Somehow in my college career I’ve managed to become an expert in fundraising, information dissemination, and marketing operations of institutions. I couldn’t help but view IC’s campaign primarily through this lens. I’ve spent four years fundraising for Tulane University, cold calling alumni for donations, and a summer door-to-door canvassing for the local environmental non-profit the Gulf Restoration Network. I love the environment—I’m an environmental studies major and currently filling out applications for national park ranger positions post-college—but somehow this deeply held appreciation was hard to keep in mind when I was personally appealing to New Orleans to help save the wetlands. I think there is an inherent dark side to fundraising: a manipulative, calculating, and dishonest lining to the “let’s make a difference” mentality.
This brings me to Kony 2012. As all the rebuttals and responses show, Invisible Children struck several important nerves in the international development community. Cries of oversimplification of a complex sociopolitical situation overwhelmed the video’s response. The simple emotive narrative has been deemed key to the video’s wild success. Many Africans were angered by the video’s lack of Ugandan inclusion. However, as a longtime fundraiser, it was obvious that this video was brilliantly calculated for young Western eyes and not for others. Fundraising is so crucial to an organization’s longevity but so often support hard to gain. Though many can agree a situation needs to be resolved, disagreement about the finer points is standard. The Gulf’s wetland ecosystems are incredibly important for biodiversity, hurricane prevention, fishing industries, and cultural preservation, but I didn’t bring that up at every door. After a few weeks, I discarded the organization’s preapproved speech and began to target my doors very specifically. If there were animal statues in the yard and a woman at the door, I would ask, “Did you know there are more dead baby dolphins washing ashore than ever before?” American-made SUV in front of a wealthy house, “We want to make sure BP’s Clean Water Act fines aren’t taken away from our communities by the federal government.” An oil company bumper sticker on the car, “Well, actually, our organization doesn’t support the moratorium on drilling unless state residents also support it. Our goal is safer drilling so that oil, as well as fisheries, remains an important part of our state’s economy.” I never lied at the door, but I did become an expert at assessing people’s political leanings by their landscaping (I swear I was deadly accurate) and tailoring my message specifically to appeal to them, and omitting the points they probably wouldn’t have approved of. After switching tactics, my number of contributions went up; I was assigned to higher yielding neighborhoods closer to the office. Fundraising becomes a game when your employment depends on the number of people you sign up and the probability of rejection is 90 percent. Though I was happy to be raising more money for an organization I believed was doing good, the change also left bad taste in my mouth particularly when a person appeared particularly weak to the powers of persuasion.
Kony 2012 hit its targeted audience dead on. Others have complained that IC spends only a third of its money on actual projects and the rest of fundraising, marketing, and documentaries. IC grew out of a few American kids looking to make a documentary to bring awareness to the plight of the “invisible children”, so it sort of makes sense that they continue to spend so much on public awareness; these are the organization’s roots. For those educated in international discourse the message seems disjointed, but the vast majority of people are not so informed. There are glaring inaccuracies and tonal issues with IC’s Kony 2012, but I cannot condemn the effort. As an employee that whole-heartedly believed in an NGO’s mission, I can attest to the deep inherent pressure to simplify narratives for mass consumption and support and the ease with which one can muddy their ethic stance for a greater mission.
Disclaimer: I’m not a representative of all Gulf Restoration Network employees or the organization. This was my personal experience. As I said, I discarded the NGO’s preapproved speech after a couple of weeks.