Burning more than trust

When a charity bombshell explodes, like the revelation that significant parts of author/activist Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea and his charity Central Asia Institute are fraudulent, there are collateral victims.

When a charity bombshell explodes, like the revelation that significant parts of author/activist Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea and his charity Central Asia Institute are fraudulent, there are collateral victims.

Not least the girls in Pakistan villages, who might have received a better share of the millions Mortenson and his institute collected to build schools. Nor the thousands of North American school children who gave up lunch money to Mortenson’s Pennies for Peace campaign, thinking they were doing some good in the world.

Yes, schools have been built in many villages in remote areas of the impoverished country. But of 30 schools CAI claimed to have built that were visited by CBS’s 60 Minutes, half were sitting incomplete or empty, and many of the rest were run by other charities.

Yes, the school children who gave up something of themselves for Pennies for Peace still make the world better. To be a donor is to be a whole individual — acts of charity benefit in both directions.

The collateral damage extends to hundreds of other genuine, well-managed charities, working to educate girls in countries that don’t value girls, and even to others here at home.

When you can’t trust that your donations will be used to accomplish the stated goals, the efforts of well-meaning people working on street-level causes are damaged.

In the fire and smoke around Greg Mortenson, since the revelations about his book and activities, few have yet come forward to say that he has not meant well — especially among those who claim to know him best. It’s just that his inspirational book contains lies, and that his charities are conflicted, poorly managed, and falsely credited.

Those pennies collected by school children added up to about $1.7 million. Campaign expenses came to around $612,000. Mortenson flies around the world on charter jets, and it costs $30,000 to get a spot on his busy speaking schedule. But his engagements are about selling his book, for which the charities get nothing.

Mortenson himself has made big donations to CAI from his fees and royalties; you’d think he should, right?

Rather, this is looking like one of those cases where someone would not let facts get in the way of a good story, who was totally unprepared for the financial success it engendered, and completely unwilling to take good advice along the way.

Here in Red Deer, charities spend a lot of fundraised dollars making it clear that their activities are honest. If you can’t get a copy of a public charity’s latest audit or annual financial statement, you probably should donate somewhere else.

But that’s the rub. Too many people get caught up in the romance of Three Cups of Tea, send in a donation, and believe their work is done. Meanwhile, they close their eyes to poverty and pain in their own cities.

Saving girls in Pakistan is sexy, especially when it can be done with it for $20. Helping a neighbour who has been ground down by a disability and poverty is a lot harder, and more long-term.

And when trust is broken between the workers and the donors, it feels like staring at a burnt-out house.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.