Most of us have heard or seen that name this week. If you haven’t, you’re behind 57 million people on You Tube, probably several million more by the time you read this. It has raised a wide range of reactions, all over the spectrum. I’m not here to advocate one way or another for the content or cause or how they go about it. What does make me kinda nuts is the criticism that some people have laid out – that Invisible Children doesn’t spend enough money on “programs.” When I opened the Seattle Times on Friday, within the article, it noted “The burst of attention … has brought other criticism including the ratio of the group’s spending on direct aid and its Charity Navigator rating.” (Charity Navigator is changing, but it was one of the worst things that ever happened to the sector, in my opinion).
If you want to buy Heinz ketchup, buy it. If you don’t want to, don’t, but don’t tell them they made their ketchup the wrong way. That is what the product is.
I’ve addressed this issue hundreds of times in my job the last 14 years and I’ve come to realize it’ll be hundreds more. Invisible Children is an advocacy organization, that’s what they do. They have to spend money on media, i.e. “non-direct aid,” because that’s their strategy. The criticisms that they spend too much on “overhead” is like telling Heinz you spend too much on non-tomato ingredients in your ketchup. If you want to buy Heinz ketchup, buy it. If you don’t want to, don’t, but don’t tell them they made their ketchup the wrong way. That is what the product is.
For Invisible Children, their “product” is awareness and advocacy, not direct service and/or aid (acknowledging the fact that Invisible Children does have on-the-ground programs in Africa, but that programs are not their primary strategy). That requires a fundamentally different financial model than someone, for example, getting food to starving people. Heinz has a different business model than Intel because they make different products; the same is true for the social sector, but we like to treat all non-profits like they are in the same product category and therefore measure their effectiveness by the same metrics. And often by the wrong metrics like percent spending on direct aid vs. “overhead.” Doesn’t work, never will, and it leads people to real distortions in their charitable giving.
That Kony 2012 video may be incredibly effective or soft bigotry, I don’t know. But it is what it is and we should argue about the product, not how they spent their money to create that product.