Last year 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer investigated Greg Mortenson, the executive director of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and author of the best-selling, and, it seems, largely fabricated, Three Cups of Tea. They discovered that he had violated the trust of the people who donated money to the CAI and of those he was claiming to help. This past week Montana’s attorney general said Mortenson must repay $1 million to the CAI. He is allowed to remain with the charity, but can no longer serve as a board member, nor is he allowed to hold a position of financial responsibility.
This case offers some lessons about the role and responsibilities of boards of non-profits that are too important to ignore.
A good board can be hugely beneficial to the stability, growth and effectiveness of a non-profit. On the other hand, a bad or self-indulgent board can be a time-consuming distraction or a drag on scarce resources. In the worst cases, it can allow the abuse of funds and trust on a large scale, as seen with the CAI.
Non-profits come in all shapes and sizes. Some are small niche organizations that come from the passion of one or two people and have limited resources. Others are large, complex organizations with significant donations and operating costs that rival many global corporations. No matter the size or scope, the principles behind the board’s responsibilities are the same: Donors give money to an organization in the belief that their money will be used for a specific cause. The organization and the cause are at stake, and the ethical imperative behind the organization goes beyond the bottom line.
Non-profits require deliberate care and attention in building a strong, capable board, one that will ensure that the mission of the organization is honored in word and deed, and that the donated funds are used in responsible and careful ways. These boards have multiple “grounding and stargazing” responsibilities, from governance and oversight to fundraising and strategic planning. These responsibilities are made greater in challenging economic times.