Greg Mortenson: Tea Stains and Hollow Stones

Like countless others, I am heart-broken and viscerally angry since learning the news of Greg Mortenson’s conflation, exaggeration and fabrication of many of the stories and details in his two best-selling books “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones in Schools”.

Mortenson, a former emergency room trauma nurse, former mountain climber, Nobel Peace Prize-nominated author, and co-founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), created a reputation as a quixotic humanitarian activist. And became an unlikely champion for girls’ education globally and building bridges to peace by constructing schools. His books sold more than 4 million copies and were standard reading for US service members deploying to Afghanistan. He consulted regularly with US military leadership on engagement of Pashtun tribesman.

In a decade of war news, economic turmoil, and frequent natural disasters, that the media gladly reported on and we, the public devoured; his were the on-going feel-good stories that rose above the cynicism and disillusionment.

Spilled Tea

Viewing the 60 Minutes expose and reading Jon Krakauer’s online booklet, Three Cups of Deceit and numerous articles, the evidence is damning that Mortenson not only lied, but stole. Although Nicholas Kristoff, author of “Half the Sky”, a friend and admirer of Mortenson’s, does not want to acknowledge his friend’s downfall in his recent New York Times column “” ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ Spilled”, Kristoff has to remember that integrity, ethics and character matter. Krakauer writes, “The root of the problem (referring to CAI) lies in Mortenson’s dysfunctional management style.” I disagree. The central issue in this is a lack of integrity, ethics, and character.

Integrity and Character Matter

Just because someone is seemingly doing good; their ends do not justify the means—even for a noble cause. Creating, writing, telling, promoting and repeating lies cannot be done with impunity. Honor, ethics, and character cannot be taken away from a person; they are only given away by one’s actions, assuming they possess them from the start.

While Krakauer uncovers the beginning of the lies, we are left to question the truth of any of Mortenson’s journey captured in print and video. The impact of this will be significant for non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as in publishing. He has now gone from building schools and educating children, to destroying the dreams and reputations of countless organizations.

As a former executive director of a not-for-profit organization, I am appalled that it took 14 years to bring the misuse of funds to light. The submission of an IRS 990 (the federal tax form for non-profit organizations) is required filing each year. Any executive director with a modicum of business sense recognizes the importance of regular audited financials, and the accounting of donor gifts. Numerous CAI board members, employees and managers resigned as they proffered concerns to Mortenson and others—but the problems persisted.

In an opinion piece yesterday titled “Three Cups of Tea Scandal Offers Lessons for Charities and Trustees”, The Chronicle of Philanthropy stated, “A charity must serve a public interest rather than a private one, and any financial benefits provided to an individual must be incidental compared with the amount spent to advance a charity’s tax-exempt purposes.” I guess this is news to Mortenson.

For non-profits and NGOs alike, trust is earned by transparency in business and financial dealing and demonstrating measurable results. And donors to domestic and international charities have a responsibility to educate ourselves. Understanding and supporting a cause requires diligence in learning how the organization allocates its income to programs, services, and administration.  Verify the organization with various charity watch organizations. Invest a few minutes of your time—before you give them your money.

Review Before Not After

It is also the responsibility of the editors and publishers to verify and corroborate an author’s works prior to publishing, promoting and profiting from it.  Mortenson’s publisher, Viking Press, issued a statement Monday that said, “Greg Mortenson’s work as a humanitarian in Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided tens of thousands of children with an education. ’60 Minutes’ is a serious news organization and, in the wake of their report, Viking plans to carefully review the materials with the author.” I find Viking Presses statement regarding Mortenson’s books as disingenuous.

Last year, my daughter and her elementary school classmates participated in “Pennies For Peace”, Mortenson’s program designed to encourage and engage school children into donating their lunch and allowance monies to help buy kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan school supplies. The entire school got behind the effort filling a sizable plexiglass mountain pyramid. At the school book fair, copies of the young adult version of “Three Cups of Tea” and “Listen to the Wind” the younger children’s version of it flew off the shelf. We were desperate to hear and believe Greg Mortenson, “the astonishing, uplifting story of a real-life Indiana Jones and his remarkable humanitarian campaign in the Taliban’s backyard” as praised on the back cover of his book.

