HELENA — Donors are starting to give again to the Central Asia Institute after contributions plummeted over mismanagement allegations against the charity founded by "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson, its executive director said.
More than 1,270 donors who stopped giving money to the Bozeman-based organization over the past two years have contributed this year, and total donations are about $100,000 higher than the $1.7 million at this time in 2014, according to Central Asia Institute officials. The charity builds schools and promotes education in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
"There is certainly an 'Under New Management' sign hanging outside, and the organization, frankly, is run substantially better," Executive Director Jim Thaden said Thursday.
One watchdog group isn't quite ready to sign off on the charity's rehabilitation. CharityWatch President Daniel Borochoff urged donors to look at contributing to other organizations before the Central Asia Institute.
"They have made some improvements, but there are still serious concerns," Borochoff said. "We don't feel confident about this organization as a good target for donors."
Donations to the Central Asia Institute dropped from $22 million in 2010 to $2.7 million in 2013 over accusations that Mortenson fabricated much of the best-selling book and used the charity to enrich himself and promote his books without sharing the royalties or speaking fees.
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Mortenson has denied the allegations, but the mismanagement claims resulted in an investigation and a 2012 settlement with the Montana attorney general's office that restructured the Central Asia Institute.
The settlement expanded the organization's board of directors, changed its business practices, required Mortenson to repay more than $1 million, and removed him as executive director and a voting board member.
Chief among CharityWatch's concerns is Mortenson's continued employment with the Central Asia Institute. Mortenson earned $169,000 in salary and benefits in 2013. He also is a nonvoting board member, which Borochoff said raised questions about the level of influence Mortenson still wields.
Additionally, Central Asia Institute's website still links to Mortenson's books, but the organization doesn't receive any royalties, Borochoff said.
He added the Central Asia Institute has never explained the sudden resignation of Thaden's predecessor last year, and the watchdog group is dissatisfied with the level of transparency in its international programs.
The Montana attorney general's office recently ended its strict oversight of how the Central Asia Institute implements the settlement agreement. Attorney general spokesman John Barnes said his agency determined the charity has followed the settlement's terms and is more accountable than it was in 2011.
CharityWatch was one of the first organizations to raise questions about the Central Asia Institute's management following the influx of money that came with the success of "Three Cups of Tea."
"We're going to try to turn their opinion of CAI around, but given fact they were a participant in the original criticism of CAI, we expect them to be the last," Thaden said of CharityWatch.