Tempest in a Teapot - Central Asia Institute

I have been watching the ripple effects of the allegations of misuse of funds by Three Cups of Tea author and charity founder, Greg Mortensen.  Mr. Mortensen has been accused of spending donor dollars to promote his book, and more importantly that what he says he is promoting is not what is happening on the ground.

There are two common approaches to fundraising for international development and crisis relief:

  1. Touch on the emotion
  2. Tie the story back to current events

In this case focusing on the poor children living in Taliban ruled, war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan played on the backdrop of US anti-Taliban sentiments, the movements from other NGO's to ensure access to education for women and girls, and the charisma of the celebrities and others made for a good story.  A story, that when published, was able to generate a lot of revenue, which in turn was able to be leveraged for other donations.

So here's where things get muddy... when you mix emotions with the business of philanthropy...

There is a basic premise is that you have to spend money to make money.  Marketing budget dollars by charities should be used to attract new donors (i.e. promoting a book) and fundraising budget dollars should be used to retain those donors.  There has to be an understanding between the donor and the charity what the donors' dollars are being used for.  It is my belief, that if the charity discloses that they will be spending on marketing, the donor can then decide if this is what s/he wants to support.  By instituting policies that prevent charities from telling their story effectively, we are setting up a system that encourages organizations to "hide" how they spend their marketing dollars.

Was Mr. Mortensen wrong?  Depends.  It depends on what the actual perceived benefit is to the Central Asia Institute, Mr. Mortensen, the communities that are being supported by his agency; balanced against the emotional and financial contributions of those who supported him.  At the end of the day, the buck stops with the Board of Directors.  It is up to them to ensure that their organization is being responsible and the messaging is accurate.

Just as it is up to the board to manage the organization, it is up to the donors to ensure that their donation is being used properly.  How would the donor's know in this case?  Ask.  But also understand the context in which the information is being given.  In this case, the story sold books.  At the end of the day, the more books sold, the more money (conceivably) would go towards building schools.  If this is happening, the donor then has to weigh how much of the story has to be true?  At the core of this organization is one man's desire (and he is cooperating in the investigation) to help children have access to education.  His process of raising awareness and revenue is to tell his story through book sales.  Unfortunately he over exaggerated parts of his story that has subsequently led to his organization being discredited and his work undervalued.  The downstream effect?  More people will be more hesitant to donate to charities operating in that region (sigh...); more people will start to ask more questions before they give (yay!); government may start working with charities to be more accountable (yay!); and board members will start being more engaged in the organizations that they are involved with (yay!); public consumers of goods associated with charities will start to ask what the motivations are behind purchasing that product - whether it is a book, or a pink cowboy hat, or a little red dress (yay!).