Monday, April 18, 2011

The thing about 990s...

I'm a sucker for altruism - it's true. I love the thought that humans are genuinely good and that there are people out there willing to help others for no reason other than they need help. These are your Mother Theresa's of the world, your Ghandi's.

Two or three years ago, I read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. This book blew me away. It tells the story of Mortenson, his failed hiking endeavor, how the people of a rural mountain town in Pakistan nursed him to health, how he vowed to build a school for their children, his struggle for funding and eventually, his amazing success in creating the Central Asia Institute (CAI) which builds schools, mainly for girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was incredibly inspiring to me - that one man with so little could make so much of a difference. All you needed was the motivation and the belief in your cause, and change was possible.

Fit hit the shan on the CAI when 60 minutes aired a substantial segment on Mortenson. You can watch it here. I actually first came across the BBC article this morning, and later the story in the NYTimes. They're accusing Mortenson of spending more money on travel costs associated with promoting his book (and pocketing the payment from speaking engagements) than on funds to go overseas to the schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I didn't want to believe it, until I watched the 60 Minutes segment. They zoomed in on the CAI's 990, and I knew it had to be true.

For those of you who don't know, the I990 is the IRS form you fill out when your organization is tax exempt. All your financial information ought to be transparent, and your budget best be breaking even come the end of your fiscal year.

The thing about 990s is....
All 990s are public. There's a handy little site known as GuideStar where, after making a free account, you can access the 990 of any registered 501(c)3. So, naturally, I went to GuideStar to verify the numbers 60 Minutes threw out there. They all checked out. The CAI is spending more money on domestic costs for promotional materials than they are on building materials, teachers salaries, project manager costs, etc abroad. Now, technically, Mortenson could argue that by promoting his books, he's furthering the mission of the CAI, which is stated as: to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But it's still sketchy. Mortenson had made himself a role model for so many of us in nonprofits. But perhaps people aren't genuinely good. Perhaps too much of a good thing, altruism, deters from the initial purpose.

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