KONY, Networked Nonprofits, and Transparency | Beth's Blog

KONY, Networked Nonprofits, and Transparency

Networked Nonprofit

On Tuesday, right before the  KONY video exploded on the mainstreams  and went viral online, my 6th grade son came home from school and announced,  “Did you know that there are more people on Facebook today compared to the number of people on the planet ten years ago?     I immediately asked him how do you know that?  What was your source?   He answered, “KONY Youtube Video.”   That was the first I heard of the video and immediately tracked it down to watch the 30 minute video.   The storytelling was engaging and compelling.

Then I started to get emails from respected colleagues and a few hours later I saw references all over my friends Facebook newsfeeds and on Twitter.  I shared the video on my personal profile and it prompted quite a heated discussion in the comments between my colleagues.    The controversy on my Facebook wall boiled down to those who felt the emotional pull of the story and those who had an alternative view.

Evan Bailyn, an author who writes about what makes content go viral, said:

“I read the critical responses and found no convincing reasons to disregard the campaign. The Kony campaign is actually bigger than even its highly noble mission. It is about participating in social media to make a positive difference and doing so on a large scale. Most people did not get to partake in the Arab spring, for instance, but Kony is something everyone can take part in and feel like they are making a real difference. I donated and am frankly fascinated by what I see as a lurch forward in our society’s evolution towards a greater connectedness.”

Colleague, Lina Srivastava, noted researcher, consultant, and expert on transmedia activism responded:

Evan, no campaign should be bigger than its mission, or aim at participation for the sake of participation. Our increasing connectedness should be celebrated as an effective method of achieving change, not as the change itself. Most people didn’t “get to participate” in the Arab Spring because we didn’t have an effective role in regime change beyond global support and voice amplification (a crucial role, but not the change per se) and to think otherwise would be paternalistic. This campaign is just that, besides being deeply manipulative and factually incorrect, and perpetuates a stereotype of the outside DIY “activist” saving the Africans, without a clear path from their narrative to their methodology to their desired outcome of apprehending and prosecuting Kony. (“Buy a bracelet, we’ll hunt him down?” Is that that the story?) And where is the local community in all of this? Nowhere to be found in this video. As activists, professionals in social good, and as storytellers, we have to move beyond engaging the community to really parsing out what is the right change and the effective path to the solution.

And so the debate on my Facebook wall continued with very thoughtful comments.   There is more analysis of the problems over simplification like this cogent analysis from Ethan Zuckerman.

The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifible individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.

Here’s the problem – these simple narratives can cause damage. By simplifying the DRC situation to a conflict about minerals, the numerous other causes – ethnic tensions, land disputes, the role of foreign militaries – are all minimized. The proposed solutions – a ban on the use of “conflict minerals” in mobile phones – sounds good on paper. In practice, it’s meant that mining of coltan is no longer possible for artisanal miners, who’ve lost their main source of financial support – instead, mining is now dominated by armed groups, who have the networks and resources to smuggle the minerals out of the country and conceal their origins. Similarly, the focus on rape as a weapon of war, Autesserre argues, has caused some armed groups to engage in mass rape as a technique to gain attention and a seat at the negotiating table. Finally, the focus on the Congolese state as a solution misses the point that the state has systematically abused power and that the country’s rulers have used power to rob their citizenry. A simple, easily disseminated narrative, Autesserre argues, has troublesome unintended consequences.

Mary Joyce points out that the film comes off as racist:

  • Invisible Children has no Africans on its board of directors and collects money for itself rather than for Ugandan organizations.  (source)
  • The heroes of the film are white young people and adults from the US and Europe, particularly video narrator and campaigner Jason Russell.
  • The victims are Ugandan children. Ugandan adults appear in the film to validate the work of Invisible Children, not to represent their own work.
  • The video embodies the outdated idea of the “white man’s burden,” that white people improve the countries of the global south by intervening and enforcing their values, that the people who live in these countries cannot improve their countries alone.

The campaign prompted discussion online and here in the US about KONY, although hardly anyone in Uganda is talking about him.   Africans are talking about the campaign – and you can see a roundup of posts from African bloggers responding to the hype.

The issue is complex.   The KONY video simplified it, but left out important facts.   Is that responsible social change?    For responsible social change, you need transparency.    As my colleague, Shonali Burke, pointed out there was a lack of it in the film.  For example, it  does not make the timeline/dates very clear – it mixes recent and older footage without date stamps.  [If want the facts about dates, see this post by African blogger, journalist, and researcher, Angelo Op-Aiya Izama from Uganda.

