‘Three Cups of Tea’ questions remind donors to check up on charities

By: Sandra Block| USA Today

Greg Mortenson’s inspiring commitment to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan has sold millions of books and inspired thousands of people — including President Obama — to donate to his charity, the Central Asia Institute. Now, though, Mortenson is facing allegations that he fabricated parts of his best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea. Even more troubling, questions have been raised about whether the Central Asia Institute misused donors’ contributions.

The charity failed to meet the BBB’s accountability standards because, among other things, it has only three board members, including Mortenson. BBB-accredited charities must have at least five members, says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer for the Wise Giving Alliance. Otherwise, a charity’s board risks becoming “a kitchen Cabinet where you have just a few individuals who may be friendly with the CEO,” Weiner says. The BBB has been unable to evaluate the charity since 2009 because the CAI has declined to provide information necessary to complete a review, Weiner says.

Still, the fallout from this story provides important lessons for donors, including:

Be wary of ratios. On its website, the CAI says it spends at least 85% of contributions on programs and only 15% on administrative and fundraising costs. This ratio is one reason Charity Navigator gave the charity four stars.

But in an online exposé of the charity published by Byliner.com, writer Jon Krakauer noted that the CAI categorizes the money it spends promoting Mortenson’s books and his travel costs as program expenses. If those costs were categorized as fundraising and administration expenses, he says, they would exceed 50% of the charity’s annual budget.

Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, says his organization is in the process of revamping its standards to include transparency and accountability. Charity Navigator subjected CAI to a prototype of the new formula and found that “they didn’t score well at all,” he says.

Look for results. When selecting a charity, donors should seek out solid evidence that it has had an impact, says Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder of GiveWell.org, a non-profit charity evaluator. In the case of the CAI, he says, “A lot of money the organization raised seemed to be coming from donors who liked the story that Greg Mortenson was telling, as opposed to donors who saw the effects of the program.”
Separate the cause from the charity. One reason the CAI has been so successful is that many people desperately want to help educate young girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But if you feel strongly about this cause, the CAI is just one of several charities that have similar goals. We’ve provided a list of charities with programs in the region that have earned top ratings from the American Institute of Philanthropy. You can find more information at charitywatch.org.


Adapted from Your Money on MSN <- Read the Full Article