Greg Mortensen, author of â€œThree Cups of Teaâ€ â€” a memoir that has comfortably remained onÂ â€œThe New York Timesâ€ best-sellers list for the past 219 weeks â€” might be a philanthropic phony.
Last Sunday, â€œ60 Minutesâ€ ran an exposÃ© on Mortensen, blowing the whistle on his charity, his book and sullying his veracious reputation. â€œ60 Minutesâ€ revealed that Mortensenâ€™s charity, the Central Asia Institute, â€œspends more money domestically promoting the importance of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan than it does actually constructing and funding them overseas.â€ When visiting 30 of the 141 schools built under the auspices of
Mortensen, â€œ60 Minutesâ€ found that half functioned reasonably well, but the other half were either poorly constructed, used as storage facilities or even nonexistent.
The very plot of Mortensenâ€™s book is dubious. Mortensen claimed that he was held for eight days by the Taliban; â€œ60 Minutesâ€ was able to track down a few of his supposed captors who revealed that they were not kidnappers, rather they were his hosts and they were never part of the Taliban. One of his alleged captors is actually the director of a research tank in Pakistan. Clad in western business attire he refuted Mortensenâ€™s assertion saying, â€œThis is totally false, and he is lying.â€
As an admirer inspired by Mortensenâ€™s dogged commitment to childrenâ€™s education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, hearing â€œ60 Minutesâ€ besmirch his character and his work was wholly disheartening. But this disillusionment of an exemplary philanthropist is both necessary and imperative.
Philanthropy is not all peaches. All people, Samaritans or not, have their own interests. The degree of this self-interest needs to be measured.
Fortunately, a few websites perform this measurement. Charity Navigator â€œworks to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplaceâ€ by analyzing the â€œfinancial healthâ€ of more than 5,000 American charities. It does this by sharing data on the expense breakdown for the charity, rating its organizational efficiency, even disclosing the charityâ€™s total revenue and the salary of the head director. Similarly, The American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog, ranks organizations based on their financial performance determining how generous a charity truly is.
â€œTheÂ Wall Street Journalâ€ recently reported on charity scams involving the crisis in Japan. Fraudulent charities using heart-rending language spammed the e-mails of benevolent souls. Donors took the bait and thousands of dollars went in the pockets of the unscrupulous miscreants, not to victims in dire need. Scams like this are completely avoidable. Donations are desired in a multitude of the worldâ€™s problem areas â€” a simple check can prevent the profits of charlatans and maximize the utility of each dollar by donating to only the most efficient and altruistic charities.
Mortensen, whether the â€œ60 Minutesâ€ investigation rings true, has done a good deed â€” he has helped many children in Afghanistan and Pakistan obtain an education they otherwise would not receive.
However, the extent of his good work has been enormously inflated. Shattering the sacrosanct image of charities does not mean losing hope and faith in philanthropy. One must replace blind giving with a realistic perspective. Reconsider where you give, donâ€™t reconsider giving. Simply, remember Reaganâ€™s catchphrase, â€œtrust, but verify.â€
Anusree Garg is a columnist for The Lantern at Ohio State University.