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Impact Measurement, Part 2: Questions We Can Ask About Kony 2012

[I know, I promised something else for the second part of this “series,” but Kony 2012 is a phenomenon that warrants discussion. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled program soon.]

Before we begin, if you watched the ubiquitous Kony 2012 video and it inspired you to donate to the cause, that’s great! I highly recommend you don’t donate to Invisible Children unless you’re in the mood for funding Self-Congratulatory Film #12. Grant Oyston over at Visible Children did some research and came up with a list of great nonprofits that operate in Central Africa, all of which have received more trustworthy ratings from Charity Navigator than IC has.

Kony 2012, the internet campaign that rightfully denounces Ugandan guerrilla group leader Joseph Kony, is a great opportunity to ask questions about “awareness generation” nonprofits and decide for ourselves how we feel about their overall impact. I suppose I already made my stance on the issue clear in the first paragraph; but I’m not necessarily out to convince people that Invisible Children is a sham. This post will certainly not be without bias, but no matter where we stand, I want us to ask ourselves the following questions (some of which have no answers):

  • What are the implications of lumping such an important issue into a frantically consumed, frantically discarded viral culture? Kony 2012, by its very nature, is a meme–the social activism equivalent of sharing a picture of a cat who uses poor grammar. How does this compare, impact-wise, to the slow, sustained growth of knowledge and awareness? Will those who were driven to donate to the cause do so again in a month? In six months? In a year? In five years?
  • Does a campaign like this elicit widespread action? By “widespread action,” I am not referring to Tweeting, Facebooking, or sharing a video on your blog. I’m curious, in particular, about the well-intentioned souls who claim to have sobbed throughout the video. What did they do once they dried their tears? Did they call or write to a political figure? Did they do more research? Did they donate to an in-the-field organization? On a similar note:
  • Does sharing a video about a cause create a false sense of empowerment? Spreading awareness is so, so important. But don’t our responsibilities as concerned human beings extend beyond that? I could talk about disability rights until my face turns blue, and I certainly will; but I am not expecting my words to create systemic change. I am expecting my actions to do so. My words are just a conduit for meaningful information, so people can fundamentally understand how and why they should take the next step.
  • What is the strategy behind equating one figure with an incredibly complex issue? This is a great opportunity for me to break out the concept of metonymy, which I learned about when I was a student at the Northwest Institute for Social Change. Metonymy is the idea of using a single, tangible person or symbol to represent a large concept. It’s a psychological trick that allows us to grasp the intangible; and because of this, it’s a powerful practice and it’s certainly a strategy that all nonprofits should consider as they communicate their message. The problem emerges when metonymy is a stand-alone strategy. My beautiful roommate Jen spent time in Uganda building friendships and conducting interviews with female refugees. She is absolutely livid with Invisible Children’s consistently over-exaggerated claims about the LRA. Admittedly, I don’t know much about the bigger picture of what’s going on in Uganda, but watching the Kony video certainly didn’t help.
  • How meaningful is it that the majority of Invisible Children’s budget is funneled to overhead and media production? Despite their refusal to report certain information to the Better Business Bureau, Invisible Children’s financials are pretty clear. This is not an aid organization; it is a film company. As someone who spent a few years in the film industry trying to make social awareness films, I wholeheartedly support the goal of using film and popular culture as a mainline to our consciousness. For this, I applaud Invisible Children. I hope they will always continue to raise awareness about important issues in Uganda; but I do think it is their responsibility, as an influential media organization, to give people a clear picture of the nonprofits people can support when they want to take action.
And finally:
  • Why is it that the most successful nonprofits are almost universally the ones with the best marketing, and how can we use this knowledge responsibly? If there’s one thing Kony 2012 can teach all nonprofit professionals, it’s the overwhelming success of smart marketing. Because that’s what this campaign is: smart. Brilliant, even. So, study what works for Invisible Children, study it comprehensively, and use it. Use social media, use metonymy, use powerful storytelling. Find a great filmmaker in your area and make a film. Do whatever it takes to get the word out about your cause without lying, misleading, or manipulating. But do not, do not, do not let it end there. That’s not why we’re doing this, and any nonprofit worth its salt knows that.

