Heather Esper

Narratives Are Not Enough

I’m sure many of you have been tracking the aftermath of Sunday’s 60 Minutes report about Greg Mortenson’s non-profit, Central Asian Institute (CAI). In short, the piece highlights that CAI uses more money domestically to promote its work than actually building schools, that CAI builds schools but doesn’t adequately staff or support them resulting in many being abandoned, that Mortenson spends charity money on travel but doesn’t share income from speaking engagements with the charity, as well as the misrepresentation of local people and key facts in Mortenson’s best-selling book Three Cups of Tea. Overall, the story leaves the viewer uncomfortable and wondering how such a popular charity could (allegedly) get away with so much.

The story brings to light a plethora of problems with the way aid and philanthropy operate. For me, the main issue it really drives home is the need to go beyond using narratives to showcase how organizations operate. The story also makes it evident that the standards we use to rate organizations aren’t always very useful. (Charity Navigator gave CAI four stars, its highest marks). For me, this controversy demonstrates how critical it is to collect actual data on how organizations impact poverty. This type of transparency and accountability is necessary to prevent organizations from engaging in poor practices and aid in channeling money to organizations actually making a difference.

Given the recent focus on learning from failures (Harvard Business Review’s April Issue focused on failure, the emergence of new websites aiming to capture and learn from failure, covered on NextBillion here, and http://failfaire.org/, not to mention numerous articles and blogs on the subject) we want to know how you think we can avoid situations like this in the future? How do we encourage more transparency and accountability in organizations’ finances and impact?

Additionally, how do you think this story affects us as a community? Do you think the fact that such a popular charity was exposed will result in more skeptical donors that do their homework before giving or instead turn them off to charity in general?

For more information on the topic, check out a compiled list of related articles and blogs on Good Intentions are Not Enough.

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Impact Assessment
philanthropy, poverty alleviation