In the wake of the KONY 2012 film being uploaded to YouTube on March 5th, 2012, Invisible Children, Inc. (the non-profit organization that produced the film) has catapulted to worldwide attention and now its mission and financials are being scrutinized and attacked in the court of public opinion.
The film is an example of a perfectly executed online marketing campaign that will likely be studied and whose format will be copied by other causes seeking to make an impact on a large scale.
Filmmaker Jason Russell founded Invisible Children, Inc. in 2005 to bring attention to, and result in the arrest of, terrorist Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The LRA is responsible for kidnapping children, making them murder their parents and then serving as Kony’s personal Army to wage terror on the people in several countries in central Africa. Girls serve as sex slaves and the boys as warriors. The children soldiers are forced to mutilate their victims and serve Kony’s psychotic aims.
The film IC produced, KONY 2012, has gone viral on the Internet and has been viewed over 80 million times. In it, Jason Russell details the efforts of IC and issues a call to action to force the U.S political leaders to act and send assistance to Uganda and other central African countries to offer military assistance in capturing and prosecuting Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA.
As media attention has increased on IC, so has investigation into how IC spends its money and whether or not it is a worthwhile cause. Then on Friday, March 16th, police detained Jason Russell, where he was on the street allegedly masturbating and acting irrationally. When police arrived, he allegedly cooperated and the police determined that instead of arresting him he’d be better served by taking him to the hospital.
The CEO of IC, Ben Keesey, issued this statement:
Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.
I do not know Jason Russell or anyone associated with Invisible Children, but I do think I understand what they are trying to do and when I posted on Facebookthat I planned on participating on April 20th in plastering Chicago with posters to bring even greater awareness to the cause, my FB page blew up (and so did my email) by some well meaning friends telling me, “IC is a scam, the leaders are corrupt, they waste money” and other comments in that vein.
What annoyed me about the comments my friends were making (and commentary I started reading in the press as I dug deeper) is that the critics sounded an AWFUL lot like the critics my personal hero Theodore Roosevelt talks about in the excerpt of his famous speech delivered at the Sorbonne on April 23, 1910 called, ‘The Man in the Arena’:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
No one can dispute the man is evil and ought to be stopped. The problem has always been corrupt governments in the region that are sometimes brutal themselves and a poorly equipped and poorly led military. With no pressing national interests at stake, the United States (and the rest of the West) never had a good enough reason to intervene just to save lives. If it sounds harsh, it is. The United States is not capable of saving everyone, everywhere, and the LRA problem was never quite big enough to warrant attention and action.
Jason Russell decided that it WAS important enough and formed an organization which created a movement to do something. There are precious few people in this world that give a damn enough about anything to get up off their couches and away from their keyboard to do something, and Jason did exactly that.
Why then, are so many critics jumping on the anti-KONY 2012 bandwagon?
THE CRITICS: 1st WORLD KNOW IT ALLS
There seems to be a tendency in the Western World to immediately try to tear down anyone trying to do something good and point out how they are doing it wrong or they can do it better.
Give Well is a non-profit whose website says of their mission:
Give Well is an independent, nonprofit charity evaluator. We find outstanding giving opportunities and publish the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give.
A noble enough goal, to be sure. Here is what Give Well had to say about its review of Invisible Children:
- Does the charity publish high-quality monitoring and evaluation reports on its website? A charity meets this criterion if it freely publishes – on its website – substantial evidence regarding impact that (a) discusses how the impacts of projects or programs were evaluated, including what information was collected and how it was collected; (b) discusses the actual impact of the evaluated projects. (Why is monitoring and evaluation so important?) We seek enough evidence to be confident that a charity changed lives for the better – not simply that it carried out its activities as intended. Different programs aim for different sorts of life change, and must be assessed on different terms. We do not hold to a single universal rule for determining what “impact” we’re looking for; rather, what we look for varies by program type. (For more, see, What constitutes impact?)
- Does the charity stand out for program selection? A charity meets this criterion if it focuses primarily on (or publishes enough financial information to make it clear that 75% of its recent funding is devoted to) what we consider “priority programs.” These programs have particularly strong evidence bases, enough to lower the burden of proof on a charity running them. (Why do we look for charities implementing proven programs?) Such programs include administering vaccinations, distributing insecticide-treated nets, and treating tuberculosis, among many others. (For more, see our full list of priority programs.)
invisible children, inc did not meet either of these criteria. If you have documentation that demonstrates that invisible children, inc does meet either of these criteria, please send it to us using our charity submission form for international aid charities.
