The KONY2012 Dilemma

I have been on quite the pendulum swing these past 24 hours. How do I address the Kony2012 controversy?

Yesterday, I promised readers an emotionless account of the situation so far but, and I hope this doesn’t appear hypocritical, I no longer think I could or should do that.

I know what it is to champion for a cause, to devote myself to a mission, and to have to defend this thing I am so passionate about to those with questions or reservations. I don’t agree with everything IC does.  I do have concerns and see areas where growth and change is needed; much as you would with any organization. Now in my late twenties, and as a non-profit professional, I am less inclined to jump in with great fervor and little information. This was not the case back in 2006 for IC’s Global Night Commute or in 2007 for Displace Me.

I loved participating in something bigger than myself and I’m glad today’s  American youth shares that passion. In the past 6 years, I think IC has done some great work that deserves recognition.  I also think the Kony 2012 campaign was not well thought out and needs immediate reform- that doesn’t mean it needs to be abandoned altogether but I might go so far as to say “remove the video and go back to the drawing board”. Regardless of having the right intentions, we must make sure we are not doing more harm than good. Yet the wrong message would be “If you’re not taking the exact right measures then you shouldn’t take any at all”.

I will endeavor to address a few of the major concerns I encountered as I read upwards of 15-20 articles criticizing and supporting the work of IC. Frankly, sufficiently covering even one or two of these concerns will make for an extensive post. If I do not address something that you would have liked to see then please let me know and I would be happy to do a follow-up. In the end, I encourage readers to do their own research and make their own conclusions – because what you give your time, money, and support to is a personal choice that no one can make for you.

Before we begin.. Watch this wonderful video of a Ugandan Journalist’s eloquent response to the Kony2012 video.

Another “White Savior”?

“In the spring of 2003, three young filmmakers traveled to Africa in search of a story. What started out as a filmmaking adventure became much more when Jason, Laren, and Bobby stumbled upon Africa’s longest-running war–a conflict where children were both the weapons and the victims. They produced the documentary Invisible Children: Rough Cut in 2005. At first they just showed it to their friends and family, but it wasn’t long before millions of people had seen the documentary and knew about the “invisible children.” In 2006, Invisible Children, Inc., became an official 501(c)3 non-profit.”

-One of the major arguments I repeatedly came across was this idea that “From the beginning to now, the goal was premised on a White desire to save downtrodden Africa” .  I really take issue with the constant identification of “North American” with “White” that I came across in posts such as this. We are a diverse country, comprised of many different individuals who share a compassion and concern for their global community. White and American are not interchangeable terms. But I digress…

The greatest lesson I learned while training to be a community organizer was the dual concept of “never doing for others what they can do for themselves” and “Dignity is paramount. I am only here to assist people in being their own heroes and only if they want me”. As a woman of color, I am saved from the “You want to be the next great white hope” criticism but it seems like a catch-22 to me.

“You’re white and you’re not using your status in society to save the entire world? You’re selfish, entitled, and power-hungry!”

“You’re white and you want to play a part in seeking justice and equality for people who don’t share your privilege? You’re condescending, elitist, and have a savior-complex!”

It’s a bit “damned if you do… damned if you don’t.” isn’t it? Yes, this organization was started by a group of privileged, white North American males. This fact cannot be changed.  Does that mean anything that comes from them is tainted? That it can not evolve into a mission that is run by, championed for, and in service of the people of Africa? I believe IC is making a conscious effort to get to that place.

Ask anyone involved in non-profit work and they will likely confirm that the first 5 years or so of an organization is truly a time of infancy. You are learning what does and does not work, fine-tuning your mission, raising up leaders, securing funds, and making mistakes. IC has an incredible gift for marketing and in this case that may have hurt them.  People are not recognizing them for the infant that they are. In just 6 years they have gone from a possibility in the minds of 3 college men to an organization that employs roughly 100 Ugandan professionals.

Yes, when you visit their team page it becomes clear that their is a huge discrepancy between North Americans in leadership roles and Ugandan nationals in   lower-level positions.  There is still A LOT of room for growth.  In their 6 years IC has increased in diversity and empowerment of Ugandan nationals and I sincerely hope we see continued growth and transfer of power in the years to come.

Huh? You want to hear from Ugandans in the video pleading for justice for Ugandans?

Of course we do! This is NOT about Jason, Laren, and Bobby. It’s not even about Jason’s adorable son and his dreams of one day being like his hero, daddy. This is about the people of Uganda. Their story, their desires, and their cry for justice. It would be a lie to say that this video expressed these things successfully. It failed to give appropriate attention to the people it was created in service of- but it would be a gross exaggeration to say that this was done with malicious intent.

