What Your Nonprofit Can Learn From the “Three Cups of Tea” Scandal

In the early 1920s, America’s faith in the presidency was rattled by something called the “Teapot Dome” scandal, in which President Warren Harding’s administration accepted bribes from the oil industry.

Flash forward to April 2011.  America’s faith in the nonprofit sector is currently in limbo—in something that’s been dubbed the “Three Cups of Tea” scandal.

Author and philanthropist, Greg Mortenson, made waves in the nonprofit sector and media by founding 170 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan through his Central Asia Institute and documenting his travels and experiences in his popular book Three Cups of Tea.

A recent investigation by 60 Minutes and writer Jon Krakauer revealed that that Mortenson had fabricated parts of his story.  Even worse, 60 Minutes visited 30 of the schools supposedly built by his Central Asia Institute and found half empty or otherwise not receiving support from the Institute.  And according, to a May 5, 2011 article in Slate, additional stories of “ghost schools” have emerged after the program aired.

The scandal has already attracted the attention of Montana’s attorney general (Central Asia Institute is incorporated in Montana).  As Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said in a statement:  “I’ve been in contact with attorneys for the Institute and they have pledged their full cooperation in addressing our concerns. While looking into this issue, my office will not jump to any conclusions – but we have a responsibility to make sure charitable assets are used for their intended purposes.”

So what are the lessons learned for nonprofits and for donors?

Charity Ratings Aren’t Perfect. 

The Central Asia Institute had garnered high ratings from some large charity websites.  According to the Wall Street Journal, CharityNavigator.org, a ratings website, had previously awarded the Institute four stars (the website’s top rating).  The Institute’s ratings have since dropped and a “donor advisory” has been issued since the scandal broke.

“Like financial markets, ratings are supposed to have a predictive value,” Perla Ni, founder of GreatNonprofits, told the Wall Street Journal. “But we’re still in our infancy. There are going to be scandals in nonprofits, just like any industry.”

The takeaway for donors is obvious—it’s important to look beneath the surface and make an informed decision, based on more than a rating.  Nonprofits should learn not to be content with a high rating but should work to cultivate good donor relations—and base their operations on strong governance, transparency, and accountability. 

Using IRS Filings as PR Tools.

As noted by Guide Star, the IRS’s 990 requirements present an opportunity for organizations to “capitalize on the opportunities created by the increased transparency. If unprepared, they may be unnecessarily subjected to potentially damaging external risks.”   The 990 is no longer merely a tax-exemption compliance measure, but can now be leveraged by organizations as a tool for reaching out to potential donors.  990 forms filed with the IRS are public record, and the recent changes to the 990 requirements gives potential donors greater access to important funding-related considerations such as the organization’s mission statement.  For example, many potential donors might not be aware of an organization’s mission statement, which was previously buried on page three of the 990.  Following the new changes, however, potential donors won’t be able to miss the mission statement, which now appears prominently on page one.

In general, it very important that all nonprofit publish their 990s in some manner.  This may be done in one of two ways—either by making 990s available via the organization’s website or through GuideStar, a service that enables nonprofits to disclose various information.  For more information about GuideStar, visit www.guidestar.org .  

Consider an Independent Audit.

Self-reported numbers by staff members are obviously not as trustworthy as numbers prepared by an independent audit.  According to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy,  “[t]he Central Asia Institute did not have an audit even in 2008 when its net assets exceeded $10 million, it spent more than $5-million, and it generated a surplus of more than $8-million.  The board’s decision to forgo an audit until fiscal 2009, combined with the problem of the small size of the board and the financial self-interest of the charity’s founder and executive director, raise suspicions that it failed to exercise appropriate oversight and might have misused charitable assets.”  While audits are often mandatory for larger organizations, smaller organizations may want to consider retaining an independent firm to conduct an audit, simply for transparency reasons.

It remains to be seen what will come out of this scandal and the investigation to follow.  But the lessons are clear.  Whether your organization is large or small, trust matters.   Although controversies like this one and the Bernie Madoff scandal before it erode the public’s trust in the nonprofit sector, the only way to address this is for organizations to proactively re-earn this trust.

1 comment so far

  1. Cindy Bahn on

    I was truly saddened by the Central Asia Institute saga, and while it can provide lessons for all nonprofits, I don’t want to see the pendulum swing so that donors are so over-zealous in their due diligence that they make decisions on criteria which may harm good organizations. Previous nonprofit mismanagement (Red Cross comes to mind!) has resulted in suggestions that people not donate to organizations that have admin expenses over a certain percentage, for example. There may be very legitimate reasons why one well-run nonprofit has higher overhead expenses, and the organization should not be penalized by that.

    Thanks for an excellent post, and the reommended lessons!

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