October 8, 2014 by Debra Gittler

SELLING VISION VERSUS THE TRUTH.

Greg Mortenson, famous for his heroic work establishing schools in Afghanistan through the NGO Central Asia Institution (CAI), as told in his best-selling book Three Cups of Tea, is trying to make a come-back after humiliating press about his poor-use of funds, inaccurate reporting about results, and general manipulation of truth to raise—and spend—money. Lots and lots of money.

I know I should be outraged by Mortenson. While attending Harvard Graduate School of Education, in the class Social Entrepreneurship and Education—the class that inspired me to launch ConTextos, where I met founding board member Tony Barash—I studied Mortenson’s organization. We looked at his 990 and a myriad of articles and primary sources. Even then, the numbers were impressive; how much he had raised; how little of it being spent on programming was suspicious even then. Perhaps because he was an initial inspiration, though, I find myself feeling deep compassion for his plight. Having started and struggled to rally people to a cause, a region, a vision, I feel for Mortenson.

His work didn’t come easy to him. It took Mortenson years to raise money for the first school. And in those pre-9-11 days, no one was thinking about Afghanistan and the Middle East. At least, it didn’t perpetrate the (inter)national psyche.

I feel the same way about working in El Salvador and Central America. A smattering of press clearly explains that the Northern Triangle countries have the highest violence and homicide rates in the world. But where is the international rallying cry? Why aren’t we screaming for education as a solution to violence in Central America, the way Malala’s recent Nobel prize put “Books not Bombs” as front-and-center as a tactic to confront violence in the Middle East.

I admire Mortenson’s commitment to stick to his vision for so long, even though the process was so slow. Mortenson’s ability to rally the public around his vision is an inspiration for ConTextos and me—we hope to do the same to the realities in Central America. I empathize with being committed to a region that the world seems to ignore.

I know Mortenson misused his funds. And I can’t justify that. But I also know what happens when you run a start-up and that start-up grows into a young organization. The information and contacts are all in the Founder’s head. Slowly, a staff and organizational structure are built. For instance, for ConTextos, in the first two years every contact, donation and volunteer was a personal relationship. Even while building institutional strength, it’s hard to break those habits. Especially since so many relationships stay in limbo for so long; so, when do you know the moment to institutionalize a relationship, a process?

The first year, when ConTextos ran on just $40,000 I was barely taking a salary. (Even now, compared to friends and colleagues with similar or less experience, you could argue that I’m making a sad salary… but I love the work!) ConTextos’ institutional finances and my personal finances were intertwined—we used my card, an account in my name (and in El Salvador, in the Assistant Director’s name) while waiting for legal status. Then, the process to legalize was so much more difficult than just moving money from one account to another: banks and legalities in multiple countries, tax-codes and fines…  Three years later, ConTextos is still overwhelmed by constant changes in law and lack of communication between various government branches, challenges typical in developing nations.

I know better than to spend ConTextos’ funds on clothes (shame on you, Mr. Mortenson!) but I also know there’s a double standard: CEOs of big companies can expense their bills as work-related expenses. I can empathize with Mortenson: after years of being broke for your passion, a commitment, it can be hard to know the lines. Not excusable to make these kinds of mistakes, but not necessarily a sign of deliberate manipulation. At least, I hope it wasn’t deliberate manipulation. I like having Mortenson as a hero, as a mentor, as something to strive toward.

The area where I find myself most compassionate, perhaps, is about programmatic success. Donors, the public, need to hear success stories. In my experience, even the most seasoned and aware supporters often have simplistic concepts about how to motivate change, especially within the education field. From what I understand, some of the schools funded by CAI are empty, with no students in attendance; some schools are never built. There’s a total lack of transparency in terms of how money is used and the relationship between programmatic spending and programmatic impact.

And, according to the Post article, these conundrums aren’t that different from the US government’s own reporting and knowledge about the schools they directly fund.

Again, I can’t justify Mortenson’s oversights or apparent dishonesty, but knowing how challenging it is working in El Salvador, I imagine it must be even harder in Afghanistan. And that being said, the linear process between planning and programming that we expect in the US and developed-nations just isn’t always possible in developed countries.

For instance, this year, as we streamlined our processes to test for scalability of our Teacher Training model, we were blindsided by the challenges of a presidential election, of political corruption, of local distrust within the communities we serve. I’m exceedingly proud of ConTextos’ and our staff’s commitment to honesty and patience. But as a result, it’s taken us longer to achieve less than we thought (timelines must be extended, the organization takes on additional costs…) As we grow, I’m both terrified and vigilant to avoid the traps of growing the bank account while ignoring the impact; careful not to sacrifice quality for quantity.

But my own vigilance—in addition to an incredible governing board—is partially based on what I’ve learned from Mortenson.

Providing total transparency to donors is hard: they want to hear that their donation can save the world. My job is to convince them that it will. Mortenson’s downfall has taught me to be more honest with donors. It’s not as sexy as just selling them inspiration.

I can’t lie: I haven’t followed the Mortenson scandal in detail. I saw Krakauer’s interview on 60 Minutes years ago. I’ve read both of Mortenson’s books. And kept abreast of the scandal as it unwound. But I’ve always been resistant to looking too closely.

I guess what it comes down to: Mortenson’s job, like my own, is to inspire. But inspiration is hard to sell when it comes packaged with the nitty-gritty. People want heroes, but feel bluntly disappointed to find out that those heroes are human.

Like I said, I can’t justify or condone Mortenson’s dishonesty. But I do empathize with how hard it is to implement transformational interventions that resonate with the communities we serve and the donors we honor. I know how hard, as a Founder, it can be to separate the work born out of passion and commitment with the organizations that prioritize business acumen and transparent growth. I know how hard it is to transition from the habit of always having to make one dollar count as two, toward running a business with firm sense of finances based on programmatic experiences, not just guesses.

So, yeah… I feel for Mortenson. And I hope he makes this come-back tour the first step in a long and successful second act.

But mostly, I feel for the millions of kids and hundreds of communities that aren’t getting help anymore because of the mistrust planted by this scandal. And not just those served by CAI. The Greg Mortenson scandal hurts us all: as recipients of funds, we must be ever more vigilant toward running a business rather than just prioritizing programmatic work. And as givers and supporters, there must always be an edge of suspicion even in the most inspired moments.

Like I said, I don’t condone Mortenson, but I feel for him.

And I’m grateful. For the initial inspiration from his maybe-not-so-true story. And for the lessons that even—or especially—when running the business of change, we can’t cut any corners.

Clic here to read the article from The Washington Post.

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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