No Excuses

There are no excuses for Mortenson’s behavior. His arrogance, ignorance and failure to understand the global implications of his lies and stealing justify nothing. His flaws are real and perhaps more commonplace than we like to admit. With James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces” (which became a “million little lies”) we learned that his memoir was semi-factual and fictional. Kaavya Viswanathan’s young adult novel “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” shortly after its highly publicized debut in 2006, was “withdrawn” following charges significant portions had been plagiarized from other books.

Krakauer has demonstrated large portions of Mortenson’s story are a fairy tale, but I still believe that educating children and particularly girls is a critical global issue. Mortenson’s lies are tragic and will affect people worldwide that are the most desperate for support and assistance.

Mortenson’s work has inspired millions and made a tremendous difference in the lives of many others. His human weakness and flaws (perhaps caused by succumbing to fame, influence, power, prestige and profit) colored his actions and demonstrate a blatant disregard for all he purported to embrace and for those he intended to help. I have tried to discern Mortenson’s motivation for the magnitude of the myth. Had he written a fictional story, perhaps only two million instead of four million copies would have sold, but no one else would have been hurt or heart-broken. It sure reads as if he sold his integrity and character

… and an extra two million is never worth that.


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12 Responses to Greg Mortenson: Tea Stains and Hollow Stones

  1. Dwight Zimmerman April 27, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    The cynic in me cannot resist the response, originally uttered by police Captain Louis Renault (Claude Raines) in “Casablanca”: “I’m shocked! Shocked to discover there’s gambling going on here!” And then receiving his cut of the illegal casino’s receipts.

    As you point out, Mortenson’s misrepresentations are not singular to himself. It’s also not a new problem. Stephen Ambrose had to acknowledge plagiarizing problems in some of his works. And those old enough to remember Alex Haley’s ROOTS and the publishing/television phenomenon it became should remember the shock that occurred when it was revealed that he had misrepresented parts of that personal history. Then of course there’s the notorious screed PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION and the claims and counter-claims over which plays Shakespeare wrote and didn’t write. The list goes on.

    The reasons that such misrepresentations occur are legion. Greed, honest memory lapses, deadline pressure, and a desire to rearrange facts and dress them up to make for a smoother story are just a few. Having written many non-fiction books and articles, I have encountered enough instances where I could have used my fiction writing skills to give a little “oomph” to some rather deflating facts–and this is for military histories, no less! You’d think those would contain facts so dramatic that, if anything, they’d need to be toned down. But such is not always the case. Viking is correct in its claim that it relies on its authors “to tell the truth, and they are contractually obligated to do so.” But, as publisher, Viking has a responsibility to verify. I’ve been through the fact-checking process with my books. Some checks have been almost pro forma, others have been stringent, in one extreme case they were literally line-by-line (an experience I hope not to have again).

    The full impact of the fallout and how it affects Morteson and his charity remains to be seen. I have no sympathy for him, and great sympathy for the thousands of school children who will suffer from this.

    I do know it will affect me personally–thanks to this incident, I’ll be grilled on my next book as if I were a heretic before a panel of bishops during the Spanish Inquisition.

    • donnamcaleer April 28, 2011 at 2:44 am #

      @Dwight–Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences. Unfortunately, the scandals will continue but they will be out of the news quickly as new ones will emerge.

    • Joyce Faulkner May 2, 2011 at 1:45 am #

      I remember Roots issues, Dwight. The other thing to keep in mind is that there is a big difference between books put out there to deliberately mislead and those that are simply reflecting the memories of individuals…when Pat and I did Sunchon Tunnel Massacre Survivors, we were faced with nine guys who were willing to fight each other because their memories were so different…we researched how trauma impacts memory and decided to let each person tell the story as they remembered it…and present it that way. Of course, we told our readers that this was what we were doing too.

      Having said that, it’s easy to simply call something with facts that can’t be confirmed as “FICTION”…that’s one of the advantages of fiction..that and that it can be intrepretive…NON-FICTION implies fact checking and validation of references…you can’t just “make it up” and still call it NON-FICTION.

