Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three Cups of Tea: Another Wake Up Call for the Nonprofit World?

I have been following closely the developments around Three Cups of Tea and accusations against its author, Greg Mortensen in the lastest "60 Minutes" episode. The documentary as well as the ebook Three Cups of Deceit (downloadable for free until April 20th) written by Jon Krakauer accuses Greg Mortensen seemingly of all the worst sins: falsification of the story of how he came to the idea of building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, lying about being taken hostage by Taliban, mismanaging CAI funds (Central Asia Institute, the nonprofit Mortensen founded to fund building schools), and worst of the worst lying about how many schools CAI has built and how many of them are functioning.

I have to admit that I haven't read Three Cups of Tea (and probably never will), even though I did get a copy of it for inspirational and enlightening reading. Ha, little did I know... Nevertheless, I have been introduced to Mortensen's work through Half The Sky, a truly wonderful book by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as well as reading and hearing about Three Cups of Tea on the TV and online. Just last month I was absolutely thrilled to learn that Mortensen was scheduled for a speaking engagement at my university. However, I learnt about it too late and the event was all booked as all his events are. So, you see, as many of you, I was his fan even without reading the book.

Then I hear about the upcoming documentary (couldn't watch it-no cable) and then I read the ebook that the documentary was probably based on, as Brett Keller suggests in his post The Tea Test. It felt as if I could see Mortensen falling off his "hero throne", truly saddening and devastating, not for him, but for me and for the whole nonprofit world. Because if he really did lie and did mismanage donors' money, and didn't build the schools he said he would, I can't imagine such a person being touched or upset by the situation he currently finds himself in. I would imagine he is scared for his reputation and money, but not upset. One question that really bothers me is WHY? Why did Mortensen do all this? If he really didn't give a damn about kids in rural Pakistan, why did he promise to build a school there? Even if the promise was given "in the heat of the moment", like sort of a revelation, why did he actually followed up on it? Surely the men from rural Pakistan were not going to follow Mortensen all the way to America and demand him to fulfill his promise?!

But enough about Mortensen: his personal motives and repercussions are not that important. For me, there is a bigger lesson to learn from this scandal:
If even the best of us, fall so low, if even the most renown and admired nonprofits turn out to be so poorly managed and do so little good (in comparison with what they claim), what about the rest of us? How does an average nonprofit worker perform his/her duties, how does an average nonprofit CEO manage donors' or taxpayers' money, how much good does an average nonprofit actually do?
These are the questions we, as a nonprofit community, have to think about and try to find answers for.

Please, check out the following wonderful and really insightful posts on the subject from my fellow aid bloggers:
What Mortensen Got Wrong by Peter Hessler
Three Cups of BS by Alanna Shaikh
Lessons learned from ‘Three Cups of Tea by Akhila Kolisetty
Three Cups of … by Penelope M.C.
Three Cups of Lies? by Tom Murphy
A great compilation of posts and articles on the subject on Good Intentions Are Not Enough by Saundra S.


  1. This particular case epitomizes why a certain segment of of blogosphere writes about the effectiveness of aid programs and charities. Most DIY aid organizations don’t like partnerships or collaborations because they are afraid of scrutiny. They want to create their own standards and rules to follow. Everyone wants to be a hero. The founders of these DIY organizations fear that someone else may get credit for their ideas and accomplishments. I call this the “Nobel Syndrome”. Being transparent might jeopardize their egotistical dreams of standing on a stage in Oslo and accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for their outstanding contributions toward humanity.

    These are some of my observations regarding the subject.

    Slactivism in Africa | Independent Global Citizen

  2. That's a very interesting point, Michael. Me and my friend were discussing the same thing, just from a little bit different angle. There are so many NGOs out there, many of whom do the same thing... But at the same time, some of them don't do their work the right way and when you get a position in such organization a lot of time nobody listens to you and your ideas for organization's improvement. That's probably why such organizations don't get results in their work to begin with: because when employees in an organization don't respect each other's professional opinions, you rarely get work done.

    Sorry, I got away from the subject... So there are many NGOs because of- as you say -the "Nobel Syndrome", but maybe also because some people don't want to work for inefficient nonprofits, where no one listens to them...So they found their own nonprofits! Maybe we have to work more on partnerships, improving existing nonprofits, enforcing standards, spending more money on organizations as Charity Navigator, than creating new ones?

  3. This just makes us wonder even deeper about who do we really want to work for. How can we really make a difference in the world if we can't trust the organizations. For all I remember in our college years we thought non-profit was the answer to solve the problems of those who don't have a voice. Now what? I think it is a matter of implementing structures and guidelines, but then again people can tweak almost anything to achieve their goals of looking like Michael said the Heros.

  4. I agree with Katherine: enforced regulations is what makes industries work. In its 14 years of existence CAI released only 1(!) audited financial statement, being a registered 501 (c)3 nonprofit and getting millions of dollars from donors and using taxpayer's money. And nobody said a thing about it! That was possible despite the existence of many so-called nonprofit watchdogs, who were probably as blinded by Mortensen's heroic story as all of us were.

  5. The biggest problem is some of these Non Profits despite their good intentions are designed to fail. Inadequate planning, and other factors combine to ensure that their impact is near zero. Non profits should be registered by government officials who should monitor their activities, its not rare to find 1,000 non profits in an area with 300 people, what are they doing, and who authorizes them to work.

  6. This is so true, Cavin: good intentions are soo not enough! But at the same time I am not sure if government oversight going to do any good for the effectiveness of nonprofits. If you take Russia for example, there the government has a very tight control over nonprofit sphere and practically tells nonprofits what they can and cannot do. This is too much. In US it's the opposite: within the free market economy it's really easy to start your own nonprofit. I would say we need to create one regulatory body for nonprofits, kind of like a board of directors for all nonprofits, so that it can tighten up regulations and improve oversight. What do you think?