KONY 2012: Flash Without the Impact?

Give me some money, I’ll give you a bracelet, and we can solve the world’s problems. Sounds plausible, right? Maybe not so much. On Monday, Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” promo video went viral. The video highlights Joseph Kony’s crimes against humanity committed in Northern Uganda through the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  It has received upwards of 50 million hits on YouTube in just 5 days and landed #stopkony in the top 10 trending items on Twitter Wednesday night—an impressive, rapid rise for a non-profit.

Yet most people watching it probably don’t know that only 46.5% of Invisible Children’s expenditures are actually used on their Central Africa Programs. They receive $3.3 million in general donations every year and spend $1.8 million on Awareness Programs. That means that every time you put a dollar in a jar for Invisible Children, approximately 54 cents of that dollar is going towards “Awareness,” raised through product distribution and media outreach.

Invisible Children has been touted as a revolutionary model for non-profits because they’ve successfully harnessed social media to make millions of youth socially active—or at least, feel that they’re social activists because they liked something on Facebook and put on a bracelet. This sort of “slacktivism” (as the New York Times refers to it) certainly generates much needed funds for the social sector. But is this really the best model? Or are we simply sacrificing depth for breadth?

Despite our reputation as a business and finance oriented school, CMCers have a compassion for community development. SOURCE Non-Profit Consulting, CMC's student-run consulting organization comprised of 28 students, advises five local non-profits on program strategy. Last summer, I put my SOURCE training to use on the ground in Ghana with Chloe Hauenstein CMC '14, working for a Ghanaian owned and operated non-profit.

Through my experiences, I’ve come to realize that as college students with limited time and financial resources, we all want to get the most out of what we give, which isn’t necessarily fostered by non-profit social media tycoons.  I would urge my CMC peers to donate, but donate smart.  Take into consideration the following things when you look for an organization to support:

1. Ask for the impact numbers. No—don’t ask—demand to see some results based accountability numbers (commonly referred to as RBA’s in the nonprofit world). How many children has Invisible Children actually helped? How many have been returned to their families? In other words, are the things they’re doing impactful?

At SOURCE, many of our teams work on developing quantitative evaluations (including regression analysis) for local nonprofits. That’s because in order to get grants, the organizations are required to show statistical, economic impact results. Donors and activists should use similar discretion.

2. Don’t be afraid to give to “overhead.” Organizations that seem to use a high percentage of their donations on administrative costs are commonly criticized, discouraging potential donors. However, one of the biggest problems in the social sector—including here in Claremont—is that technology is the first budget item cut under strained funding.

When SOURCE starts working for a client, they often have rooms full of files. Paper files. They increase their efficiency ten-fold if they digitize all of those files. Sometimes they just don’t have the capacity or funding to do so. In Ghana, I had to walk three miles from the organization’s office to get internet, which was essential for the projects I was working on. While these non-profits can’t market their need for donations for internet because it’s not as appealing to donors as books for children, overhead can, in fact, be the most impactful tool

3. Support local solutions. What Americans living in poverty need isn’t the same as what Africans living in poverty need. Yet too often, organizations take American models and implant them thousands of miles away in a foreign environment. Many non-profits, like Invisible Children, try to solve this problem by establishing “country project leaders” who are locals running the non-profit’s program in the targeted site.

Question how the non-profit uses those local employees. Do they seek their feedback or just make them adopt the non-profit’s curriculum? Are locals also involved in administrative tasks? They should be. They’ll know which individuals to trust and the best resources to use to maximize the use of every dollar.

Invisible Children has done great things. Everyone now knows who Joseph Kony is, as they should. But should you donate to them? My advice is do your research. It takes them half of the video to admit that Joseph Kony and the LRA are no longer in Uganda, where the organization works. What are they doing to help the other countries catch him? Do they have country project leaders there, too? How are they allocating those funds and what returns are they seeing? If you feel comfortable with the answers to those questions, then donate.

If you want more transparency, look for organizations like The Tipping Point, that do the work for you. They conduct rigorous regression analysis to make sure they’re supporting non-profits that work.

Social media has proven itself to be an incredibly powerful tool for political and social activism. Yet, as we see an increase in a non-profit presence on these sites and more high-tech marketing tactics, question the organizations pursuing this model. It’s great to be socially active—wonderful in fact. Just make sure that you’re giving to an organization that makes a positive difference and can prove it.

To learn more about SOURCE and how you can apply, please attend the upcoming Information Session on March 27th at 5-6pm in Kravis Lower Court 62. Contact SOURCE Managers Kate Johnson (kjohnson13@cmc.edu) and Tamar Kaplan (tkaplan14@cmc.edu) for more information.