Greg Mortenson has been a hero of mine for years. As founder of the Central Asia Institute, Greg has been responsible for the building of schools in the remote mountain regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan for years. Motivated out of his love and respect for the people of these remote mountain villages, he has undertaken a cause no other westerner would. And in the process of building his schools, Greg has demonstrated that humanitarian works will always outperform the military actions of an occupying country.
Greg has chronicled his works in two books; Three cups of tea and Stones into schools. Three cups of tea is a New York Times best seller and has garnered Greg the bulk of his media coverage. Greg continues to do speaking engagements for his books and his humanitarian works. I recently just listened to him speak and he is a wonderful speaker.
However, a cloud of doubt has surfaced over Greg and the Central Asia Institute. When the first wisps of problems emerged, I chose to ignore them, assuming that Greg had attracted some gadflies who were jealous of his works. Greg has been recognized by numerous committees who have showered him with awards, he has received 15 honorary degrees and in 2009 he was nominated for Noble Peace Prize. Surely, all of these bodies knew better than me about the works of Greg and Central Asia Institute and I had no doubt they had vetted him for his honesty and integrity.
To listen to Greg speak, is to hear a compelling story. His journey’s into the mountains, his mountain climbing expeditions, his delivery of medical care to the impoverished and his efforts at winning over the rugged and reclusive mountaineers who inhabit these violent regions is simply awe inspiring. I am sure that, those individuals who have recommended Greg for all his awards, his 15 honorary degrees and his Nobel Peace prize, also were in astonishment of him.
Perhaps we were simply too enthralled. Somewhere in all of this hero worship of Greg Mortensen someone forgot to do a little checking of Greg and the Central Asia Institute financial records. It seems that Greg has been doing very well for himself, helping the poor people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact he is just doing a little too well and that is what has raised some eyebrows.
Greg has begun to draw too much attention to himself and the Central Asia Institute. Apparently his use of the Central Asia Institute’s finances as his own, as documented by Jon Krakauer in Three cups of deceit has not gone unnoticed. Multiple defections from the Central Asia Institutes board of directors have left the organization down to only three board members. The industry standard is eleven. And contrary to the nonprofit industry recommendations, Greg is acting as one of his board members. Thus, he is responsible for overseeing himself.
Greg has received multiple pay raises, and now receives a significant six digit salary. In addition to private charters, luxury accommodations when he travels and many other perks from the Institute. I am not here to attack this compensation package. Hefty pay packages are not that uncommon in the nonprofit industry. Although, the Central Asia Institute’s attorneys did warn the board twice that Greg’s substantial compensation package was outside of the industry norms and could be consider excessive. The Central Asia Institutes board of directors chose to disagree with their attorney’s opinions.
However, what is very disturbing to this writer, is the habit of the Central Asia Institute to purchase Greg Mortenson’s books. And, not just a few books mind you. In 2008, the Institute purchased over 1.7 million dollars in books on behalf of Greg. In fact this purchase was so significant, that the Institute recorded it and made a special not on their tax return regarding this expenditure. You can read the 2008 tax return by following the embedded hyperlink.
Greg claims he is able to build a school for about $20,000.00 US dollars in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, by diverting 1.7 million dollars from schools to your Three cups of tea, how many schools could have been built, 85 of them.
But where does this money to buy the Three cups of tea come from? Why, it comes from your donations to Greg and the Central Asia Institute. But if Greg is using my donations to buy his books, where to the book royalties go you may wonder? The book royalties go back to Greg and not the Central Asia Institute according to Mr. Krakauer and his Three cups of deceit book.
In fact, the Central Asia Institute even mentions this practice in a written response to a 60 Minutes inquiry and comments how by buying the books they consider this good will and advertising. Well, that is fine, but did you really need to spend 1.7 million dollars on books, when you only made 14.2 million in 2008 and you only spent 3.9 million in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Mr. Mortensen your math is not making sense here. I encourage everyone to review the Central Asia Institutes tax returns themselves.
The tide of goodwill that Greg Mortenson has created is rapidly falling apart and in its place is a terrible layer of lies, deceit and cheating. Outside magazine, my most favorite of magazines has been a huge supporter of Greg Mortenson for years. They have reconstructed some of the adventures of Greg and now find them to be physically not possible. In their July, 2011 issue the Christopher Keyes, editor, issues a stunning mea culpa regarding Greg and the Central Asia Institute. Using very harsh rhetoric, Mr. Keyes describes Greg Mortenson as “a flawed individual with a troubling relationship with the truth”.
Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute are in serious trouble. The tide of hero worship is turning against Greg. The Montana Attorney Generals office has announced an investigation into the organization. A donor has filed a lawsuit. The media is investigating and determining there to be serious questions and practices within with the organization.
If Greg is to salvage the Central Asia Institute, now is the time to come forward and develop some long needed reforms. Greg needs to step away from the board, he needs to attract a strong board and be willing to adhere to the board. And he needs to stop buying his books with donor’s monies! Greg has made tremendous accomplishments and he deserves credit, however, if continues to behave in the manner that has been outlined by his critics, no one should continue to support the Central Asia Institute.