KD Paine and I just submitted our final manuscript for “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit” edited by the fabulous Bill Paarlberg where we devoted a chapter to the practice of transparency and learning in public and how to measure it.    We looked at the dimensions of transparency which include:  accountability, disclosure, participation, and absence of secrecy and how to measure that.   The last quality is relevant to this Kony Kerfuffle – absence of secrecy is when an organization doesn’t leave out important but potentially damaging (to its campaign) details or confuse the facts.  For a nonprofit to be transparent means that it is open, accountable, and honest with its stakeholders and the public.

Has Invisible Children been transparent?   Is this responsible social change?    Or if the campaign is raising awareness about a horrid situation in another place in the world and other NGOs doing work there, does it matter?

If we step away from the controversy and ask if there are best practices to learn from about building movements around social causes?    Here’s a Forbes post that sums up 12 lessons learned and another post from Netroots One thing that is important to point out is that built their network before they needed with years of offline organizing with young people.

  • Simplicity and clarity of message
  • Compelling and emotionally engaging storytelling/messaging
  • Years of network building, offline organizing with young people
  • Building relationships with online/offline influencers and getting them to be messengers for the cause
  • Activating teens who share with their friends and even younger kids like my son to tell their parents

What have we learned from the KONY campaign that we can apply to our own efforts to build networks to solve complex social problems responsibly?   The idealist folks asked a better question in their Facebook status update: “Do you think the KONY 2012 video is causing more harm than good, or more good than harm?”

24 Responses

  1. A great synopsis, as always, Beth. Thanks for the quick and concise write up about the issue.

  2. Karin Romans says:

    Great post Beth! The arguments on either side are compelling, for me reminds me to be honest in my marketing and represent the face of the donor and consistently poll our audiences, donors, and clients to ensure we are connecting with them honestly and directly.

  3. Beth, thank you for this thorough analysis. I spent a good portion of my evening trying to understand what the KONY video was supposed to accomplish and decided I needed more information. So, naturally I went to Guide Star and looked at their 990. What I found (or did not find) made me very weary.

    Ultimately, I have reservations about the Invisible Children advocacy efforts because of their lack of transparency. I wondered why the video did not show more of the history of the region and what positive efforts other NGOs are working on. Morse so, it made me very uncomfortable that Invisible Children, Inc. is positioning itself as the sole voice of advocacy for those living in war zones.

  4. Mary says:

    Thanks for the link, Beth, and the thoughtful post. Part of what makes this case interesting is its complexity. There are both strongly positive and strongly negative aspects. Most of my “5 lessons” from the campaign (http://www.meta-activism.org/2012/03/5-lessons-from-kony-2012/) were of the “yes, but..” variety.

  5. Beth says:

    Thanks Mary — I appreciated your post and the context your provided. It seems like it is a question – more harm than good or more good than harm ..

  6. Vida Cropas says:

    At the risk of over simplifications I simply asked myself a few questions 1) What is the position of the Ugandans? Answer: they do not want Western interference. 2) Is Kony a threat at this time? Answer: NO, he hasn’t been seen for years and is believed to be dead or in exile. 3) Could this be a scam? Answer: YES, there is OIL involved -what better way to invade a country than under the guise of a humanitarian mission -with the funding and support of the kind hearted…I lived for a psychopath for 6 years. I know how good they are at -as Robert Hare put it- “playing concertos on heartstrings,” and spinning illusions and lies. So, because the Ugandans should clearly have a say in what transpires in their own country, we really should mind our own business -such as holding OUR OWN mega corporations accountable for their slave labour conditions, abuse -and exploitation- of children. Lets start with Western corporations like Hershey’s, Nike, and Monsanto, and educate people on the importance of fair trade, and AFTER we clean our own act, then, and only then, should we advise other countries on how they should deal with their issues… 😛

  7. Beth

    The KONY situation needs to be added to the annals of social media moments. Much has been written there and I’m, frankly, still trying to make sense of it. On the question of transparency specifically, I think we are all still coming to realize what it means to be really transparent. As you say, “it’s no secrets.” But it also means transparency of process and purpose. My sense from the KONY film is that while IC was thrilled with the 50m+ viewers, they were caught off guard by the attention those viewers put on IC. When we step out into the public with our messages we must be prepared for the conversation – the questions and attention won’t be scripted. Ironically, there still seems to be a somewhat opaque approach to transparency – as in, “I’ll share what I want and I want you to take it for what I say it is.” That’s not really the way glass houses work.

    Great post!


