Building On Sand?

Like many in the philanthropic community, I am following with great interest the developments  surrounding Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute (CAI), following a recent 60 Minutes report alleging improprieties.  Few stories in recent memory have touched the public like this one.  His book, Three Cups of Tea, is an inspiring and motivating book relating  Mortenson’s dramatic epiphany and subsequent commitment to building schools in Afghanistian and Pakistan, especially for the benefit of girls’ education there.  But the 60 Minutes story calls into question the accuracy of Mortenson’s tale as well as his stewardship of millions of dollars in contributions to CAI.

Without any direct replies from Mortenson to-date, the 60 Minutes expose’ is no more than an allegation thus far, though Mortenson and his aides have admitted that some parts of the story “may have been compressed.”  In any case, this is a sad and disappointing turn of events.

If the allegations turn out to be unfounded or exaggerated, the shame will be on 60 Minutes for wounding, perhaps gravely, the reputation of one man who appears to have done a great deal of good in two countries wherein a great deal of good needs to be done.   There is little denial that Mortenson has made a difference in the lives of many young people in these countries, and raised a tremendous amount of awareness here in the U.S.  If the 60 Minutes report turns out to be misguided, journalistic sensationalism, then we are all poorer for that.

On the other hand, if the epose’ turns out to be even partially accurate, then we are all the poorer as dupes to the fraudulent and self-serving motives of a common huckster.  We have all experienced the feeling of embarrassment and humiliation at being deceived by some persuasive pitchman, but somehow it hurts even more deeply when the basis of the “pitch” involves vulnerable lives.  Cynicism thrives on such occurrences and renders all charitable acts suspect.

I’ve read Mortenson’s first book.  I’ve listened to him speak; he is as humble and unassuming as anyone I’ve ever heard.  I’ve even met him, and have come away with an excitement and inspiration such as a teenager might feel after meeting a favorite pop star.  To meet a seemingly ordinary man who has accomplished great things for the poor and disenfranchised is a hopeful and motivating experience, and one that I have treasured.  I’m very disappointed to learn of even a hint of impropriety in Mortenson’s work.  Time will tell the impact it may have on Mortenson or any of the rest of us, in fact.

I’m unpleasantly surprised at the allegations against Mortenson and CAI, although upon reflection, maybe I shouldn’t be.  One thing that I have learned since entering the field of philanthropy is that despite the altruistic faces of many charitable organizations, there are other drivers of activity at work in many, as well.  Some organizations appear to be motivated primarily by how much money they can place, so that they may point with pride to the extent of their largesse, regardless of whether such financial placements actually make sense to the recipients or not.  Great sums placed mean greater sums received from donors.  Bigger is better?

Others apparently embrace an “everything invented here” attitude, where the only good methodologies are the ones invented by themselves.  Again, there is fundraising strength in being able to claim that “our methodology is the most successful, the leading edge.”  Only in the rare case of, say, a Muhammad Yunnus and his notion of microlending, are such organizations reluctantly willing to adopt outside ideas.

Still others seem to be motivated by a “messiah complex,”  where the initiatives are seemingly created for the self-aggrandizement of a founder or principle donor.  Outcomes are less important here than personal recognition, and contributions are almost never anonymous.  Looking good is a higher priority than doing good.

I suppose all three of those profiles can apply to individuals, as well as organizations.  And maybe motives for doing almost anything can be made to seem self-serving.  But Greg Mortenson would be neither the first nor the last to be swept up in the need to create an heroic persona built on a foundation of shifting sands.  The temptation is enormous.  The personal rewards can be too great to reject.  The fallacy of coming to believe in one’s own heroism is an intruder which eventually becomes a master, and soon a noble purpose can become little more than a warped scheme.

The whole question reminds me of a difficult truth: that we are at our best- and most secure- when our motivations are based on truth and self-honesty.  It may be a less comfortable and very difficult place to stand, but in the long run it serves our beneficiaries and ourselves as an unshakeable base….




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