Three Cups of…Impact?

Greg Mortenson, the hero of girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, recently found himself in the 60 Minutes cross-hairs (see original piece here). The reputational body blows to him and the work of his CAI Institute were landed between John Krakauer blasts that Mortenson lied about key stories in his heart-warming, best-selling narrative, Kroft going off the top rope by showing up at a Mortenson book signing event, uninvited, stepping in front of some poor fan holding out Three Cups of Tea for Mortenson’s autograph, and a guy from the American Institute of Philanthropy suggesting that CAI’s 990 was misleading at best.

Wow – takedown complete.

But, almost lost within the story, I saw an important point mixed in with the salacious accusations. And, in my point of view, it is probably more important that the basic charges of poor management and fabricating stories. Did Mortenson’s schools fail in their remit to actually teach girls? Kroft highlighted a school in the upper reaches of Afghanistan’s stratosphere that hadn’t been used and others that were now empty. In essence, was CAI having any impact? Did anything change from all of the good works and best-selling books and heart-warming stories?

Mortenson and his board will take the bulk of the heat for this episode, and they should especially if any improprieties are proven true. But what shouldn’t be lost after the dust settles is that Mortenson’s donors should also be asking themselves what role they should have played in ensuring CAI’s performance and accountability. In short, donors should be making strategic decisions based on impact. And, donors can’t fully delegate achieving impact to the nonprofit. They have to own the problem too.

For sophisticated donors, were they turning an analytical eye to how their money was being used at CAI? Did they understand the larger context of how change happens in Afghani and Pakistani education systems, and were they conducting benchmarks of similar organizations doing similar work? What models for change work in that context and how? Were they performing even a simple 990 analysis as Kroft did and, if they felt uncomfortable by what they found, were they asking questions like why more money was going to travel than to building schools? And if they felt good about Mortenson, his books and CAI but weren’t sure about his progress, were they gating their financial support contingent on an evaluation of impact confirming that his approach to changing this forbidding place was actually effective?

For modest donors, were they gathering information about CAI to sufficiently understand their activities and priorities especially their approach and commitment to impact? A site like Charity Navigator will provide some information, but is not oriented around impact. In Charity Navigator’s own words “…we do not currently evaluate the quality of the programs and services a charity provides. As soon as we develop a methodology for doing so, we will. For now, however, we limit our ratings to an analysis of a charity's financial health, and we encourage givers to research a charity's programs and to make their own assessments as to their quality.” In short, 990’s don’t report impact, so a modest donor would need to dig deeper than the guidance Charity Navigator can provide asking more questions of a nonprofit or reviewing nonprofit reports that show their commitment to and measurement of impact.

Although the CAI example may be headline news, the premise remains – do you agree the donors need to own problems, and what role do you think donors should be playing in ensuring nonprofit performance and accountability?

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