On Activism

These campaigns don’t just lack scholarship or nuance. They are not bothered to seek it.

-On Kony2012


Thursday, I woke up (from one of many naps, because my body imploded on itself like a dying star) to discover that the Internet had exploded.  (Again!)  This time, though, it was not owing to a Kardashian wedding or a baby sloth in pajamas, but to something of ostensible value: the Kony2012 campaign, a media effort by the nonprofit Invisible Children to raise awareness of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and, by some unknown effect, therefore lead to his capture.


I am, as you can probably glean from above, skeptical.  But many of the reasons why I am skeptical echo my sentiments towards the Susan G Komen Foundation, about which I began to pen a lengthy diatribe several weeks ago, before I got distracted and fell asleep – but a variety of other stories, and especially Kony2012, have drawn me back to the topic, and so here and now I’d like to discuss our discourse around non-profits and professional do-gooderism.


Here’s some of what I wrote a few weeks back, after Komen defunded Planned Parenthood:


“I have been separately employed by six nonprofit employers in the last twelve years, and I’m in the middle of filing with the IRS to (co-)start one of my very own.  I think nonprofits do a lot of good.  I also think Komen is representative of a certain kind of nonprofit which has grown tremendously in recent years, and which often does little good with vast resources – in fact, it’s possible to argue that, by diverting resources from programs which could do more good, these organizations actively cause harm.


It’s an extreme position, but for many nonprofit workers – those of us on the inside of the "nonprofit-industrial complex” – it’s also a sympathetic one.  See, there’s a lot of redundancy in the nonprofit world, and more than that, the growth of “awareness” nonprofits – organizations who focus on fundraising, rather than programming – serves a need that is not only often narrow, but also enables avoidance of any of the real systemic change necessary to actually solve systemic problems.


Komen was and is a perfect demonstration of this.  Komen’s purpose is, almost exclusively, fundraising – rather than develop their own programming, they serve as grantmakers to medical providers and other organizations who actually, you know, do stuff.  (Like Planned Parenthood!)  This lack of any actual responsibility to a client constituency is what has enabled Komen’s rapid growth; their efficacy is measured in dollars, so it’s irrelevant whether or not more women are living through breast cancer – Komen’s growth is proof that Komen is succeeding!  People are AWARE!  (It’s also enabled Komen to form partnerships with companies like KFC, because a bright pink bucket of hormone-fed deep-fried animal parts is clearly a gesture for women’s health.  What?!)


It’s a very corporate model for nonprofit structure, privileging dollar-defined growth over any actual achievements within their target demographic, and the board of directors of Susan G Komen Inc. pays themselves accordingly.  It’s also completely divorced from any of the nonprofits I’ve ever known, all of which have been, in some form or another, direct service providers – of health care, or education, or housing, or home repairs.


But foundations are nonprofits, and the big ones usually look a lot like Komen.  Many people think interchangeably of organizations like Komen and Planned Parenthood – both are nonprofits, after all – but there’s a world of variety under that umbrella term.“


…The exact same issue is under scrutiny in Kony2012, though now with an added dose of white-saviorism.  As it happens, Invisible Children is a very small nonprofit by staff size (they employ exactly three people), but by budget they dwarf many organizations ten times their size – they spent eight million dollars in fiscal year 2011, with nearly all of that going towards either overhead ($400,000 on RENT!  Are you fucking kidding me?!) or film production – sure, the auditor’s report breaks down "film costs” as a separate category from “direct services,” but media-based “awareness” IS Invisible Children’s primary “direct service.”  (Their numbers on compensation aren’t too shabby, either.)


In short: that’s a lot of money going to awareness, which is not only difficult to define, but infinitely more difficult to measure.  And there’s the rub – nonprofiteering is about having a measurable, positive impact on communities.


Allow me to repeat that, because this seemingly simple statement gets misunderstood all over the goddamn place: nonprofiteering is about having a measurable, positive impact on communities.


Know what nonprofiteering is not about?  Saving the world.  The two are, however, frequently conflated, and in a dangerous way: the manner in which Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, for example, holds out TFA as the great white hope of education – her highly-educated teachers will save the world for poor kids! – might make nice PR and keep the money flowing in, but it is actively damaging to people in her program.  Because the truth is that working in the not-for-profit sector is really fucking hard, and NOBODY is going to save the world – much less in two years, with extremely limited preparation.  The plural of anecdote is not data, but I’ve known multiple very good-hearted people who went into Teach for America and burned out on education within months; the problem wasn’t that they were bad teachers, or bad people, but that they’d been so poorly prepared as both.  An Ivy League degree does not equip one to navigate the social codes of the Bronx or rural Texas, and the constant refrain – that they, by virtue of their affiliation with Teach for America, were capable of greatness and great change – only compounded their sense of failure.  Intelligence and enthusiasm may be necessary conditions for creating real, measurable change in the world, but they are not, by themselves, sufficient.


