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Paul Shoemaker Headshot

What's Wrong With the Kony Firestorm? Maybe Not What You Think

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Kony 2012 - Officiel
Kony 2012 - Officiel

Most of us have heard or seen the name Kony this week. If you haven't, you're behind 57 million people on YouTube, and probably several million more by the time you read this. It has raised a wide range of reactions, all over the spectrum. I'm not here to advocate one way or another for the content or cause or how Invisible Children -- the video producers behind Kony2012 -- go about it. What does make me kind of nuts is the criticism that some people have laid out -- that Invisible Children doesn't spend enough money on "programs." When I opened the Seattle Times Friday, I saw an article that noted, "The burst of attention... has brought other criticism, including the ratio of the group's spending on direct aid and its Charity Navigator rating." (Charity Navigator is changing, but it was one of the worst things that ever happened to the non-profit sector).

I have addressed this issue hundreds of times in my job over the last 14 years, and I have come to realize it will be hundreds more. Invisible Children is an advocacy organization -- that's what they do. They have to spend money on media, i.e. "non-direct aid," because that's their strategy. The criticisms that they spend too much on "overhead" is like telling Heinz you spend too much on non-tomato ingredients in your ketchup. If you want to buy Heinz ketchup, buy it. If you don't want to, don't. But don't tell them they made their ketchup the wrong way. That is what the product is.

For Invisible Children, their "product" is awareness and advocacy, not direct service and aid. That requires a fundamentally different financial model than someone, for example, getting food to starving people. Heinz has a different business model than Intel because they make different products; the same is true for the social sector, but we like to treat all non-profits like they are in the same product category, and therefore measure their effectiveness by the same metrics -- and often by the wrong metrics, like percent spending on direct aid versus "overhead." It doesn't work, never will, and it leads people to real distortions in their charitable giving.

The Kony2012 clip may be incredibly effective or soft bigotry -- I don't know. But it is what it is and we should argue about the product, not how Invisible Children spent their money to create that product.