Monday, March 19, 2012

The Phenomenon That Is Kony 2012

My daughter came home from school wanting to raise money for it. Volunteers braved the crowded streets of Chicago on St. Patrick's Day to support it. News sites and blogs are abuzz with it. No matter where I go, it seems that the Kony 2012 is there.

For those of you who have been somehow managed to miss it (how?), here is the short film on YouTube about African warlord Joseph Kony's abuse of children as part of his rebel force in Uganda that went viral. Twitter and Facebook soon followed, and the video sparked online activism overnight, especially among younger viewers (see, for example, this CNN piece.) Next thing you know, Rihanna is tweeting racy pictures of herself to raise awareness for the cause (sorry, no link).

Almost immediately thereafter, questions began to arise. The video was produced by the San Diego-based nonprofit Invisible Children. News organizations noted issues with its BBB Wise Giving Alliance rating and its 3 out of 4 rating by Charity Navigator. No doubt that Guidestar was flooded with requests for IC's Forms 990s (free subscription required). IC posted its official response to these and other criticisms on its website. Given the rapid rise of the video, I suppose it was inevitable that an ignominious fall would follow. Jason Russell, the director of Kony 2012 and a co-founder of IC, was found drunk, indecent, and essentially having a breakdown in the middle of a street in San Diego. His family blamed the stress from the intense media scrutiny of the film, the organization, and the director himself.

While the final chapter of the story of IC is yet to be written, I do think that the Kony 2012 phenomenon presents a teachable moment about the need for and limits of disclosure in a system that depends upon private philanthropy. If anyone doubted it before, the power of social media to further social movements is evident in the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and now Kony 2012. It's cheap, it's ubiquitous, and most of all, it's fast, that it is easy for the message to get ahead of the organization. Add to the mix the fact that social media users tend to skew younger, and you end up with my daughter and her friends wanting to hold a bake sale to help the poor kids in Uganda. On the one hand, this is a noble sentiment and one I don't want to suppress; on the other hand, trying to explain Form 990 disclosures to an 11 year old is... well, let's just say it's not a productive use of time. When it comes to charitable giving, I'm not sure caveat emptor works well in this new media environment (assuming it ever worked in the old one).

Even if a donor does have the presence of mind to put down the Twitter and slowly back away long enough to do some research, are the tools available adequate to the job? A review of the Form 990, in my opinion, really doesn't say very much in this case. Of the two largest private rating services, Charity Navigator gave a three out of four and Wise Giving Alliance said IC didn't respond. Is this sufficient for a donor to move forward - not to move foward? Are there other resources that a government should provide to donors (a timely question in light of the approval of the Model Protection of Charitable Assets Act by NCCUSL over the summer) to assist them in the process? How do we make interested donors know these assets are available to them? Is the availability enough?


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