Lessons Learned from Invisible Children and Kony 2012

Although "Kony 2012" may seem like a phrase of the past, it was only a couple months ago in March that the San Diego-based nonprofit, Invisible Children, took the internet by storm when it released Kony 2012, a 30-minute video documenting Invisible Children’s efforts to stop Joseph Kony, a rebel war leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the atrocities occurring in certain parts of Africa at the hands of Kony and the LRA. The unprecedented viral success of Kony 2012 seemed like the social media dream come true that most organizations could only wish for: acquiring almost 40 million views on YouTube within the first week of its release and gaining the support of celebrity backers such as Oprah Winfrey, Ryan Seacrest, and Justin Bieber who subsequently promoted Invisible Children's message and video to their millions of Twitter followers around the world. 

However, this dream quickly turned sour when it became apparent that Invisible Children had not only gained a new wave of supporters, but also a new wave of critics who similarly attracted widespread attention to their concerns. Thus, the conversations following the release of Kony 2012 have been just as much about Invisible Children and the criticism surrounding the organization’s governance and management practices as about Joseph Kony. Invisible Children attempted to address the criticism directed at its governance and management practices in a follow up video, Thank you, KONY 2012 Supporters, released one week after Kony 2012. That video, however, could not stop the continued pouring out of criticism and has acquired only around 178,000 views to date, which pales in comparison to the now over 90 million views of Kony 2012 that spurred these concerns. 

While perhaps no one could have predicted the magnitude of celebrity and subsequent backlash experienced by Invisible Children resulting from Kony 2012, charity leaders can nevertheless reasonably expect that greater public attention will lead not only to more support but also higher levels of scrutiny. Thus, Kony 2012 serves as a good reminder to all organizations about some key governance principles that can help organizations make sure their houses are truly in order and able to embrace the higher levels of transparency demanded in today’s environment.

Third-Party Charity Ratings

Current and potential charity stakeholders and the media are increasingly looking to third party resources for assessing the quality and trustworthiness of an organization. Charity ratings sources such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and Charity Navigator grade charities and indicate where they think there may be problems. Regardless of whether an organization agrees with a particular rating, they can and often do impact the public perception of an organization. Sometimes, an individual’s first impression about an organization is through a third party’s evaluation whether through a rating or a peer review.

In the case of Invisible Children, many expressed their surprise upon reading the organization’s BBB Wise Giving Report which states in part: “This Charity did not provide requested information. As a result, the Better Business Bureau cannot determine if it meets standards.”  Additionally, such concerns were amplified by the Charity Navigator’s 3/4 stars overall rating which included a troubling 2/4 stars for “Accountability & Transparency.” The attention to and question surrounding Invisible Children’s Charity Navigator rating was so prevalent that Charity Navigator issued a response that explained some of the reasons for its rating such as falling below Charity Navigator’s benchmark of having at least 5 independent directors who are a clear majority of the Board. The low "Accountability & Transparency" score from Charity Navigator in addition to the BBB statement and other criticisms may have sent a signal to many Kony 2012 viewers that Invisible Children’s messages were not to be fully trusted and that the organization may not be the best situated for solving the problem.

While no system or standard is by any means perfect and many are terribly flawed, they should not be ignored by an organization’s leaders. Organizations should not only be attentive to the ratings and peer reviews disseminated about the organization but should also address the merit of a critical rating or review and what can be done to address those issues for the betterment of the organization. Failing to appreciate the value placed by members of the public on certain third party information may result in negative consequences such as giving reason for supporters to lose faith in the organization and critics to go on the attack.

Mission Consistency

A 501(c)(3) organization must be organized and operated to further a charitable, educational, or other exempt purpose or mission. The mission may evolve over time, as many do, but such changes should be thoughtful, conscientious, and strategic. This includes taking care in communicating an important change to its stakeholders and updating its many pieces of online and offline materials for consistency. Inconsistencies could otherwise signify administrative gaps or sloppiness to outsiders or even worse, a lack of honesty and integrity. Additionally, an organization should be attentive to a donor’s intent and charitable trust laws that may otherwise prevent the use of previously acquired charitable assets to advance a new, unrelated mission. 

