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.
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.
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.