Kony 2012 and its Impact on Philanthropy

Posted on 27 March 2012

Since the Kony 2012 video exploded onto the scene several weeks ago, there has been no shortage of criticism and controversy surrounding the phenomena and the organization that launched it, Invisible Children.

The video famously (infamously?) drew more than 80 million views and thrust its director, Jason Russell, into the international spotlight. The resulting glare led to a disturbing meltdown from Russell that was caught on tape and led to his recent stay in a mental health facility.

Now, in the last couple of days, Invisible Children has released another video claiming that “Kony 2012 is Working,” (see below) featuring the group’s CEO, Ben Keesey, and its Director of Idea Development, Jedidiah Jenkins. But, in what seems to be an inevitable event in the course of this story, another video has quickly surfaced casting Invisible Children, and Jenkins in particular, in a bad light.

Now here at Philanthropy in Focus, we’ve stayed relatively clear of the Invisible Children situation other than to discuss criticisms leveled at its philanthropic efforts. The other aspects of the case simply have not been as relevant to our mission here as other philanthropy-related stories of late. But during a recent conversation among bloggers (see blogroll!), Frank Oswald of the always-informative and entertaining Mental Shavings, asked: “Will the evolving narrative surrounding KONY 2012 do more harm than good for future philanthropists?” And I realized that the Invisible Children situation is very much related to philanthropy.

So what will the impact of the Invisible Children story have on future philanthropists?

I have heard concerns that many of the young supporters of Invisible Children who have been introduced to the concepts of charity through the Kony 2012 video will become disenfranchised about nonprofits due to the controversy. I, for one, am not too concerned about this. I believe it is almost inevitable for philanthropists to lose much of their youthful idealism toward charity as they become more involved.

The more one becomes engaged in nonprofit work, the more one realizes the limitations and issues inherent in philanthropy: donors oftentimes give for selfish reasons, or even unspoken quid-pro-quo considerations; nonprofits have been known to alter their work or deviate from their mission in order to secure larger gifts; the government allows the very wealthy to enjoy additional tax breaks for charitable contributions; and so on. Philanthropy is not a completely pure, altruistic aspect of our society. Nor does it need to be. The very transfer of money from those with it to those who need it is the positive end result of the process. The sometimes ugly aspects of philanthropy are the eggs we must break to the make the proverbial omelet in order to support nonprofits and their worthy mission to address social issues.

Far from having a negative effect on philanthropy, a healthy dose of reality and skepticism can make one a better philanthropist. In the case of Invisible Children, a savvy philanthropist would have checked the group’s financials and realized that less than a third of donations went to on-the-ground support for Uganda before making a gift. Oh the handwringing that would have spared us!

In terms of the impact on philanthropy, the Kony 2012 situation finally provided us with a glimpse at the possibilities and limitations on the use of social media in the nonprofit world. If done properly, social media can be a wonderful way for nonprofits to connect with their donors and constituents. It can help an organization communicate its message through a wide array of media tools, and evoke a sense of urgency and compassion in a way not possible before.

However, social media is also a less reliable means of communications. As we saw with Invisible Children, nonprofits lose control of their message once they communicate it through social media. Strategic communications require a clear, concise message aimed squarely at a specific target audience. But social media opens the door for a much larger audience to seize upon a message and frame it as they see fit, oftentimes in a way that is much different than a nonprofit’s intended purpose. That’s how Invisible Children’s initial target audience of 500,000 turned into 80+ million. Once that happened, they lost control of their message, and opened the door for an avalanche of attention for which they were woefully unprepared. The impact has been devastating for the organization’s image and, potentially, its existence.

In the end, I don’t think the fallout from the Invisible Children situation will have much of an impact on philanthropy or budding philanthropists. Scandal and controversy are par for the course for charities (just ask Komen for the Cure) and the nonprofit world in general. Invisible Children is just the latest example. Seasoned philanthropists have barely batted an eye at the situation, and any disenfranchised young philanthropists would have lost their idealism eventually. If anything, it’s better that it happened sooner than later, and they can now embark on a life of charity rooted in a realistic view of philanthropy.

Kony 2012 is Working Video

2 responses to Kony 2012 and its Impact on Philanthropy

  • Great post, Brian. And thanks for the generous hat tip!

    You’ve laid out a reasoned argument here (sometimes wincingly so: “they would have lost their idealism eventually.”)

    But reason often loses out to emotion, which can be a much stronger force in personal decision-making.

    I wonder, for instance, if “KONY 2012” will become shorthand for parent refusal to allow children to participate in causes “they bring home from school.” (The equivalent of “I don’t have any change” when passing the gumball machine.)

    Healthy skepticism is, indeed, healthy. But blanket rejection can destructive to all causes, legitimate and dubious.

    Perhaps the biggest “winner” in all of this is a service like Charity Navigator. I’m not sure people will seek it out on their own. But perhaps more and more charities will be “forced” to badge their sites to win entry-level credibility.

    “Controlling the message” almost sounds quaint to me these days. I think those days are gone. That’s why the world needs strategic communicators.

    • Brian says:

      Thanks Frank!
      Your question about potential impact on philanthropy really got me thinking.

      I hope this won’t lead to parents dissuading their children to get involved in charity on their own. If anything, the Kony 2012 situation really touched on something in a younger generation that drew them to the cause. That’s a powerful thing, and I hope it’s not a casualty of all of this. The idealism of youth can be a great entry into charity, and the hard lessons we all learn as we get older can help mold one’s view of the world and inclination to do something positive through charity.

      I agree wholeheartedly in the concepts of services like Charity Navigator and other third-party assessments of nonprofits. I think the knee-jerk response to the Kony 2012 video is a tale of what not to do with your charitable giving. To give money to a nonprofit is a sign of support, and an action that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It should be the result of a thoughtful look at the organization, its mission, and how that aligns to one’s own priorities and interests.

      An educated donor is a good donor!

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