After reading this, one might assume that giving money to Invisible Children would be lunatic, crazy even. When focusing on how Give Well determines its score consider the line about how they focus on “priority programs,” things like “insecticide treated nets and treating tuberculosis among many others.”
According to Give Well, because Invisible Children is dedicated to finding and prosecuting one man, they are somehow not worthy of your dollars.
I can’t think of anything more condescending than a group who decides what charity is worthwhile and which ones don’t ‘have enough impact.’ On its face, their goal is a good one as there are plenty of fluffy groups that like to take and spend people’s money without actually doing anything. But because IC hasn’t bought nets, built roads or treated tuberculosis doesn’t mean what they are doing doesn’t have value.
Certainly Give Well thinks they have all the answers so we can trust their judgment, right?
Consider this page from the section of the site entitled, ‘Our Shortcomings’:
Because we are a startup organization working in areas we have little experience with, it is particularly important that we constantly recognize and learn from our shortcomings. We make this log public so as to be up front with any potential supporters about ways in which we need to improve.
The first line says it all: “Because we are a startup organization working in areas we have little experience with…”
Good Lord. Looking at the team of who actually runs Give Well really tells the whole story- the two founders, from Give Well’s ‘about us’ page:
Holden Karnofsky | Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director. Holden graduated from Harvard in 2003 with a degree in Social Studies, and spent the next several years in the hedge fund industry. He co-founded Give Well in mid-2007.
Elie Hassenfeld | Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director. Elie graduated from Columbia in 2004 with a degree in Religion, and spent the next several years in the hedge fund industry. He co-founded Give Well in mid-2007.
I feel that anyone trying to do good deserves the benefit of the doubt, but seeing a couple hedge fund managers claiming to have the answers on what makes a good charity, I’m a bit doubtful. To borrow an old military euphemism, I have to wonder if the founders of Give Well spilled the same blood in the same mud as the people that were on the ground in 2005 when they decided to found Invisible Children. In my experience, I didn’t meet any hedge fund managers when I was in the Army- and I am wondering if these two actually did any charity work helping other people in between college and running hedge funds.
To their credit, their Board of Directors has a few people with solid charity work but the full time staff seems woefully ill prepared to pass judgment on what makes a good mission.
Like Give Well, many of IC’s critics say things like, “What about the people in (insert country with horrible atrocities here)? That money could be better spent doing (insert a worthier cause) or purchasing (insert worthy equipment) and building (schools, hospitals, roads, etc.)”
This type of thinking is exactly what Roosevelt referenced in ‘The Man in the Arena’. In Jason Russell we have a man who saw something horrific with his own eyes and decided to do something about it. After he started experiencing success, the haters came out of the woodwork telling him how he could do it better, or where he had done it wrong, or how money could be better spent.
It reminds me of when Oprah Winfrey built a school for girls in Africa and critics started asking why she didn’t build a school in the U.S. One wonders how many schools for impoverished girls the same critics built themselves. If Oprah had built the school in the U.S., there would have been critics asking why she built it in THAT city instead of theirs.
Joseph Kony is a murderer. He has slaughtered children, mutilated victims and made life miserable for many, many people.
At its most base level, KONY 2012’s aim is to get the United States to offer assistance to Central Africa and help the governments there root him out and “bring him to justice” the same way Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were brought to justice.
In response to the attention brought by Russell, President Obama dispatched 100 “military advisors” to the region. For those that don’t know, anytime the U.S. sends “military advisors” somewhere, they are sending members of the US SOC (Special Operations Command) which consist of Green Berets, Army Rangers, Delta Force, Seals and Air Force Search and Rescue.
These are the people that when they go somewhere, things GET DONE. Usually the public at large never knows they were there. In others (like the killing of Bin Laden) the public hears about it after the fact.
No, IC isn’t spending money on nets, or schools, or roads or libraries. They spent their money on creating materials (like the film) to draw attention to their cause and on lobbying. Lobbying? Yes, lobbying. It costs money to have pros lobby members of the Congress and get them to support your cause. If you think your elected officials pass laws because they think they are good for society, you’d only be right a small percentage of the time. Our government is controlled by lobbyists and special interests that have money to spend. If you want something to get done, you need to get the ear of elected officials and there is nothing they fear more than being on the wrong side of a hot button issue come election time.
