March 13, 2012

5 advocacy lessons from the Kony 2012 video

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Issues of storytelling, transparency & disclosure come to fore

Shonali BurkeThe big social media story of the year so far has been Invisible Children’s 30-minute film on Joseph Kony. I mean, you just couldn’t get away from it last week — 75 million views on YouTube and counting.

I was fascinated, not so much by the video, which I agree was beautifully produced, but by the amount of conversation it generated. So I talked to a few of my colleagues in the nonprofit world, all powerhouse professionals, to get their take on the video and the cultural hubbub that ensued.

And while much has already been written about the campaign, including this terrific Forbes piece on social media lessons, here are a few things nonprofit organizations should keep in mind when using digital media to further their causes:

You must let the truth get in the way of a good story

1One of the primary criticisms is that the Kony 2012 video doesn’t accurately represent the current state of affairs in Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, not to mention the fact that warlord Joseph Kony hasn’t been in that country in a while. Invisible Children said that in order for the story to resonate, they had to simplify it, and basically admitted via the statement on their site that they left out a lot of detail:

“In our quest to garner wide public support of nuanced policy, Invisible Children has sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.”

Yes, the story is complicated. But with the expert talent at their disposal, I have a hard time believing Invisible Children couldn’t have given a sense of history by date-stamping the different interviews and so on.

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.”

How much storytelling is too much storytelling?

2Kami Watson Huyse raised an interesting point: “It was clear to me that this video was a storytelling exercise, and stories by definition are personal and take a particular point of view. I was more concerned with his use of his own son’s reaction as part of the story.

“The truth is a matter of interpretation. I think that this video was designed to get people to act, not to be a realistic documentary.”

While I’m not a parent, I would imagine this would resonate with many of you who are. We’ve seen time and time again that good stories are those are easy to understand and that pull on your heartstrings. But do you really have to bring your kids into it?

From Beth on storytelling: “Successful messaging is compelling, visual, emotional and simple. Some highly effective online activists told me that one of their secrets is that their messaging is at sixth-grade level because that makes it clear and simple to understand. That’s a good thing to do.”

Kony 2012 did that in spades. But at what price? At what point does the story take over the agenda — or become the agenda? It goes back to being transparent – which pretty much everyone I asked agreed was key. Nancy Schwartz summed it up perfectly: “The end doesn’t justify the means.”

It’s tough to say no to kids

3I first heard about the video from my Johns Hopkins students. Granted, they’re not kids, but they’re exactly the demographic of young activist and activist-oriented people that the film was trying to reach. Beth said she first heard about it from her 12-year-old son. JD Lasica, my Socialbrite colleague, first heard about it from his 12-year-old son. (By the way, JD interviewed one of the founders of Invisible Children for Socialbrite in 2009.)

My guess is that versions of this scenario played out in countless homes across America last week. (How about yours?)

What happens when your kids, or young people you are responsible for, announce a new fact? You go look it up. What happens when they tell you they’ve just learned about ____ cause and are going to support it? You go look it up — because you want to support them, you’re proud of their developing a social conscience, and you don’t want to let them down. Right?

And if they ask you to support it along with them, it becomes really, really hard to say “no,” especially if they are convinced that a particular cause is going to hunt down a “bad guy.” Because if you refuse, doesn’t that make you a bad guy by association?

If you’re going to try and generate social change through young people, you have a responsibility to them to make sure they understand exactly what they’re getting into. Yes, this goes back to telling the truth. Because if you don’t, it could backfire.

Be prepared for everything to be scrutinized

4Invisible Children started out trying to raise awareness — in their own words, to “make Joseph Kony famous.” But now everything about the nonprofit is being scrutinized, from its financials to its motives. To its credit, Invisible Children has posted several years’ worth of 990s on its site and clearly reiterated, time and time again, the approximate breakdown of expenses.

Be prepared for all of your nonprofit’s efforts, campaigns and books to be scrutinized

Did it anticipate having to do this? Probably. But it probably didn’t anticipate the amount of criticism that would be leveled at it. In fact, yesterday CNN reported that director Jason “Russell said he had been a little surprised by some of the criticism. ‘I didn’t know there was that much tension,’ he said.”

Personally, I find this a little naïve. If you’re dealing with an issue that is emotional at its core, it’s going to create, or reveal, tension. The nonprofit world, while doing a lot of good, has its share of competition and politics. After all, there is only so much attention the rest of us have to direct toward causes, and there is only so much our pocketbooks can take. Of course there’s going to be tension.

So even if you don’t think your mission will generate controversy, prepare as if it will. Be prepared for everything – everything – to be scrutinized. And though your original message might be co-opted or broken down in ways you hadn’t anticipated, at least you will remain part of the conversation.

Be clear on what you classify as direct services

5One of the major criticisms that’s been made is that only about a third of the money Invisible Children raises goes to direct services, with the other approximate two-thirds going to film production and marketing. Russell has been unapologetic about this, basically saying that this is how they function, and that raising awareness — through videos, marketing, social media, etc. — is critical to their cause.

This is a conundrum that a lot of nonprofits have to face. Because without marketing, you can’t raise awareness. Without awareness, you can’t get donations. Without donations, you can’t fund your programs.

And since the percentage allocated to programs is one of factors in ratings issued by nonprofit evaluation sites like Charity Navigator — note it gives Invisible Children only two stars out of four for accountability and transparency — you have to be really careful that the public is given as accurate a picture as possible about not just how you raise money, but how you spend it and what exactly classifies as a “program.”

Should rating sites change the way they evaluate nonprofits, particularly to account for the increased importance of marketing? As Kami pointed out, this has been an ongoing debate for a while.

But one way that Invisible Children could do this is, as Nancy pointed out, to “consider marketing as the program. If raising awareness is the goal, this stuff is the program!” (If you look at Invisible Children’s description of its programs, they all seem to be direct service-based.)

What do you think about the Invisible Children video and ensuing firestorm? Do you have other lessons for nonprofit organizations, or do you think I got any of the above wrong? And many thanks to Beth, Nancy, JD and Kami for helping me put this post together!


The story behind Invisible Children (Socialbrite)

KONY, Networked Nonprofits, and Transparency (

The best tools for advocacy campaigns (Socialbrite)

How to effectively use calls to action in nonprofit videos (Socialbrite)

Writeups on advocacy campaigns (Socialbrite)Shonali Burke  is a public relations and social media expert and consultant based in Washington, D.C. Her firm provides integrated PR for measurable results. You can connect with Shonali via her website or follow her on Twitter.

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