17 responses »

  1. The misuse of public funds and sentiment for campaigns like this are one of the reasons we are working to end tax deductions for charitable donations.

    • I hope you’re not planning on using my post to support your argument. “Research organizations before you donate/examine your personal values” is in no way tantamount to, “End tax cuts for charitable organizations.” There are some great free educational sites like MIT Opencourseware; I’d suggest taking a class on logic and rhetoric if you’re actually planning on arguing this.

  2. Pingback: KONY 2012 « Ms. Holck in Zagreb

  3. Perhaps the greatest atrocity is teaching these children that they spread this carnage by the power of the Holy Spirit to purify the “unrepentant,” twisting Christianity into a religion of horror to their victims. It is spiritual warfare at its very worst, and it could not be more satanic. . .

    Under threat of death, LRA child soldiers attack villages, shooting and cutting off people’s lips, ears, hands, feet, or breasts, at times force-feeding the severed body parts to victims’ families. Some cut open the bellies of pregnant women and tear their babies out. Men and women are gang-raped. As a warning to those who might report them to Ugandan authorities, they bore holes in the lips of victims and padlock them shut. Victims are burned alive or beaten to death with machetes and clubs. The murderous task is considered properly executed only when the victim is mutilated beyond recognition and his or her blood spatters the killer’s clothing.

    In 2008, Michael Gerson shared this horror story in The Washington Post:

    A friend, the head of a major aid organization, tells how his workers in eastern Congo a few years ago chanced upon a group of shell-shocked women and children in the bush. A militia had kidnapped a number of families and forced the women to kill their husbands with machetes, under the threat that their sons and daughters would be murdered if they refused. Afterward the women were raped by more than 100 soldiers; the children were spectators at their own private genocide.

    This is ultimately the work and trademark of a single man: Joseph Kony, the most carnivorous killer since Idi Amin.

  4. Pingback: KONY 2012: Is It A Lie?

  5. MaryBeth Guinan

    Thanks for this exchange. I donated, and forwarded to friends before doing any homework and I now feel very uncomfortable. A clip on You Tube really stoked my paranoia (YouTube–Jason Russell…at Liberty University Convocation) because it shows the IC founder revealing what seems to be a stealth agenda for mobilizing Christian Youth. Liberty U gave us the most god-awful judges W Bush could find, and it supports Mike Huckabee for president. Had I been more informed, I wouldn’t not have given to this cause, at least through this particular entity–(Russell claims it is not a charity but a business.) Sadly, a misinformed donation is like a misinformed vote, and having made voting mistakes, I just hope I haven’t been foolish again. I would be really sorry if my support (though marginal) had the inadvertent effect of promoting the careers of a talented PR team that might someday be producing the band-wagon effects for a future right-wing presidential campaign (2016?). An aspiring film maker can use social documentary and social media to build a resume. Add messianic zeal, campus celebrity, and connections to Liberty U, and this combo offers right-wing ad-makers an opportunity to build a “youth movement” for the next election. To calm me and other secularists, IC should provide links to secular NGOs who are pursuing the same objectives. It would be a shame to use this unfortunate reprise of a 300-year old paradigm (mercantilism/militarism/Christianity and African slavery) as an excuse not to pay attention to human trafficking.

  6. Hi, I appreciate your in-depth exploration of some of the questions that the campaign raised in my mind. However there is one question that for some reason no one has bothered to notice, and it’s a very simple one. As I’m no one of importance, I will probably never get a response from the founders.

    This is an open letter to the founders of IC and Kony2012:

    Can you please tell me what percentage of the Amazon Rainforest you cut down to make all those useless posters….now that the world is aware who Joseph Kony is anyway? How can you “save the world” if you have wasted precious resources that the children you claim to want to save, will need in order to sustain their lives in the future?! How irresponsible! Wouldn’t the first thing you would think of be to use recycled paper?! To me that is obvious! What are you telling the children of the world? To waste precious resources on useless and futile crap like posters which will inevitably make no difference to the scale of the audience of your campaign? Please answer, I’m genuinely interested in your response, as no journalist or otherwise has bothered to even think of asking you this.

