Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not Quite My Three Cups of Tea

I've had several people (OK, just one, but y'know that's all it takes to spark blog fodder 'round here) ask my opinion on the controversy surrounding author/humanitarian/philanthropist Greg Mortenson and his bestselling book, 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 haven't read Three Cups of Tea (and I don't plan to, especially now) but 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.


Heather said...

I had read the book a while back, but hadn't heard of the more recent controversy. sigh.

Now The Blue Sweater and @jnovogratz---that is an amazing book and organization.

Elizabeth said...

I guess I have the cynical reader viewpoint that any book read by that many people and making that much money is suspect. I know that's a romantic view of great literature, anyway -- but that's me. I really couldn't have cared less about the James Frey debacle, finding it more interesting how people flock like lemmings to certain books and then join in the stone-throwing when they are deemed unacceptable, but this Three Cups of Tea thing is grotesque given the financial stuff that you mentioned.

Here's to hoping we don't hear about it endlessly, though, right? said...

I actually love to hate James Frey, because he's such a tool, but if what CBS and Krakauer allege is true about Mortenson, I think that's just sad. Luckily, I didn't send any money, even though I did enjoy the book or at least the story when I did read it.

Yogi♪♪♪ said...

That book was on my tbr list but not now. The whole thing shows how credibility is so important. When people think they are being lied to, they stop reading the books and writing the checks.

I am suspicious of some autobiographies. I can't see how people in their 70's can remember details of the childhood. Some of my most treasured memories have been described as not happening by my parents and siblings. Some of the stuff they describe I swear didn't happen. Memories are very unreliable.

Caitie F said...

I don't get why all the suspicion with this book in particular. He helped build schools that educated girls in areas run by the Taliban, who think it is wrong to educate girls. He had TONS of issues getting these schools in, so maybe once he left, they were burned down. It happened while they were building and mentioned in the book.

I think this is controversy just to be controversy/

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

Three Cups of Tea was a book club choice last year. I didn't read it. I was tired of the hype. I didn't really think he was as awesome as he was cracked up to be.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Thanks for this post, Melissa. I've been contemplating what to write about this whole deal -- it's so frustrating! -- but don't think I'll have anything this articulate. I haven't read any of his books, and I don't think I'm going to.

Lenore said...

I've been reading a lot about this because our book club picked this book to discuss at the beginning of May. I've not read much of it, and I'm not inclined to now. I did read the article at byliner. Just sad all around.

Jodie said...

I can actually see GM getting away with 'stretching the truth' much easier than JF ever did. Lots of people are going to talk about how 'at least he's doing something' and I might have felt the same way a few years ago before getting a crash net course in some basics of effective charity work. Of course if it turns out he's misappropriated funds he'll be jumped on harder (as he should be)but I bet people forgive any stretching of truth around just how effective his projects were, or just how much people benefited from his work.