As critics of IC point out where the money is spent, they fret about this.
The goal all along was to get the U.S. to ACT to save people’s lives in a part of the world where the United States’ national interests were not at risk. American’s appetite for war has declined precipitously since the dragging on of Iraq and Afghanistan; if the President intervened in a place like Central Africa, it would be political suicide for him- unless someone put the plight of children into a way that we could all identify with.
KONY 2012 the movie did that. Seeing the young Ugandan Jacob break down and start sobbing after he said he wished he were dead was heart wrenching. He escaped the LRA and his brother was murdered by having his throat cut. (starts at 4:30 in the movie).
Jason Russell had a small boy telling him he wished he were dead. Because his life was so horrible, he wished he were dead so he could see his brother (who was murdered) in heaven. Understandably, Russell wanted to help and then went further than other people- he acted.
Because Jason Russell shined a light on the LRA, the U.S. is acting to hunt down a mass murderer. If the U.S. military finds him, he’ll likely be dead. If the ICC gets him, he’ll rot in jail for the rest of his life.
HOW IC SPENDS ITS MONEY
An excellent article by Adam Pash over at Lifehacker lays out a way to evaluate whether or not a charity is worth your money- and the best way to do it is look at a charity’s 990 Form which details how their money is spent.
Looking at IC’s 990, we see that the founders of IC make a salary of $89K, $84K and $88K. This, I’d say, an entirely reasonable salary.
The real problem critics seem to have is that (as stated above) IC isn’t buying nets, building schools, etc, etc, etc and is instead focused on hunting down and catching Joseph Kony.
It has been posited by several government organizations that if Kony is caught, the LRA fighters may act independently or follow another leader.
The people using this as reasons why NOT to pursue Kony are living in some kind of fantasy land- if we remove him, someone else bad may take over. Appeasement never works as a long-term solution- ever. It didn’t work in Europe in the 30s, it didn’t work trying to negotiate with Al Qaeda and it didn’t work with Kony in the past.
This is troubling, to be sure. I understand the need for a good PR spin, but let’s face it- he must have been higher than a kite. I’ve been dehydrated and exhausted before- and I never took off my clothes and masturbated as Russell (allegedly) did in public the other day.
It is my hope that he was blowing off steam and either drank a bit too much or smoked a bit too much of something and acted in a way he is surely regretting right now. Unfortunately, his timing couldn’t have been worse. The media is focusing in on his (admittedly huge) screw up and causing IC to take further heat.
Since I wasn’t there, I’ll wait along with the rest of the world to see what the fallout will be.
INS’T KONY NOT ACTIVE?
The last complaint of the critics is that Joseph Kony has dispersed his forces and hasn’t been active in the last six years (in Uganda) as if this somehow excused the man for the crimes he has committed.
If children were abducted in the U.S. by some cult leader psycho and forced to murder their own parents and mutilate other victims, society would not rest until the leader was hunted down and executed. Because Kony is in Africa, critics seem to think money should be spent on other, “better” areas.
The LRA is active in several countries around Central Africa and one would assume getting rid of Kony is just the start.
WHAT INVISIBLE CHILDREN HAS ACCOMNPLISHED
In addition to successfully lobbying the U.S. Government to act, IC has built a network of radio towers that broadcasts alerts and update to villages throughout Central Africa to let them know when a suspected LRA incident has taken place so people can be on alert and not surprised by the group.
They also maintain a ‘LRA Crisis Tracker Website’ that shows where LRA perpetrated incidents take place to keep the issue and news on it fresh for people that care.
To deal with the criticism they have received, they maintain a page answering the most frequent criticisms.
Joseph Kony is not the greatest threat to mankind. He IS an evil, murdering psychopath that is shattering lives around Africa. There are plenty of good causes to support around the world, as many critics have pointed out.
That doesn’t make the mission of Kony 2012 any less important- if you think having this man brought to justice is a good thing, support it. If you don’t, stop complaining and trolling online and give to a cause you DO care about it. It is easy to complain and criticize. It’s much harder to effect positive change.