    The amazon has a massive battle of their own going on as you would be aware if you paid any attention to world events. Dams {Belo Monte Dam for those that care} being built and destroying their homes, heritage and way of life which has remained untouched for centuries. The tribal people who live there are prepared to die for these forests (that’s men, women & children – in terms for you to understand!!). Over 50% of the worlds rainforest resides in the Amazon and without it, this world will not exist, essentially killing all the children on this earth. Yes, this is an important cause, but one that has been tarred with manipulation, deceit, and now total irresponsibility and disregard for any impact your campaign might have on the environment. But apparently this is the cause of the moment and nothing else matters! I wish The Belo Monte Dam & Chief Raoni & his people where getting this much attention!!! They need the worlds help just as much as the people of Uganda. What do you have to say about this?! What is your excuse for not using recycled paper? You want to “save the children”, but you are killing off the life-source these children will need to survive in the future! What’s the point of saving them then?!!! Your campaign is unbelievably short-sighted!

    I think there are far more worrying issues about your campaign than this, but this seemed so obvious and simple to me that I can’t quite believe it was overlooked!
    Maybe you can explain to me why it was.

  7. The questions you raised are certainly worth asking. Kony 2012 is essentially a well made propaganda film. It is a call to action which has a lot more raw emotion than facts. However, it does an incredibly effective job of getting attention. With more than 52 million views now, if even only 1% of people take the next step, that is an incredible accomplishment. Like you said in Part 1 of your post, it’s very difficult to measure the impact of a non-profit. But it is obvious that the bigger the audience the bigger the impact. It is sad that most people don’t care and don’t know about many important issues but, that is the reality. Thus the necessity of intelligent, focused advertising to fund-raise.

    IC is very film-orientated. That is probably a big part of the success of Kony 2012, because they know how to tell a story. IC was founded after all by 3 filmmakers. There are, of course, some areas for improvement. They should be more upfront about how much of their resources are dedicated to advertising and how much goes to direct services. They could cooperate with other NGOs in the area and get people to donate to those organization as well. The founders could also take a substantial pay cut. However, in order to keep the spotlight on the issues they think are important, they might have to make Self-congratulatory film #12, or even #35.

    At the end of the day though, a lot of the criticism is unjustly focused on IC. They are not the best non-profit, but they are far from the worst.

    Sorry for the long post. Also I find it very admirable that you’ve started your own non-profit!

    • A thoughtful, balanced response, Joe. Thanks for this. Like a few other blogs that have raised questions, this blog has generated a lot of traffic–and, like those other bloggers, I’m being asked to provide an authoritative dissenting voice on IC and the entire issue, which I’m not incredibly comfortable with. Sure, it’s exactly what I signed up for; and I stand by all the questions I raised, but as you have so articulately pointed out, it’s such a gray area. We all need more issue-awareness and I don’t want to minimize that.

      I don’t mean to target IC in general even though I obviously did by making them the focus of this lens. The main point is, more and more of these campaigns are going to crop up, and if we don’t understand how to think critically about them now we may accidentally devote resources to the wrong campaigns in the future based on the same knee-jerk reaction we’re all having now.

  8. Pingback: Is the (out)rage over #KONY2012 subsiding? | Global Health Hub: news and blogosphere aggregator

  9. Localgardner12345

    USA charity, good video, ends in personal action. Nourishing USA.

  10. Pingback: Visible Children – KONY 2012 Criticism | WorldWright's …

  11. I am in support of this movement, probably not for the reasons that you think, and I would like to say thank you for writing this post. I think all of us, supporters, non-supporters (I don’t know; however one wants to label onself) need to have conversations about this issue. Bring to light the strengths and the flaws. This is one the of the first major viral movements via social media in world history because of the generation we live in today. Let’s be honest, of course there are flaws, and I think pointing them out, learning from the mistakes can help us find a better way to solve these complex problems. Basically, what I am trying to say is KEEP QUESTIONING! 🙂

    • Lauren, thank you for your comment, and thank you especially for not making this a conversation about whether or not we support the movement! You’re absolutely right in that we haven’t seen a viral social media activism movement of this magnitude yet, and none of us have a solid background from which to draw as we react to it. This is exciting! There’s a lot to learn from the execution of this campaign, both positive and negative.

  12. Good questions. It is very easy to get caught up in a well planned and executed campaign and forget to stop, think, or question.


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