Friday, April 29, 2011

What Three Cups of Tea Teaches Us #1: Nonprofit Education Efforts Matter

Less interesting than Greg Mortenson's various alleged missteps** is how his story illustrates our (US Public) general misunderstanding of nonprofit organizations, social change, and development. 

This is the first of what will be many blog entries dedicated to this issue. Today, the role of education in nonprofit programming. In the days to come: 
  • naive development amateurs, 
  • the alleged inappropriateness of Three Cups of Tea for university audiences following the scandal,  
  • and the challenge and uncertainties of 'development.'

By now the story has been told and re-told: Climber, author, and philanthropist Greg Mortenson is accused of exaggeration and outright fabrication in respect to his inspiring narrative of friendship, education, and hope for children in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan (On the story: 60 Minutes, NPRNick KristofThe NYT - and Mortenson's response in Outside Magazine). The story itself is important, but what's more vital is what the scandal says about our understanding of development work, nonprofit organizations, and other places and peoples. Mortenson's story demonstrates our simultaneous over-reaching optimism and unfounded expectations for development and social change.

What I find most disturbing about the Three Cups of Deceit narrative is its potential to create the inaccurate impression that development is 'not working.' On the contrary, the world is making progress toward reaching the UN Millennium Development goals and I see change agents among the Millenials, Generation X, and Generation Y marching toward unprecedented appreciation for common human dignity and interconnectedness around the world. To establish a world that better recognizes broad opportunity for human flourishing, however, we must better understand some basic development and nonprofit sector realities brought forward by this most recent controversy. First, there is the importance of education for nonprofit efforts. 

If, as the parable goes, nonprofits are going to rescue drowning children they should at least work to identify the source of the babies in the river. Nonprofits must clarify the structural issues that communities face or at least (as is more the case with Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute (CAI)), help people with access to resources (e.g. US Citizens) see that other humans elsewhere may have access to a greater set of options (education, choices) with a relatively small infusion of resources. To do that nonprofits must educate. 

The problem with education, of course, is that it costs. Mortenson's CAI made many mistakes relating to the real need for education. Most importantly, it did not explicitly communicate that donations would be used to support US-based education and outreach. This could be due to malfeasance, to lax interpretation of nonprofit accounting best practices, or due to an under-developed understanding of how the organization needed to change its funding structure as it quickly grew in size (See related resource on nonprofit capitalization). 

As CAI clearly expresses on its website, its primary purpose is to "promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan." This would not happen in a broad and sustainable way (at least in the current environment) without an increasingly broad and growing population of developed country citizens and foundations interested in donating to support this cause. Put another way: no book tour, no movement, no schools. 

CAI is actually not being as blunt as me. They're not attempting to defend their education efforts on the grounds that they're an important part of programming. Instead, they're suggesting they can demonstrate that particular restricted funds never supported the book tour. If they can do that, great - then they can continue to compete inside a narrative space that demands nonprofit organizations raise incredible sums, spend little to nothing on their staff members, do not expand education and outreach programs, and figuratively move mountains while otherwise holding up the world. 

We don't expect businesses to introduce a new idea (product) without spending extraordinary amounts to get their vision (buy me / sign-up) across. How can we reasonably expect someone who seemingly cares deeply about children in the remotest parts of countries that most Americans cannot identify on a map to not spend considerable resources educating Americans on (1) the fact that these children really are wonderful, innocent, beautiful children (like all children), (2) these children will not necessarily become terrorists (as many competing narratives might suggest), and (3) that these children are located in a particular place, and we have reason to think that many of them and their communities are interested in better school and education access?      

The CAI absolutely, positively should have been more explicit about how monies were being spent. They should have been clearer about the domestic education component of their mission. And they clearly should have done a better job of clarifying the lines between and among the book, its costs, and its revenues (including speaking fees). Those mis-steps suggest sloppy management and accounting, even inexcusable ignorance, but the public response focuses just as much on the fact that they were involved with education in the US at all. As Krakauer's critiques are recounted in a USA Today article

On its website, the CAI says it spends at least 85% of contributions on programs and only 15% on administrative and fundraising costs. This ratio is one reason Charity Navigator gave the charity four stars.
But in an online exposé of the charity published by, writer Jon Krakauer noted that the CAI categorizes the money it spends promoting Mortenson’s books and his travel costs as program expenses. If those costs were categorized as fundraising and administration expenses, he says, they would exceed 50% of the charity’s annual budget.
For development organizations that are broadening a public's understanding of an issue, education is absolutely part of programming. Without education, we have no consciousness-raising. Without consciousness-raising, we have no movements. 

Let me be clear: I do not support CAI's alleged playing fast and loose with accounting. I do not support fabrication of facts. If, however CAI were to act very responsibly, I suspect they would report a significant portion of book tour costs as fundraising but another significant portion of those costs would absolutely be categorized as programming. That education is necessary to meet the mission of the organization.

Until broader percentages of the public understand the importance of education in nonprofit work, arm-chair critics will be able to undermine many important efforts with ease.

Even Krakauer is allowing that Mortenson and CAI built scores of schools and educated thousands of children in this remote region of the world. This is an astonishing feat. Because this feat has been accomplished by a nonprofit organization, we expect the work to be completed more cost-effectively and creatively than government might do it, and with far less invested in outreach and marketing than would be the case if the private sector were developing a new initiative. It could still be the case that Mortenson has done several inexcusable things**, but one set of allegations is based at least in part on the unrealistic expectations we foist upon nonprofit organizations to outperform governments in terms of costs and corporations in terms of permissible behaviors, including the simple act of selling ideas (education).

If you think I've said something ridiculous, I invite your comments. If you think I've said something interesting, I also invite your comments and urge you to repost the blog link please. I will stick with this issue for the next several posts and look forward to the conversation.

Additional interesting resources:

**There are many different parts to the current set of accusations. As I make clear above, I think the allegations relating to the speaker circuit and book tour are over-stated. If, however, it does turn out that Mortenson absolutely lied in reference to his alleged hostage experience (something that many members of the 'gotcha chattering class' are now focusing on with growing fervor), then he has clearly acted irresponsibly and has clearly done so consciously.  Compressions of time, on the other hand, are common in creative nonfiction narrative, making some of the allegations about the narrative arc of the story less damning than a clear finding of fabrication.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for so clearly articulating my thoughts on this situation. I would also add if someone is really concerned about "where their money is going," they should get involved with the organization. Get engaged. Spend time with the people who work there. Volunteer. When you put your own time and energy into the effort rather than relying on Charity Navigator to determine an organization's credibility, you get a much better understanding of the complexities of non--profit work, (and in this case, development) and what that organization is or isn't doing to address challenges and make positive changes.