Why is Opening Up About Mismanagement in NGOs so Hard?

By now, if you are at all exposed to the world of nonprofits, then you are mos likely aware of the recent news surrounding Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea” and Founder of CAI. IT is a story that in short has “shocked” many, crushed the dreams of some, and have lead to a lot of questions of “how could this have happened”. There has been a lot of commentary about the events, and one of the most catalyzing pieces for me was Kevin Starr’s piece It’s Not about the Tea where he essentially laid the blame at donors who looked the other way:

In the end, though, the responsibility for this mess lies with the donors. By and large, CAI’s supporters went for a feel-good story, didn’t do their homework, and didn’t ask the right questions. It appears that there was never a systematic attempt to verify whether schools were up and running, and the fact that there was only one audited financial statement over CAI’s history is jaw-dropping.


However, it was the early portion of the article where he describes his experiences with CAI early on and the rumors that existed early on, that was of most interest to me.

I had heard of Greg’s work and knew the region, so I thought I’d go up and have a look. I got in touch with Greg, who was in China, and we agreed to meet up in Hunza. Long story short, he never showed up, so I went off on my own to meet his people in Skardu, the jumping off point for K2. Things didn’t look good. The local Central Asia Institute (CAI) staff was up in arms about his reckless promises, lack of follow-up, and refusal to stay in touch—the country program manager lamented: “He is ruining my good name in the marketplace.” The whole thing had an unhealthy cult-of-personality vibe

The passage was so interesting to me from the beginning, that I spent the entire first read through thinking about he was in a position to publicly expose the frauds that were being perpetuated but didn’t.. and how, as an NGO manager myself, I have had literally dozens of conversations that involve myself and another manager talking about he failings of an NGO we know, the questionable moral foundations of another manager, or just a general feeling that we cannot figure out what happened to the money they raised.

Which to me, is the real question / point of the article to me. Why is it that NO ONE from within the industry will expose those who are defrauding the system? Why is it that these “open secrets” are allowed to fester?

Often, people will point to the donors and say that it is their responsibility to find the problems on their own. At other times, it is a belief that by outing a fellow NGO (organization or founder), that they will somehow be breaking a code and will also suffer. Perhaps issues not all that specific to the NGO community?

Yet, given the importance of work NGOs are doing, and the suspicions that exist in the market, I would say that those with knowledge of mismanagement have a greater responsibility to speak out to ensure that the mismanagement, malfeasance, fraud, etc does not impact the wider community.

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