on profits, pundits, and getting shit done (Part 1)

There is a video making the rounds today. It is a slickly produced little number put out by a heretofore fairly unknown American non-profit organization called Invisible Children. Go ahead and Google it (Kony2012 will bring it up), watch it, feel way moved to write a check, Invisible Children is GOOD at what they do.

But what is it exactly, that they do? Because there is a massive controversy surrounding Invisible Children and the work they do. There has been for a while now, but this particular campaign is garnering very visible support and so the opponents of the org are becoming more vocal as well.

Before I get into all that let me say that I have no dog in this fight except for the fact that for almost the entirety of my adult professional career I worked for non-profits. Every job I have had since I was 19 has been dependent on grants received, whether from private funders or the government. So I know about non-profits. To be sure I have never worked on a national or international scale, I’ve never worked for an NGO in a war zone or a clinic that has offices in every state but I have answered phones, emptied trash cans, written grants and designed flyers for a variety of organizations that depend entirely on the goodness of other people’s hearts.

Oh, and also? My family give Invisible Children about $35 a year.

So the dog is, like, the size of a beagle.

Everyone still with me? excellent.

“Invisible Children’s overall mission is to remove Joseph Kony from the battlefield and stop LRA violence. These are the three essential ways we achieve that mission: 1) Document and make the world aware of the LRA. This includes making documentary films and touring these films around the world so that they are seen for free by millions of people. 2) Channeling the energy and awareness from informed viewers of IC films into advocacy campaigns that have mobilized the international community to stop the LRA and protect civilians. 3) Operate programs on the ground in the LRA-affected areas to provide protection, rehabilitation and development assistance.” (This is a direct quote from IC’s Communications Director, Noelle Jouglet, in a reddit discussion regarding the controversy surrounding IC)

Essentially, what she’s saying is that Invisible Children is in the activism commodity business. They sell the idea that giving them $25 as a college student is helping to change the world for the better.

Sound callous? It is a bit. But it’s the most effective way to communicate what they do. I would maintain that very little of the good Invisible Children does is actually boots on the ground getting people out of harms way work and more about spreading knowledge and awareness.

Now that we have established what it is I think they do, let’s talk about the controversy shall we?

First we’ll look at the financial issue:

Invisible Children is a registered 501 (c) 3 in the US. Because of this they are required to disclose all their financial information. (Side note: If you are curious about a non-profits financial affairs your best bet is to look at what is commonly referred to as their 990. It’s a form that all non-profits are required to file with the IRS that provides information on programming and finances. It’s sometimes hard to find but it’s totally accessible to anyone.)

When people started looking at IC’s financials they did not like what they saw. CEO’s and founders making 5 figure salaries, money for computers, money for offices, money for travel, money for everything except what people thought to be the most important, getting children out of the clutches of the LRA.

People were outraged. HOW could an altruistic person pull down a large salary? HOW could an organization defend hundreds of thousands of dollars on video productions costs? Or travel expenses? SICKENING.

People were uncomfortable with the fact that IC does not have 5 independent voting members on their board. (The discomfort stems from the fact that this could be perceived to be a conflict of interest, or an attempt to hide actual spending from the public at large since the board makes most of the spending decisions)

When it came to this point of the controversy I was outraged. Not because I, too, felt misled and horrified that IC was spending money on such things, but that people still felt that a non-profit had to operate in some sort of beautiful fantasy land outside of the real world where things like employees and offices and computers weren’t necessary to further a cause.

Since I began working for non-profits one of the most tired arguments I faced was: “How can you take money away from the people you are trying to serve by taking a salary?” In NO OTHER SECTOR OF BUSINESS does someone look at a talented CEO and say: “you are selfish for earning as much as you do for doing your job” As though people working for a non-profit should volunteer their time and talent to the organization they feel passionate about.

Here is what it is to work at a non-profit: accounting for every penny you bring in and where it goes, spending long evenings at the end of your fiscal year to make sure all the numbers line up in your budget, actually volunteering your weekends and evenings for events because there is no more money left for overtime, working from home during your maternity leave because only 2 people in the office know how to do what you do and you’re one of them, convincing people every year that your cause is worth it to them even though last year they thought it was just fine. Putting in 50, 55, 60 hours a week. Hitting up your family and friends for money when your major donors fall through.

The list goes on and on.

Working for a non profit organization takes time, it takes talent, it takes offices with copiers and reams of paper, it takes going to out of town conferences and having to stay at a hotel so you can be on top of the latest trainings, so you can make the best connections, it takes turning on the lights, it takes buying the staff lunch when you’ve made them work late 4 nights in a row. It takes good mother fucking health insurance so you can get the best and brightest people wanting to work for you!

Yes, in a perfect world, 100% of the money you donate to an organization would immediately go right back out the door to the people it is trying to help. But in a roundabout way? It does. For every slick video produced, for every salary paid, for every cup of coffee made you are doing something to further the cause you care about. Because you are supporting the people who brought the cause to your attention, you are supporting the people who are doing what they can to get money to this cause.

And when we begin to look at the breakdown of how Invisible Children does business (looking at their 990, the ACTUAL posting from Charity Navigator (as opposed to Reddits interpretation and Visible Childrens interpretation of the Reddit discussion) and other assorted resources) we see that 80% of the money they bring in goes toward programing which is better than it’s been made out to seem. And for the work they do I think it’s a perfectly acceptable number.

And what is the work that Invisible Children does? Remember up at the top? Where I talked about IC being in the activism commodity business? This is the part that is going to make people uncomfortable and a little angry but stick with me.

While, yes, Invisible Children wants to get children away from Joseph Kony and the LRA, what they REALLY want to do is get you to CARE about getting children away from Joseph Kony and the LRA. When you give money to Invisible Children you are buying the idea that the more people who know about these atrocities the more good will be accomplished. You’re not actually buying a room for a child soldier to sleep in while he’s getting rehabilitated.

What I am saying that spending $25 on a tshirt is not necessarily getting anything tangible accomplished, but it IS getting more people to ask you “what’s up with your tshirt?” And in the land of slacktivism, the message is king.

Is this the perfect way to stop the atrocities that Joseph Kony is committing. Probably not, and in part 2 (coming tomorrow) we’ll discuss the problematic imagery of privileged white college students trying to “save Africa” and the issues that I, as a pacifist, have with the organizations history with the Ugandan military.

But this is one of the best ways I have ever seen getting young people engaged and becoming passionate about something outside of themselves. Invisible Children is doing an incredible job raising awareness about their cause, doing it in a way that gets people all over the world, from all different backgrounds talking about it…and for that I begrudge them not a penny of the money they have raised.

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