“It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor. Incredibly, with the exception of the adolescent northern Ugandan victim, Jacob, the voices of northern Ugandans go almost completely unheard.”

I can understand how these very valid concerns might cause you to take pause. I cannot understand denouncing IC and all it has helped to accomplish because of it. It is unfortunate that our empathy and passion is most easily stirred when we can relate to the issue placed in front of us. Sadly, not every person is motivated by a global sense of community. It often requires a more personal connection in order to engage people around a cause. This is a fact that any community organizer, missionary, or activist would be hard-pressed to argue.

This video took the easy route. It showed beautiful, selfless people stepping in to protect the poor Africans in need. It only quoted 3 Ugandans in its entire 30 minutes. It capitalized on an intimate moment of pain and loss (Jacob’s story). This video was less then what it could have been. I sincerely hope to see IC learn from this and I look forward to a video that celebrates the strong and capable people of Uganda. I hope we don’t have to wait to long for that video.

No Time For Truth?

There is a lot of backlash about the lack of statistics and/or misinformation provided in the video. First, this was an awareness campaign NOT a documentary. The role of the video was to engage people- it was not meant to educate people on the  specifics of a complex 20-year old problem. Maybe it should have?

Innovative videos have power – perhaps too much. IC knows this. It’s why they spend so much money and time on their advocacy efforts. Therefore, they should have known better than to omit important facts or cast them in an misleading light.

“It is totally misleading to suggest that the war is still in Uganda,” – Fred Opolot, spokesman for the Ugandan government. (The Telegraph.co.uk)

When IC first came on the scene, Joseph Kony was everything the Kony2012 video painted him to be- the atrocious leader of a war that was victimizing hundreds of thousands of Ugandans. The people of Uganda have suffered greatly at the hands of Kony and his army. But the Uganda of 2006 is not the Uganda of today.

“There has not been a single soul from the LRA here since 2006. Now we have peace, people are back in their homes, they are planting their fields, they are starting their businesses. That is what people should help us with.”

IC failed to make these facts clear, or really even allude to it, in their video. This was irresponsible and, no matter how much I appreciate the organization, I won’t make excuses for it.  I will point out the fact that IC does a better job of giving a picture of the Uganda of today and the current actions and whereabouts of Kony and the LRA on its website.

I strongly suggest reading this article from the international crisis Group for a more detailed account of the LRA and its evolution.

 This Matter of Money

“Additionally, IC has a low two-star rating in accountability from Charity Navigator because they won’t let their financials be independently audited. That’s not a good thing. In fact, it’s a very bad thing, and should make you immediately pause and reflect on where the money you’re sending them is going. By IC’s own admission, only 31% of all the funds they receive go toward actually helping anyone.”

Pretty bleak picture of a shady organization, isn’t it? But is it accurate? An important place to begin, is with a clear understanding of Direct Service vs. Direct Action organizations. Direct service is necessary and admirable mercy-based work that alleviates individual suffering (Ex: Red Cross services in the aftermath of natural disasters). Direct Action work is also an important aspect of social justice efforts as it looks at problems on a systemic level and works to eliminate the root causes of said problems. Direct Action efforts bring about change through public awareness and/or changes to public policy, public practice, or the law.

Non-profit organizations may focus on service, action, or a hybrid of both concepts.  IC is an organization which does the latter, but has a strong focus on Direct Action work.  This is why lines like, “By IC’s own admission, only 31% of all the funds they receive go toward actually helping anyone can be so misleading.  Different organizations often address problems from different angles and in their own unique style.  The effectiveness of these styles varies from org. to org. It is the donor’s prerogative to decide if they want to give solely to charities that raise awareness and address problems on a systemic level, charities that provide direct service or charities that do both. You can learn more about IC’s direct service efforts here: Invisible Children Programs in Uganda, The Democratic Republic of Congo and The Central African Republic.

Articles such as this one, go on to accuse the heads of the organization of receiving “unethically high” salaries that “compromise” the integrity of IC. Let’s compare….

Invisible Children

Compensation of Leaders     (FYE 06/2011)

Compensation % of Expenses Paid to Title
$88,241 0.99% Ben Keesey Chief Executive Officer
$89,669 1.00% Jason Russell Co-Founder, Filmmaker
$84,377 0.94% Laren Poole Co-Founder, Filmmaker

 compensation packages of other notable charities

This table was published in the December 2011 issue of the Charity Rating Guide & Watchdog Report.

