By late 2011, Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, was in free-fall from grace. Earlier that year, journalist Jon Krakauer released Three Cups of Deceit, a report that detailed central untruths in Mortenson’s books, his misuse of funds, and his spectacular mismanagement of the organization he founded. CBS’s 60 Minutes followed with an equally devastating investigation that enlarged upon Krakauer’s findings. The Montana Attorney General launched an investigation. The media went nuts.
The Mulago Foundation never funded Mortenson, but I’d crossed his wake several times over the years and the scandal didn’t surprise me. I walked down the glacier from K2 the same way he did in 1994: He’d have needed wings to reach the village where they supposedly nursed him back to health in Three Cups of Tea. In 2000, I met with his country manager in Skardu, Pakistan, and listened to tales of mismanagement (“Mr. Greg is ruining my good name!”). And in 2008, in northern Afghanistan, I happened upon schools built by his Central Asia Institute (CAI), sitting shuttered and empty in a high mountain valley.
I piled on with a piece on the SSIR website, but after the Montana Attorney General’s ruling forced Mortenson to pay $1.2 million back to CAI and leave the board, I stopped paying attention. I assumed that he’d resign or get fired, and that the organization would either radically transform itself or close its doors. The verdict was just and necessary, but I was sad for all of those who’d supported CAI’s work or benefitted from it, and was even a little sad for him.
Recently, though, a friend sent me Jon Krakauer’s follow-up piece, titled “Greg Mortenson, Disgraced Author of ‘Three Cups Of Tea,’ Believes He Will Have The Last Laugh.” It turns out that Mortenson is still drawing a $170,000 salary for a job titled “co-founder” (what the hell is that?) and—get this—is on the board. And the executive director hired to whip things into shape, David Starnes, resigned suddenly without explanation after only a year on the job.
It looks like Greg Mortenson is still in the driver’s seat.
Why is this such a big deal? And why now? Here’s why: In this line of work, we are disproportionately reliant on integrity, and when serious problems come to light, we have to believe that organizations like CAI will take effective action. Standard financial audits help us keep an eye on the money (although for too long, CAI didn’t do them), but there is no such thing as a standard ethics or impact audit. At some point, we have to trust these guys. Most of CAI’s work is in remote areas, and more than 90 percent of funding comes from individual donors who don’t have the resources for serious due diligence. That’s not an uncommon scenario. If we can’t trust the leader, and the board is asleep at the wheel—as was the case with CAI—bad stuff ensues, often without detection.
And bad stuff did ensue, like this—all from the Montana Attorney General’s report:
- CAI paid $376,000 for the production costs of Three Cups of Tea.
- Mortenson’s books became core to CAI’s fundraising and CAI spent $4.9 million advertising the books.
- CAI bought $4 million worth of books, which kept them on bestseller lists.
- Mortenson ran around in charter jets on the company dime, giving speeches at up to $30,000 a pop.
- Mortenson kept most of the ensuing royalties and fees.
It’s worse than we knew in 2011. Most damning, of course, is the fact that Mortenson raised more than $70 million and, at the time of the exposé, CAI didn’t even know what schools had been completed or which were even open. It is certain that CAI’s impact was far less than it claimed, in no small part because Mortenson’s attention was fixed on bringing home the bacon. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, CAI took in $17 million. They spent $6 million of that on the work in Central Asia and $4 million on “global outreach.” (For those of you who don’t do this for a living, “global outreach” is fundraising by another name.)
After the scandal, revenues dropped by 80 percent. Good. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Mortenson’s supporters blamed the messenger and played the guilt card; Mortenson himself said there was “an intent to destroy me, with no regard for the children overseas.” Well, no. You screwed up. It’s on you. The media—too often our last line of defense—was doing its job and doing it well. (And on what planet do you get to keep a $170,000 job when you caused an 80 percent drop in revenue?)
This often happens when charity leaders get busted: They hold “the children” (or the orangutans or whatever) hostage, guilt-tripping donors to keep the money flowing. In the case of CAI, at least, the kids should be fine: At the end of 2013, CAI had $20 million in the bank. That same year, they spent less than $4 million on the work in Central Asia. What a relief! They—and those kids—have five years of runway if they don’t blow it on co-founder salaries or global outreach. No need to give CAI another dime.
And nobody ought to until the organization disassociates itself from its tainted founder. He’s never really come clean—after a long silence, he and CAI mounted a duck-and-weave defense that admitted to, well, not very much. In a January 2014 interview with Tom Brokaw, Mortenson said, “I have always operated from my heart. I’m not really a head person.” He allowed that maybe he “let a lot of people down” without any specifics as to what that meant. The clear implication—echoed by many supporters to this day—was that his passion and intentions were what mattered, not a few paperwork slip-ups here and there.
Bullshit. To reward good intentions is to insult those who do good work. We don’t let CEOs or neurosurgeons get away with passion, good intentions, or even hard work; we expect them to produce results. Should it be any different when we’re trying to save the world? As philosopher Ivan Illich famously said, “To hell with good intentions!” Give us impact! (Alright, that last bit was me.)
It’s OK to fire people. We don’t do it enough. Done well, it is good for the sector, good for the organization, and most importantly, good for those we serve. In the long run, it’s usually good for the one fired, too. It shows respect for those who do great work and frees them from the burden of underperformers. You never achieve a high-performance organization without firing some people. It’s necessary, and it’s healthy.
And founders shouldn’t be exempt. They deserve our gratitude: They work crazy hard, take real risks, and make good stuff happen that wouldn’t otherwise. We should honor them, do anything we can for them, and help them gracefully transition to either the right role in a growing organization or on to the next big thing. And when one of them blows it—in terms of impact or integrity—we need to suck it up and do the right thing. Good intentions aren’t nearly enough.
Read more stories by Kevin Starr.