May 11, 2015

Three Cups of Tea author’s charity rebounding after scandal




If your bestselling book gets exposed as a sham built on lies, it’s hard to know how quickly the public will forgive. Especially when, as is usually the case, there’s money involved—money that extends beyond book sales.

In the case of Australian cookbook author Belle Gibson, who recently admitted that she had never survived cancer, the lie upon which her health and wellness book/app moneymaker was founded, she won’t be prosecuted for failing to donate $300,000 to charity, though her assets will be liquidated to make up for it. The full ramifications of her deceit have yet to be determined, though it’s safe to say she won’t be appearing on your Apple Watch anytime soon.

However, in the case of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, if not for his personal reputation. Instead, it appears that redemption has come to the Central Asia Institute, the charity he co-founded and which became embroiled in scandal when his book’s claims were revealed as fabrications and their excessive spending was heavily criticized.

Via the Centre Daily Times:

More than 1,270 donors who stopped giving money to the Bozeman-based organization over the past two years have contributed this year, and total donations are about $100,000 higher than the $1.7 million at this time in 2014, according to Central Asia Institute officials. The charity builds schools and promotes education in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

“There is certainly an ‘Under New Management’ sign hanging outside, and the organization, frankly, is run substantially better,” Executive Director Jim Thaden said Thursday.

Mortenson’s books claimed to tell the story of his humanitarian mission to bring schools to rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, and with their success and popularity of Three Cups of Tea came a heightened profile of the CAI, as well as a surge in donations to the tune of over $20 million. However, in 2011 both Jon Krakeuer and 60 Minutes called many of Mortenson’s stories from the book into question, with Krakauer’s criticism in the form of Three Cups Of Deceit, which is both an ebook and titlewise one of the sickest burns of the last decade. Criticism also focused on the charity’s management of funds, or lack thereof, accusing the CAI of spending more money on Mortenson’s book- and speaking-related events than they actually did on the schools they built.

After the scandal broke, Mortenson’s co-author committed suicide and Mortenson was eventually ordered by the Montana state’s attorney to repay $1,000,000 to the CAI as well as abdicate his seat on the charity’s board. Since then, other than a mea sorta culpa he gave to Tom Brokaw last year, Mortenson’s stayed quiet, and was last heard from having returned to Afghanistan to return to teaching at the CAI’s schools and apparently atone for his deceit.

The CAI, meanwhile, went right to work repairing its reputation. Though its annual donations dropped by almost 1000% in 2013, they appear to have freed itself from the radioactivity of Mortenson’s lies and flimflammery.

The Montana attorney general’s office recently ended its strict oversight of how the Central Asia Institute implements the settlement agreement. Attorney general spokesman John Barnes said his agency determined the charity has followed the settlement’s terms and is more accountable than it was in 2011.

However, a charity watchdog organization named, appropriately, Charity Watch, isn’t so sure. CharityWatch was one of the first to call CAI’s operations into question back in 2011.

Chief among CharityWatch’s concerns is Mortenson’s continued employment with the Central Asia Institute. Mortenson earned $169,000 in salary and benefits in 2013. He also is a nonvoting board member, which [CharityWatch President David] Borochoff said raised questions about the level of influence Mortenson still wields.

Additionally, Central Asia Institute’s website still links to Mortenson’s books, but the organization doesn’t receive any royalties, Borochoff said.

That the CAI has attempted to commit to transparency and repair its reputation is admirable. Charitable donations, whether made due to altruism or for tax purposes, are done by choice, so while CharityWatch can only discourage donations, it would appear that the CAI is attempting to play it straight, by doing exactly what a charity should; providing for the downtrodden while keeping operational costs low. If they can outlast the whiff of Mortenson’s misdeeds, then they have managed to do what so many other corporations don’t despite being treated under the law like the people they aren’t; change for the better.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.