Name & Title Organization

Top Salary*

John R. Seffrin, CEO American Cancer Society

$2,222,272

Includes $1.5 million in a retention benefit approved in 2001, “to preserve management stability.”
Robert J. Mazzuca, Chief Scout Executive Boy Scouts of America – N.O.

$1,211,572

Thomas C. Nelson, Past Ex-Officio/Past COO AARP Foundation & AARP, respectively

$1,176,614

Includes a separation payment of $682,285. The full amount of Thomas Nelson’s compensation was paid by AARP, not AARP Foundation.
Edwin J. Feulner, Jr., President Heritage Foundation

$1,098,612

Harry Johns, President/CEO Alzheimer’s Association – N.O.

$1,065,524

Includes $392,218 retirement and other deferred compensation.
Ernest Allen, President/CEO National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

$1,057,604

Includes $432,542 retirement and other deferred compensation, of which $338,953 is a catch-up amount for underfunded retirement benefits in previous years.
Gail McGovern, President/CEO American Red Cross

$1,032,022

Includes a one-time reimbursement of $473,570 for relocation costs to work at the national headquarters.
Steven E. Sanderson, President/CEO Wildlife Conservation Society

$927,534

Michael L. Lomax, President/CEO United Negro College Fund (UNCF/The College Fund)

$877,582

Includes $686,080 in retirement funds for 5 full years of service.
Joseph V. Haggerty, COO United Way Worldwide

$864,875

Includes $318,578 SERP imputed income.
James E. Williams, Jr., President/CEO Easter Seals

$833,000

Joseph Krajbich, M.D., Orthopaedic Surgeon Shriners Hospitals for Children

$807,917

Includes $401,435 retirement and other deferred compensation.
William E. Evans, Director/CEO St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital/ALSAC

$795,538

First, comparatively, the incomes of IC execs are fairly conservative. Yes, so many of us who commit our lives to social justice efforts find ourselves struggling financially, being underpaid, and overly criticized.  I would count the IC execs as some of the lucky few who are actually able to make a comfortable living in this field which permits them to provide for themselves and their families.

But what about the low rating from Charity navigator? isn’t that alarming? I strongly suggest, reviewing the Charity navigator assessment of IC. It should do a great deal to assuage any fears of impropriety or misconduct. Overall, IC is in good standing and you should note that though their Accountability and Transparency score is currently at 2 stars it is due primarily to IC  not having 5 independent voting members on their board of directors.  They currently have 4 and are in the process of interviewing potential board members.  They intend to add another member this year and that should qualify them for a 4-star rating by 2013. You can learn more about the financial integrity of IC and questions concerning the Better Business Bureau by reading IC’s personal response to critiques.

Am I stuck? Is it Invisible children or Nothing?

Of course not! Please don’t allow concerns over IC or any organization to breed cynicism in your heart. Perhaps you haven’t ended up at the same conclusion I have and you don’t feel like you can support IC as it currently functions. There are alternatives. Or perhaps you want to support direct action and direct service efforts and feel your time/resources would be best used if split among different organizations. That’s perfectly alright.

You will find some options below. Remember… do the research and make your own conclusions – because what you give your time, money, and support to is a personal choice that no one can make for you.

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U.S, African, and International Organizations

Kairos: Kairos was founded in Uganda, Gulu District in 2006 as a non-profit charitable organization, founded by a group of University lecturers, teachers, medical doctors, psychologists, and religious leaders. The aim being to empower the population of post conflict Northern Uganda to take care of their own health and development through the creation of a self sustainable approach to life while slowly building the confidence of the population that had lost hope as a result of the 2 decades conflict.

Ceewa Uganda: The Council for Economic Empowerment for Women of Africa (CEEWA)-Uganda chapter is a non-  governmental, non-partisan and not for profit organization working to promote the economic   empowerment of women in the development process. CEEWA was born at the fifth African NGO   Forum held in Dakar, Senegal in 1994 in one of the workshops that observed that the economic   policies were adversely impacting on women yet nothing much was being done to address the   concerns. CEEWA was therefore formed to be a torchbearer for African Women Economic   Empowerment with national chapters in different countries.

Children of The Nations – Raising children who transform nations: Children of the Nations sees itself as a “movement of people” gathered by God to provide quality care to children under His guidance. He has created a worldwide body of people with a common passion who deny themselves to care for children. Children of the Nations is not a “missionary sending” agency but utilizes individuals from around the globe, tapping into their talents in a professional manner, which strategically assists in accomplishing the goals of the overall mission.

Compassion International – Releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name: In response to the Great Commission, Compassion International exists as an advocate for children, to release them from their spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enable them to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.