  8. […] KONY, Networked Nonprofits, and Transparency Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Filed under: Tools   |  Leave a Comment Tags: credibility, Kony2012, viral marketing […]

  9. […] Lina Srivastava, a fellow human rights colleague and transmedia expert who I deeply respect explained it quite it well on Beth Kanter’s blog: […]

  10. Great post Beth. This campaign was extraordinary in its execution. Many people say you can’t make a video go viral. Well, IC did. While you cannot question their passion and commitment to this cause, Jason Russell did come across as exceptionally self-aggrandizing, which detracted from his message. I do agree that the importance of transparency is one of the key take-aways. The point about date-stamping footage reminds me of similar criticism of Michael Moore. Meanwhile, IC responded to many of their critics: http://www.invisiblechildren.com/critiques.html

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  12. […] Beth Kanter agreed, saying, “I believe nonprofits in a day of social media connectedness, really have to understand transparency and that they can’t get away with not being transparent.” Beth elaborated further on this in a recent post, reiterating that “for responsible social change, you need transparency.” […]

  13. Pamela Grow says:

    A terrific summary Beth. For another perspective, read Tax Forms Show Invisible Children Funded By Antigay, Creationist Christian Right http://www.talk2action.org/story/2012/3/11/145213/275

  14. […] Beth Kanter agreed, saying, “I believe nonprofits, in a day of social media connectedness, really have to understand transparency and that they can’t get away with not being transparent.” Beth elaborated further on this in a recent post, reiterating that “for responsible social change, you need transparency.” […]

  15. Danoz says:

    Sorry to nitpick, but the only part I picked up on was the quote about Facebook having more people than the planet did 10 years ago. Facebook last stated that 845 million people were using it in Dec 2011, Earth had ~6.1 billion people in 2000.

    Other than that, a very good summary 🙂

  16. […] Source: KONY, Networked Nonprofits, and Transparency […]

  17. ahines says:

    I am so skeptical of campaigns from nonprofits such as Invisible Children and the famous To Write Love on Her Arms. Both have very broad, noble missions, but do not have realistic means to reach these noble goals. They become something like glorified fashion lines to make people feel good about themselves (buy this tee shirt, because we just need to raise enough awareness and the problem will go away.)
    Raising awareness can be great. After all, people need to be aware of a problem in order to move forward in solving it. But with organizations such as these, it seems to be all they shoot for. These problems are complicated and take lots of funding to solve, and raising awareness does not in itself pay the bills. I’m wearing your shirt–now what? What’s the next step?

    Kony was a great example of the power of social media, but it was poorly done and not factual.

    Thanks again for this balanced, realistic article on this heated issue.

  18. Heather says:

    Why can’t people for once accept the video for what it really is and what it is doing? A creative, highly intelligant PERSON helped try to help heal a problem! He stepped up to the plate! Why is there so much hate in the world, and over someone trying to help????? No wonder this country gets so mixed up in our own SELF. Stop rejecting the message of love and receive it for all that it is. Simple.

  19. […] email design inspiration from Invisible Children Koney 2012: Cover the Night, putting aside the controversy and looking at the structure and design of this particular email. If you want more info on the […]

  20. Jo says:

    Wow. This is the first time I’ve been to your blog Beth, and only found it through a pin on pinterest(Sad. I know.) I hadn’t given this video a second thought as to whether it was for the good of the people and children in Uganda. I saw the video when it went viral and I gave what I could. I’m not saying that I won’t continue to donate to organizations that “tug at my heartstrings”, however, it did open my eyes a bit to see a different side to this and any other organization. Thanks for the post.

  21. Beth says:

    Jo: Wow, thank you for clicking through from Pinterest – I love Pinterest too – so I don’t think it is sad to discover resources through the visual approach. I’ve been watching my traffic referrals from Pinterest and sends quick a lot of users over, although what I consider success is a thoughtful comment and food for thought for other blog posts and learning. Not sure how much Pinterest was or was not contributing to that.

  22. Jennifer says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Beth! I’m studying public relations and have learned a lot about transparency and how important it is for the public to be able to trust a company or corporation. It was insightful to see this concept related to the KONY campaign. I liked how you highlighted both sides of the argument in regard to transparency, as well as the positives and negatives of the campaign as a whole.

  23. […] KONY, Networked Nonprofits, and Transparency Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponLinkedInPinterestGoogle +1Like this:Like Loading… Written by sherryheyl Posted in Society Tagged with Kony, nonprofit, reputation, social media Trees Atlanta Wins The Change Challenge! Contact The best way to contact me is by email: sherryheyl@gmail.com Follow Blog via Email […]

  24. […] Beth Kanter agreed, saying, “I believe nonprofits in a day of social media connectedness, really have to understand transparency and that they can’t get away with not being transparent.” Beth elaborated further on this in a recent post, reiterating that “for responsible social change, you need transparency.” […]