[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.
- 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.