Africare – Improving lives, building futures:  Africare’s coverage is among the widest and deepest of any organization working in Africa, representing over 2,500 projects in 36 countries Africa-wide.

International Crisis Group – Working to prevent conflict worldwide: The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict. They have some 130 permanent staff worldwide, from 49 nationalities speaking 47 languages.

Pilgrim Africa – daring to be a voice and a beacon of hope in Africa: Pilgrim has offices in Kampala and Soroti Uganda, Lusaka Zambia, Harare, Zimbabwe and South Africa and supports approximately 100 permanent full-time employees and has approximately 200 volunteers. Pilgrim’s work reaches more than 500,000 households through a broad spectrum of community programs in north and eastern Uganda.

Word Made Flesh – Serving Jesus Among Those Living In poverty: Word Made Flesh was founded in 1991, as a non-profit organization existing to serve among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. In 1994, Word Made Flesh opened its first children’s home in Chennai, India focusing primarily on pediatric AIDS care. Word Made Flesh has since established communities in Asia, Latin America, Europe and Africa.

Related Articles

Responding to “Kony2012”

How Do You Live Truly Free {and what you can do to help}

Kony, Culture, Social media, and Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

9 thoughts on “The KONY2012 Dilemma

  1. I have to say, I really appreciated your thoughts on this. Definitely one of the most well-done responses (from either side) that I have seen yet. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for the positive feedback. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this post.

      Blessings!

  2. I am curious on one item from your post in particular — you state that the IC payroll is fairly conservative but what you don’t provide is any sort of ratio or mode for an accurate comparison. If one organization raises $100m per year and pays their CEO $1.1m and another organization raises $4M and pays their CEO $1m, you could say the pay is equivalent but you could not say that the same percentage of raised money is going to what people really think their money is going to.

    Also, why does the high payroll of another charity forgive the IC? I don’t excuse something that is wrong on its face just because other people do it. There are plenty of charities that don’t waste a huge chunk of their money on paying their leaders HUGE salaries. I do not find that $89k should be considered paltry. It is well above what the average person makes. If you truly cared about your charity, you’d take a more reasonable payment, and spread your raised money out further.

    • At no point did I say one CEO’s obnoxious salary “forgives” another. I showed a comparison chart of actual questionable salaries (one that came from charity navigator).

      I also never called $89k a paltry income. Yes, $89k is a very healthy income. It’s 3x more than my salary at more than one non-profit. I also wasn’t the founder and CEO of those non-profits. It’s high enough to make me a little wary but certainly not enough to make me start flinging accusations. Do I prefer non-profit leaders who show modesty and a bit of sacrifice when it comes to their incomes? YES. Do I think it’s fair that many non-profit workers have to to work second jobs, go without necessities, and more? NO.

      There has to be a middle ground..

  3. Thank you so much for this engaging response to the many thoughts revolving around this viral cause. :)

    I agree that IC is a powerful marketing group. I think that bringing people together through the power of social networking and events can change the world. I agree that IC, as a fledgling organization in a period of growth, is learning as it goes, and I’m so glad you pointed that out.

    I’m still heated that the IC were not clear on the state of Kony’s army today in their 2012 video. While it is not a true documentary, it is posturing as one – IC was surely intending us to infer that this war with the LRA is current Ugandan affairs; it is a campaigning technique that plays on emotional momentum, and it works. Can’t IC still trust us to maintain the opinion that Kony remains a bad man who would be far better arrested (or dare I say assassinated)? Most compassionate people would still support his removal.

    That honestly is my only beef with the campaign: I absolutely align with the IC’s ultimate goal of capturing Joseph Kony; I am *NOT* aligned with their intent to inspire our hearts to overwhelm our logic, especially at the conclusion of the video: there is not even an understated call to inform ourselves before purchasing “Kony kits” or passing the video along to everyone we know. A worldwide social network allows us to unite ourselves with the click of a mouse, but it also makes it easy for us to act so quickly that we are likely to neglect to understand what we’re sharing.

    And finally, thank you for the links to alternative organizations. I enjoyed this post and I will pass it along as a great commentary and reference. :)

    • I’m so happy you were able to take something away from this post and thank you for your really well-thought out feedback.

      I agree, this video made weep… not cry… weep. But that isn’t enough.

      Of course I understand wanting to engage a potential supporters heart but you have engage my mind as well. Trust me to understand the specifics and to not get swept away with my emotions.

    • Thank you! I really enjoyed your post as well. It was very sincere and encouraging. I’m adding it to my “related articles” section right now.

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