09 March 2012 ~ 2 Comments

#KONY2012 – The good, the bad, and the media

My goodness… I have never gotten more emails, Facebook messages, and general questions about a social sector issue than this week with #KONY2012. “What do I think?”, you ask?

In case you have really not heard anything about this, which if you are reading this blog I find shocking, then just google #STOPKONY or #KONY2012, and you should be well on your way to learning more.

I think this campaign and subsequent backlash, is bringing a few important issues to light:

1) Most people do not really understand the system their money is going into when they donate.

Our friends asks us to give, and we do.
We hope it’s going to a good cause. (90% of us)
Only some gather ANY information at all before donating. (69%)
Few self describe as doing any “research” at all before donating. (33%)
And almost no one compares non-profits. (6%)
(Hope Consulting)

And it doesn’t even really matter if we do compare, as most of us don’t understand what questions are important to consider and how to evaluate “impact” on any given issue.

2) A lot of NGO money is wasted because few are asking good questions. And “program costs” does NOT mean what you think it means.

I sometimes want to create a TV ad campaign, like the “Rock the vote” ones, that says “I ASK QUESTIONS” reminding people to ask questions before they donate money. But then I realize, it might make matters worse, because we’re asking the WRONG ones.

People still focus on one question when it comes to donating: “How much of my money is going to the cause?” They problem is, many of us are making incorrect assumptions about the answers we get. I do commend Invisible Children for breaking their $9 million annual fundraising down further than most in their reaction post where they address the campaign’s negative feedback but even then, some might not understand that just looking at the Management & General spending numbers is not the whole story. Many think “programs” means programs in “a poor country” and don’t realize that programs can mean TV ads, and the salaries for the producers, and the office in the western city they work out of, and the annual holiday party etc…. which is usually all legally reported above board, it’s just that people don’t understand it and it is not in the interest of most organizations to try to explain it. To learn more, read about why looking at administration costs is meaningless via this example from Good Intents, or buy her paper on the subject of why non-profit overhead doesn’t mean what you think it means, which I might just do myself. Additionally, an organization that legitimately spent 0% on overhead but did not achieve their mission is not better than one that only spent 1% of their money on their programs, but did. Hence, we’re asking the wrong questions.

Here are two slideshares we made for Investing Time in People last year which get further into this:






3) Even the NGO directors themselves are often asking the wrong questions…. especially when they are far away from their “cause”.

Some of the backlash about the KONY2012 video’s facts being wrong or issues being poorly framed are not things I have any clarity on as I don’t know much about the  issue, but it does resonate with my belief that the further away you are from an issue, the less likely you are to get the facts, needs, strategy etc right…. distance makes the decisions grow wronger, perhaps? (Forgive my “heart grow fonder” joke attempt, it’s late here.) In our work in Cambodia, the office where I worked out of was in the major town, which was only 65km from our main working area, but even then, I made a lot of the wrong decisions because of that distance and even more because of cultural and language differences. Many mistakes though were easily righted once I spent time in the community we were working with and I listened more, but if I was far away, I would never have noticed. There are so many NGOs running out of major North American and European cities managing projects on the other side of the world, and this distance inevitably means there will be more misunderstandings, delays in making changes once ineffective policies are made, and incorrect assumptions than if those same people were located next to their “cause”. Even better would be if the people from the “cause” were managing the solutions themselves! Being on the board of PEPY now, I am again caught in this struggle knowing I’m probably giving wrong advice from a distance and if an organizations management is nearly ALL away from the cause, then that can be even more likely.

4) Social media is changing the power dynamics of the world.

If Invisible Children wanted people to know about Kony, well then the negative backlash has only aided their cause. As the BBC points out, social media now quickly gives us two sides to a story and “people are becoming more critical about what they read online, especially when it comes to charitable causes.” But the problem is, now that we have more and more information being thrown at us, we can get a lot of 140 character news feeds, but not a lot of depth, unless we seek it out. Even journalists rarely have, or take, the time to dig deeper into these issues, as was clear with the Greg Mortenson scandal.

That said, more than 50 million people have viewed this video. As Robert Wright pointed out in The Atlantic, “Invisible Children has accomplished what may be the most potent demonstration to date of the ability of new technologies to stir citizen activism. If it has done so irresponsibly, and/or in an ultimately ineffectual way, it still will have been part of a dialectic that yields something worthwhile, and maybe very worthwhile, down the road.”

This debate brings up other issues, Whites in Shining Armour ones, the need for media to display the realities of development, and much more… but for me, I’ve had enough #KONY2012 to keep my brain busy for one night!

(Pssst! Share your thoughts below or good links you think we all should read on the issues this debate brings to light which are important to YOU, please :-) )

  • naya herman

    Well said Daniela! Definitely on the same page with you about the “whites in shining amour”,  the risky aspect of distance and miscommunication with abroad aid, and the misinformation about “program costs”. I hope that with this social media momentum, Invisible Children is taking into account all of the valid  points you and others have raised about the holes in their organization, and can make some changes. I’m curious about how we can support Invisible Children towards working out some of the major kinks, because their publicity could be used as a major asset if they altered their goals or where the money goes…but I imagine that those office parties and big budget movies would be hard to talk them out of. 

    I’m spreading your argument to all that are supporting KONY2012 and keeping the conversation going. 

    Leah Feiger sent me this article, another good critique if anyone is interested. http://ottawa.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20120309/kony-campaign-backlash-invisible-children-120309/20120309/?hub=OttawaHome
    good luck on your finals Daniela!!

  • http://twitter.com/soeim soe

    This article has made some relevant points: http://techcrunch.com/2012/03/10/save-helpless-faraway-africans/

    Wait, no, it’s OK: they have an app! The LRA Crisis Tracker “gives real-time updates of atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa.” Because, you know, iPhones are ubiquitous in the remote Congolese and Central African Republic regions haunted by the LRA. But who cares about them? The important thing is that you can download the app and somehow feelconnected to their plight. Like you’re making a difference.#2But if all this still somehow strikes a colonial chord in your heart, and you feel like you need to do something — do me a favor? Give to Doctors Without Borders, who go to the toughest, grimmest places in the world, where they do astonishing, lifesaving disaster-relief work, with their eyes wide open to the limitations and compromises of their context. And please don’t pretend that “raising public awareness” has anything to do with actual solutions.