Which takes us back to Kony2012, the founder of which – in addition to generally acting like a megadouche all over the place – seems to have a SERIOUS case of world-saving-itis.  The language of the Kony2012 video – once they start talking about Uganda, five minutes into the damn thing – is all about white saviorism, and the capacity of the privileged to save the world.


The problem with this, though, is that awareness is kind of useless here.  I could be the world’s foremost expert on Joseph Kony – the most aware person out there – and still have no measurable impact on Invisible Children’s stated goal, which is his capture.  Because, seriously, the likelihood that Joseph Kony will randomly wander into the Lake Merritt or Golden Gate neighborhoods of Oakland, California is pretty much next to nil; and while I could do something like write my congresswoman to pressure her into engaging US forces in capturing Kony – well, as it happens, I’m aware enough to know that we’re already on top of that one, and have been for a couple years now.  The guy’s pretty wily.  My knowing that fact doesn’t change a goddamn thing on the ground.


But, the commentariat chorus goes, at least the guys of Invisible Children are doing something, which is assuredly better than nothing!  Except they’re not the only people doing something, and they’re doing the least effective kind of something.  There are multiple other nonprofits operating in post-war Ugandan reconstruction, with an emphasis on community development and education.  These nonprofits and NGOs are, apparently, less media-savvy than Invisible Children, and their mission is not so reducible to a hashtag, but they are working WITH the Ugandan population rather than implanting their own ideas upon it.


This is, more often than not, the key distinction between a successful non-profit and one that exists to massage the egos of founders or board members.  Although well-intentioned how-tos on world-saving might compare solving major social issues to technical problems like the space race, the truth is, they are worlds apart: nonprofiteering involves working with a constituent population, and people are a lot harder to figure out than physics.  The most damning argument against the Kony2012 campaign is the very artifact the filmmakers have offered up as its centerpiece, a half-hour long video which frames its entire purpose around one of the founders’ five-year-old blonde, American, personal-electronics-wielding son.


That’s not a call to action; that’s moral masturbation.  Making a difference isn’t about the come-to-Jesus stories of privileged white people with video cameras and Oprah-cash.  It is literally impossible to have a positive, measurable impact on a community without first humbling oneself to listen to that community, to put aside the things one might think are best and listen to the needs articulated by the community itself – this is true everywhere, even in one’s own backyard, but it is especially true in foreign places (colonialism much?).  And, sure, sometimes you might discover that your privileged, outsider perspective adds some value; but it can only add value to what is presented to you, by the community itself.  Giving laptops to kids in rural Africa sounds sexy, but it turns out that clean water access, cheap medical care, and sustainable agricultural development are really more important in the region; it’s nice to think that we can leapfrog over deeply rooted structural poverty with some relatively cheap technological interventions, but that’s a pipe dream.  It’s nice to think that capturing Joseph Kony will “solve” Northern Uganda, but such issues are multi-faceted and entrenched and not so easily “fixed.”  In short, my answer to the Internet do-gooders, who diligently clicked and shared and felt enlightened by their actions: no, doing something is emphatically not “enough”.  Anyone who is in the nonprofit game just because they want to get patted on the back for bothering to care is a liability – an ego – not an asset.


It is possible to hold nonprofits accountable.  Not for saving the world; nobody can do that, and the concept is pretty much meaningless anyway – but for making positive change in a community, for having a measurable impact on a constituency, not on the consciences of donors or viewers.  Nonprofits wind up having to spend a disproportionate amount of time appeasing donors (a structural problem, and a whole ‘nother can of worms), but we don’t exist for donors.  Donors are not why we do anything.  We are in service to our clients, and if we are not directly helping them, then we are part of the problem.


Expecting nonprofits to save the world is absurd, but suggesting that caring alone is sufficient is condescending as fuck.  Action – real-world action, not YouTube views and Facebook shares – is, ultimately, the business of nonprofits, the heart of creating positive, measurable change in the world, and if the likes of Komen and Invisible Children are not up to the task, then it would behoove them to humble their organizations before the cause and offer their skills in marketing – and money-making – to those groups (like, say, Planned Parenthood) who actually DO a damn thing.


You know what, this blog doesn’t reach that many people – I think it’d be much more effective if I started a nonprofit to raise some awareness about this stuff…


(For more reading on the problems with Kony2012/Invisible Children: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

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