by Tamara A.
“…education is a sacred thing, and the pledge to build a school is a commitment that cannot be surrendered or broken, regardless of how long it may take, how many obstacles must be surmounted, or how much money it will cost.”
-Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
Nobody can argue with this statement. This was the underlying idea for Greg Mortenson’s sequel, Stones into Schools, and it was a solid foundation that nearly everyone could support. And they did. Again, his book ended up on the New York Times bestselling list and it generated a giant wave of donations to the Central Asia Institute (CAI).
However, the book merely built onto the deceit that began in Three Cups of Tea.
It was true that Mortenson went to help children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was true that he decided to build schools in rural villages where education had not been promoted. And it was true that these buildings schooled some child that would have otherwise been able to be a part of a classroom setting. What is not true was the teamwork and financial situation that Mortenson reported in the book.
It is difficult to accomplish a lot as an individual. Not saying that nothing can be done, but it is really within the efforts of a cohesive team that large, remarkable changes are achieved. For example, in Edge of Seven, Erin is an amazing director. However, there are so many facets to successfully operating her organization that it takes the assistance of the team surrounding her to effectively reach out to the public, recruit the volunteers and donors, complete the projects, and execute the fundraisers. It is just too much for one person to take on alone.
For this team to operate efficiently, openness, honesty, and trust is required among the members. This is where Mortenson fell short.
As word spread about CAI and Mortenson began to find supporters, his team fell into place. He had a strong board to help support his activity made up of influential individuals involved in the philanthropy and mountaineering worlds, and he found some motivated individuals to help him operate on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet the relationship between the team members and their team leader was severely strained due to the lack of full disclosure.
This primarily came in the way of financial reporting. From the formation of CAI, various board members, especially the CFOs, continually requested reports and receipts from Mortenson for his activity abroad. He continuously refused to supply such information to the board or his staff. Without this information, it resulted in forged documents for audits, inaccurate figures to the public, the veiling of financial mismanagement, and mounting turmoil between the board members and the director. It was destroying the organization from within and was tearing the team apart. In 2002, four board members resigned because they felt they could not work in such a dishonest environment any longer.
The deceit came to a head in another way as well. In 2010, following the release of the second book, the leaders of the Balistan region held a meeting to discuss how Mortenson misrepresented them in his writing, portraying their land as a “breeding ground for terrorists”. This was clearly an offensive accusation, as well as inaccurate, and it resulted in him being banned from the region. Consequently, Parvi, who was a large piece of the ground operations in Pakistan, quit because of the dishonesty towards the innocent people that were working with and for Mortenson.
Overall, failure to communicate with and trust in the team led to the internal struggles for CAI and caused Mortenson’s support to disintegrate. Whether it was being too proud to share his work or being too greedy for the monetary benefits, I don’t understand it. But there is a lesson for individuals and organizations to learn. Hiding elements of your work, especially from those that are working with you, is a dangerous game. It is important to embrace a fully open relationship with your teammates…and even more important to transfer this transparency onto your supporters. (More on that in Part 3.)
Information pulled from John Krakauer’s expose entitled “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson – Humanitarian Hero – Lost His Way.”