Greg Mortenson’s Group Defends Handling of Funds

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 11, 2011 3 min read
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Schoolchildren and teachers who are wondering if the money they raised to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan through Pennies for Peace reached its destination may want to read the Central Asia Institute’s latest statement defending its use of donations.

Greg Mortenson, the executive director of the Central Asia Institute, which runs Pennies for Peace, and the author of the best-selling book Three Cups of Tea, has been under fire for misrepresenting events in his life in his book and misusing donations to the institute. Such allegations were made last month by the news program “60 Minutes” and in an online exposé published by journalist Jon Krakauer.

I wrote about the controversy and how some educators were rethinking their support for Pennies for Peace in the recent issue of Education Week.

A special issue of “Journey of Hope” posted on the web site of the Central Asia Institute on May 6 provides information to answer what the publication’s authors say are the “most-commonly asked questions” from supporters. Some new financial information is included in those answers that the institute had not released previously. For example, to answer an inquiry seeking more information on what the institute has spent on programs versus overhead, the publication says that on average 78 percent of funds have been spent on programs. It adds that out of $60 million the institute has raised over the past 15 years, about 38 percent has gone to a fund “dedicated and restricted solely for overseas projects.” The report says that fund now has $20 million.

The publication gives a number of reasons why schools may have been found either not to be in use or not receiving funds from the institute. Some may have been closed for two or more months for the winter, the publication says. Another possibility is that a disgruntled former manager of programs in one particular region of Pakistan wasn’t honest with Mortenson and the board of the institute of the status of the schools, it says.

The publication doesn’t give any additional information other than what Mortenson has said already in a statement or an interview with Outside magazine to respond to allegations that parts of Mortenson’s books have been fabricated or embellished.

By answering an inquiry about how the institute can defend a claim that 11 schools were built in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, when only three were built (“60 Minutes had shown a news clip of Mortenson claiming 11), the publication says that, in fact, four have been built in Kunar Province and work on five more was begun but has been suspended several times.

But this explanation, in fact, does acknowledge that the claim was not accurate because nine schools is still short of 11 schools.

I agree with Outside magazine, that one explanation provided in the publication “appears intentionally misleading.” The publication provides information to answer the following question: “Every nonprofit must file an annual tax return. According to reports, your nonprofit only filed once in 14 years—is that true?” The answer given by the Central Asia Institute is “No. IRS 990 forms filed for every year since CAI’s inception are available on our web site...”

As Outside points out in a May 7 blog post, Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” observed that the Central Asia Institute had released only one audited financial report in 14 years, which some might view as a very low number for such a large nonprofit organization.

I agree that the explanation is misleading because it gives the impression that supporters are not savvy enough to know the difference between a tax return and a financial audit.

I suspect that educators who have supported schoolchildren to raise money for Pennies for Peace will not be convinced that they haven’t been burned until they get some more comprehensive explanations.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.