  2. Martin Fox April 28, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    Ethics, integrity, and honesty are critical components of healthy people and healthy communities. In my work with young people, I hit this topic hard and often. Ethics, integrity, and honesty are a few of the things in life that can’t be taken away from you – you can only give them away.

    In John Krakauer’s eBook, Three Cups of Deceit, there is ample and damning evidence from people both inside and outside Mortenson’s organization. The argument that “Greg didn’t know better” or “he is just so disorganized” doesn’t hold up after reading first-person fraud accounts by the people involved. Mortenson may be disorganized, but he was told repeatedly that what he was doing was wrong – he just chose to ignore it.

    Read more about how this fiasco is impacting the nonprofit/ngo world at

    Martin Fox with the Center for Global Leadership – accelerating the global ripple.

  3. Jason Lunday April 29, 2011 at 2:11 am #

    An interesting story about Ronald Reagan and his oft-used pronouncement “Trust, but verify” is that he lifted this from the Russions — it is a Russian proverb. In one succinct statement, Reagan underscored an important aspect of Russian culture — and now of organizational ethics — is that we place a lot of trust in public people, but we also need to be willing to verify this trust.

    A quote my colleague Frank Navran is fond of saying is “Trust is the residue of promises fulfilled.” We don’t get to recieve trust simply because we ask for it — we have to earn it. In today’s celebrity-focued culture where one bestseller can establish and enrichen an author for a lifetime, the temptation to breach that trust can be high. But as Donna McAleer so effectively reinforces in her book’s many stories, that which is enduring takes a lifetime of honesty, hard work, sacrifice and commitment. We are reminded more recently by the Berkshire-Hathaway story of David Sokol’s well-timed Lubrizol stock purchases before the company’s takeover. The many years of trust that Warren Buffett built up was quickly called into question in one sudden moment. How history will fare on this topic we will see. But no doubt Mr. Buffett is carefully considering the effect of his actions regarding this situation and its impact on his company’s employees, as he regularly writes about in the company’s letter to shareholders.

    Some of those who quickly earn fame and fortune may unfortunately have to learn the importance of integrity and character at a later time — and with more dire conquences. For those who get it right, it can provide a lifetime of benefits.

  4. Mullins M 1 April 30, 2011 at 12:08 am #

    I have only small scale experience in both writing and fund raising, but I believe with all my heart that one must protect open operations and credibility just like one protects personal word and reputation in dealing with your neighbors. Scale differs but results and impact do not. Failure in either has a ripple effect on those who follow in your organization or share your goals. The poison may be impossible to draw from the victim.

  5. Diane Bracey May 2, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    Well said, Donna. Mortenson’s actions are so regrettable. I am particularly dismayed at how his behavior will affect non-profits in general, and the efforts to help women in developing countries in particular.

  6. donnamcaleer May 7, 2011 at 3:30 am #

    Mortenson is now being sued for fraud—

  7. donnamcaleer May 9, 2011 at 12:29 am #

    Legal action against Greg Mortenson being pursued for fraud, deceit and breach of contract.

  8. Rob Ballister May 9, 2011 at 1:21 am #

    Didn’t hear much about this until I read your piece, but now share your
    anger. There was a way to use the truth to get to his desired result,
    but instead he took the easy road and did much more harm than good.

  9. shwco August 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Despite this thread being months old, I figured it won’t hurt to provide the latest information. First, let me say that on the whole there’s been a huge rush to judgement against Mr. Mortenson and CAI ~ the whole melee has been exciting and in places even constructive. Now for some facts:

    Last week, CAI published its chart of EVERY project they have built and/or funded from the beginning. Check THAT against CBS / JK’s “evidence.” Go to and click on Projects, then Regional Map, then Master List & Key.

    While you’re there, look at their blog, especially entries by guest writers. You’re going to learn a lot!

    Lastly, GM’s attorneys replied to the civil suit against him yesterday and a hearing is set for October.

    So don’t assume that your postings are the final word or even the accurate word on this brouhaha!


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