Invisible Children, for example, might have avoided some of the criticism about its mission and programmatic work (as described further below) by better addressing discrepancies in its publicly available information before their critics called attention to it. Invisible Children’s mission is described on its website (as of May 29, 2012) as follows:

In its eight-year history, Invisible Children's mission has never wavered:  we exist to stop LRA violence and support the war-affected communities in East and Central Africa. We also exist to empower young people to “do more than just watch,” to take steps towards ending injustice. These are the three ways we achieve this mission; each is essential:

1. Make the world aware of the LRA. This includes making documentary films and touring them around the world so that they are seen for free by millions of people.

2. Channel energy from viewers of IC films into large-scale advocacy campaigns to stop the LRA and protect civilians.

3. Operate programs on the ground in LRA-affected areas that focus on protecting communities, supporting LRA victims and post-conflict reconstruction.

The mission described above, however, could reasonably paint a different picture for a reader than the one established by Invisible Children’s FY 2010 Form 990 which describes the organization mission as “us[ing] film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony’s rebel war and to restore LRA-affected communities in Central Africa to peace and prosperity” (Part III, Line 1), especially when read with the organization’s description of its most significant activities which are to “[r]aise awareness and educating the U.S. about the atrocities, exploitation and abuse of invisible children throughout the world.” Looking further back through the organization’s Form 990 filings, Invisible Children, like many organizations, appears to have made efforts to refine its mission. For example, the FY 2009 Form 990 makes no mention of Joseph Kony specifically under its mission or most significant activities, and its FY 2008 Form 990 describes its mission only as “[m]edia based awareness & advocacy programs in the US.” Thus, absent updated materials and/or clear communication about these changes, confusion about the organization’s mission as it is described today may have been more severe for earlier supporters of the organization. 

While organizations must remember the Form 990 has become a major source of publicly available information for both supporters and critics in recent years, they must also not forget the breadth of various information being providing to the public in the form of an organizational website to donor mailings to other solicitation materials. These communications should provide clarity to the person who will read all of them as well as to the person who may read only one form of communication. Clarity and consistency about mission may help in not only mitigating unwanted scrutiny from critics and regulators (e.g., IRS, Attorney General), but also in attracting a strong base of supporters who will stay with the organization as it evolves.  

Programmatic Activities

It is not uncommon for organizations with common missions to engage in vastly different activities due to any number of factors including their philosophies, strengths, and budget limitations. Programmatic activities can therefore often make the difference when recruiting contributors who want to see their monies used in a specific way (e.g., direct services, research, advocacy). Sometimes, there are also underlying assumptions by supporters about what an organizations which can cause deep rifts when those assumptions are not corrected even when the supporter and organization share passion about a common mission. 

While many of the newer supporters of Invisible Children probably associate the organization most strongly with the domestic awareness and advocacy efforts in the U.S. related to Joseph Kony and Kony 2012, it became apparent that many supporters also strongly associate Invisible Children with direct services overseas. As a result, many critical articles about Invisible Children highlighted its FY 2010 Form 990 financial data and annual report showing only 37% of its expenses were directed at funding programs in Central Africa while the remaining programmatic expenses (roughly 43% of expenses) was spent on media and film creation and awareness programs and products – line items that would include costs for campaigns like Kony 2012. Any frustrations or anguish about the discrepancies between actual finances and certain donor expectations may have increased when turning to other publicly available information such as the organizational profile on Guidestar which does not currently list the U.S. domestic activities as one of Invisible Children’s programs (see “Programs & Help”). 

Evaluating an organization’s programmatic choices and effectiveness can be a nuanced analysis that organizations and the public alike are constantly learning how to understand and measure better. Even without judging the merits of whether a particular course of programmatic work is the most effective way to advance a certain charitable mission, an organization’s main programmatic activity should not be a surprise to supporters or anyone considering support of an organization. As with mission, the public has a variety of information from which to learn about an organization’s activities. Communications should accordingly be as clear and consistent as possible regardless of which source the donor looks to.  How an organization carries out its mission can be just as important to a supporter as the mission itself and miscommunication about an organization’s day-to-day work can result in broken relationships such as pulled support or distrust that is challenging, if not sometimes impossible, to repair. 

Ultimately, Invisible Children bore certain consequences that many organizations would likely have been subject to had they also reached the same level of public attention overnight. Given the amount of information easily available to audiences today, organizations should be prepared to be examined on a micro level and implement practices that will exemplify good governance when the curtain is pulled back.

For more information about some of the tax and governance issues raised by Invisible Children and Kony 2012, please listen to our discussion about "Kony Complexities" with Tony Martignetti on Nonprofit Radio.