complete and hand over to the government a 34,000-square-foot university library in one of the most volatile regions of Pakistan. He is also currently spearheading efforts to upgrade 26 schools in Afghanistan’s isolated Wakhan Corridor.
That’s not to say that CAI, its management, its board, and most of all Greg didn’t make mistakes. From 2009 to 2011, CAI’s revenues grew exponentially. In fact, the donations in support of CAI’s mission to bring education to one of the world’s neediest and most impoverished regions overwhelmed its business processes and accounting procedures, and the capacity of a small management staff to keep up.
We acknowledged our mistakes. We also made a commitment to our donors, our community partners, and each other to learn from those mistakes; submit to rigorous and ongoing financial and management audits by the State of Montana, the IRS, and independent auditing firms; and continue with our mission. Moreover, Greg was removed as executive director and retained as a staff member and non-voting, ex-officio member of the board. In this advisory position, he has no control over organization finances or decisions.
Again, did we make the right decision? We think so.
In a 2012 letter outlining the conditions of CAI’s legal and financial probation, then-Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock wrote, “Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute can learn from their missteps. The settlement we negotiated provides an opportunity to make meaningful changes and reestablish the charity going forward. Despite the severity of their errors, CAI is worth saving. Its pursuit remains admirable … ”
Since then, CAI has overhauled its operations with new board members and staff, shored-up procedures and personnel policies, and revamped its financial systems. This has resulted in CAI meeting and exceeding every reporting requirement presented, including those of the Montana Attorney General’s office, the nonprofit watchdog agency GuideStar, the Better Business Bureau, and the IRS.
Today CAI functions effectively and efficiently, operating at or above national and international standards. Our tax filings, audited financial statements, and annual reports are all on our website.
What’s more, to date, CAI has initiated more than 400 projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan—many in rural, high-conflict regions where poverty and oppression of women and girls are most prevalent.
Because of this, we recognize that everything we do—every school we build—is an ongoing project. We know that some of our projects will be delayed, suspended, or damaged. This is the nature of our work.
However, our time-proven process of working on projects that communities request has proven effective, and allows us to work in areas where other organizations can’t or won’t. Proof of this is in the hundreds of requests for help that cross our desks every month—something we are justly proud of.
With all this in mind, we hope that Mr. Starr is interested in a renewed dialogue about our operations, and the work we do to promote peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. But in the meantime, we’ll focus on what really matters, the children and communities of Central Asia.