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Kony 2012: The Great Product Debate

March 12, 2012

(Paul Shoemaker is executive director of Social Venture Partners Seattle and recently was named one of the "Top 50 Most Influential People in the Non-Profit Sector" by The NonProfit Times. In his last post, he wrote about non-financial capital as a driver of social change.)

PShoemaker_headshotMost of us have heard or seen the name "Joseph Kony" over the last week. Indeed, as of Monday morning, 74 million people had watched the Kony 2012 video on YouTube. Most of us also are aware that the video has generated a wide range of reactions. I'm not here to argue for or against the video, the Kony 2012 campaign, or Invisible Children, the nonprofit organization behind the campaign. What makes me kinda nuts, however, is the criticism that Invisible Children doesn't spend enough money on "programs." An article in the Seattle Times on Friday, for example, noted that "The burst of attention [for Invisible Children]...has brought other criticism, including the ratio of the group's spending on direct aid and its Charity Navigator rating." (Charity Navigator, the country's best-known charity evaluator, is changing, but it was one of the worst things to ever happen to the sector, in my opinion.)

I've addressed this issue hundreds of times in my job over the last fourteen years, and I've come to realize I'll probably have to do it hundreds more. So I'll keep it simple: Invisible Children is an advocacy organization; that's what they do. They spend money on media (i.e., "non-direct aid") because that's their strategy. The criticism that they spend too much on "overhead" is like telling Heinz it spends too much on tomatoes. If you want to buy Heinz ketchup, buy it. If you don't, don't. But don't tell Heinz it doesn't know how to make ketchup.

Invisible Children's core "product" is advocacy and heightened awareness. And that requires a fundamentally different financial model than, for example, delivering food to starving people. Heinz and Intel have different business models because they make different products. The same is true in the social sector. Unfortunately, too many of us treat all nonprofits as if they operate in the same product category and use a one-size-fits-all set of metrics to measure their effectiveness -- including often-misleading metrics like percentage of spending on program vs. overhead. Doesn't work, never will, and it often leads to real distortions in charitable giving.

The Kony 2012 video may be incredibly effective advocacy or soft bigotry -- I don't know. But now that it has been released to the public, we should be arguing about the merits of the product, not about whether Invisible Children spent too much to create it.

-- Paul Shoemaker

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Posted by Nick Scott  |   March 13, 2012 at 12:32 AM

Great point that has largely been lost in other aspects of the Kony 2012 controversy. There is much to criticize about the content of Invisible Children's advocacy, but there is nothing inherently wrong with having advocacy at the heart of its mission. Good nonprofits are often unfairly maligned for having too much "overhead" without thought being given to what they actually do.

Posted by gene  |   March 14, 2012 at 06:05 AM

74 Million viewers ? makes National TV ? is still being talked about ? Sounds like they have created heightened awareness to me. Whether folks agree with the product or not is a separate issue.

Posted by Bradford Smith  |   March 15, 2012 at 02:24 PM

Great take on the Kony2012 video and the challenges and pitfalls inherent in reducing the broad field of nonprofits to standardized metrics. One thing we cannot ignore is the speed and power with which the Kony2012 phenomenon has moved through cyberspace. Hitching one's blog post to it almost guarantees readers. Take GiveWell's Kony blogosphere entry http://blog.givewell.org/2012/03/08/the-worst-killer-of-invisible-children-is-not-joseph-kony/ In many ways the comments are more interesting than the post, AND there are 42 of them, some 10 times more than for any other of GiveWell's postings!

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