Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Not Quite My Three Cups of Tea
If you know not of which I speak, Three Cups of Tea is a hugely, mega-successful memoir about Mortenson's efforts to build schools for girls in remote villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's a best-seller that has dramatically increased Mortenson's visability as head of Central Asia Institute (the nonprofit he founded to fund the construction of the schools) as well as CAI's bank account. Mortenson's follow up book, Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, offers up more of the same.
And depending on your interpretation, Three Cups of Tea is either an outright lie or an embellishment of the facts (which, in my opinion, makes Stones Into Schools suspect as well) or literary license run amuk ... or some combination of the above.
CBS News' 60 Minutes has been investigating Mortenson, and the transcript of the story that ran on Sunday evening (April 17) is well worth the read. Among other things, 60 Minutes' reporting claims that Central Asia Institute's funds are being mismanaged (one audit in 14 years, more money spent on promoting Greg Mortenson and his books than the schools of which he writes, etc.) and that many of the stories of the schools themselves are exaggerated and perhaps not even true at all. His publisher is reportedly investigating the allegations (also supported by novelist Jon Krakauer, who donated $75,000 to Central Asia Institute) too.
I did listen to Stones Into Schools on audio. (I commented to several people that I hadn't read Three Cups, and they said that the two books were very similiar.)
Some commentators have said that the embellishment of the stories (if such is the case) isn't that big of a deal. We've certainly seen cases before (most notably with James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces) and all the hand-wringing and "what does this mean for the future of publishing?" agita that results.
But the Three Cups of Tea brew-ha-ha is different. The issue here, as I see it, is more than whether or not Mortenson's accounts in his book are true. It's that the stories in Three Cups of Tea (which may or may not be true) are ones that are the very basis for his multi-million dollar charitable organization.
Ironically, that was one of the problems I had with Stones Into Schools. There simply weren't enough stories about the students in the schools he'd raised millions upon millions of dollars to build. I wrote in my review that "[t]he stories of the actual students in schools were my favorite parts of the book, although there weren't as many of those as I'd expected .... I wanted more stories about the girls themselves, what they were learning (we never really got much of an insight into this until briefly at the very end), how their lives were transformed because of having the school and what they wound up doing."
At the time I was reading Stones, Pakistan was dealing with torrential floods. So I looked on Central Asia Institute's website, expecting to find sorrowful stories of students unable to go to school because of the floods, or entire schools wiped out ... or something. An appeal for donations or a special campaign to assist the victims ... anything. Hell, I probably would have written Greg a check if there had been.
No stories about the students and how they were doing in the midst of a major catastrophe struck me as odd because stories are the big buzzword now in the nonprofit world, and to some extent, they always have been. People who do what I do for a living are constantly being told we have to "tell our story" and to "share our story." Why? So people (i.e., potential and current donors) will identify with the people we serve and will support - and continue to support - the worthy causes of our organizations. A story gives someone a tangible example of a problem or a cause, rather than just facts and numbers and statistics. We want to feel invested in people's lives, to know that we (and our dollars) are making a difference.
There's nothing wrong with telling stories. It's the very basis of philanthropy. And in some cases - particularly in situations where confidentiality is an issue - then sometimes names or identifying details need to be changed. I've had many of those scenarios in many of the development communications I've written. In those cases, it's a best practice to state such right from the get-go. But donors expect - no, they often demand - to know what is happening with their money and the lack of stories with Central Asia Institute gave me significant pause.
So now I'm wondering ... was that because there weren't many (or any) stories to tell?
If the stories were embellished or fictionalized in Three Cups of Tea (and/or Stones Into Schools) in order to attract donations for Central Asia Institute, that's a major problem - and one that the philanthropic world needs to take note of.
It's just as great of a problem - or greater, I think - than if the funds raised weren't used as the donors intended them to be used (to support the building of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the education of the girls in those regions).
There doesn't seem to be much dispute that there were schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan through Greg Mortenson's work and leadership with Central Asia Institute. And nobody is disputing whether the cause of girls' education in remote and impoverished areas is a worthy one - it certainly is. The questions revolve about how many actual schools, and what the money was spent on, and what percentage actually went to the programs itself. All of these are questions that nonprofit managers get every day, with every grant proposal and from every funder we talk to. Transparency is the name of the game, and those who have questions of whether Central Asia Institute's donors were misled (and if that was on purpose) are justified in asking them and receiving timely, solid answers.
Central Asia Institute certainly isn't the first nonprofit to be caught in a show-me-the-money type of scandal and unfortunately, it won't be the last.
But until this is sorted out - and the fact that people feel deceived - makes this a very bitter cup of tea to swallow.
copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.