If you’ve been paying attention to the headlines lately, there is a scandal once again in the publishing industry. This time, it surrounds the accuracy of the best selling book “Three Cups of Tea” co-written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.
This book was passed on to me by my mother who knew that I would find the story about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan inspiring. She was right. Like so many others, I loved the book which detailed Mortenson’s struggles to raise money for his Central Asian Institute (CAI) and educate children most of whom are girls. Three Cups of Tea made Mortenson look like a hero and it raised millions for his projects in the most remote regions of the earth.
But word has recently come out that the book may not be entirely truthful. With a report on 60 minutes and an essay by author Jon Krakauer, a dark shadow has been cast over Three Cups of Tea and the entire Central Asian Institute. The allegations include embellishment of the adventures of Mortenson in Afghanistan, mismanagement of funds and exaggeration of the number of schools built. Krakauer, an early supporter, obviously felt like he had been slapped in the face and called the book “a beautiful story and it’s a lie”. I’m sure that other supporters have since felt the same way.
It’s very unfortunate that all the good that Mortenson has done (and I’m sure there has been considerable good) will be overshadowed by these allegations, whether true or not. We haven’t yet heard from the complete story from the person at the center of the controversy; he is scheduled for surgery which may or may not be a convenient excuse to escape the glare of publicity. The details will unfold with time but whatever happens, there are some important lessons to be learned for for all non-profits who operate in faraway lands.
Transparency. It is absolutely essential that a non-profit be very open about the flow of money; where it comes from and where it is going. Annual statements should be posted which clearly state how every donor dollar is spent.
Treat donors with utmost respect. Thanks to their money, the organization can grow and make changes in the world. Supporters will find out sooner or later if management is being irresponsible with their donations.
Don’t spread the organization too thin. It’s important to complete projects but it’s even more important to make sure completed projects are still functional six months, a year and ten years down the line. In this sense, a project is never truly completed and time as well as resources must be allocated to maintain it.
Learn from other’s mistakes. Organizations have found out the hard way that building beautiful schools in remote areas is not enough. Schools need great teachers and motivated students or else these are just empty buildings full of good intentions.
Remain humble. The people we are trying to help don’t need to be “saved”. We need to work together to improve their lives and they can help us as much as we can help them.
It is possible to make big differences with a small number of people. I think it is safe to say that Mortenson built the Institute from scratch and changed the lives of thousands of people. That is incredibly inspirational. For that reason alone, we shouldn’t bury him under a pile of bad press.
I started The Savong Foundation whose mission is to support two orphanages and an English Language School in northern Cambodia. Please check out our facebook page or the websites www.savong.com and www.savongorphanage.com.