Earlier this week, an SD-based non-profit, Invisible Children, released a video highlighting the atrocities caused by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Kudos should definitely go to the IC team for putting together a pretty stellar marketing campaign and raising awareness about the issue. I’m sure that up until watching this video, millions worldwide had never heard about this issue.
Despite IC’s success in this regard, the non-profit has received a ton of criticism. This HuffPo article does a good job at summarizing just some of the issues: poor spending practices, military action support, posing with guns, and neo-colonialism. The first issue, poor spending practices, is the focus of this post.
The notion of poor spending practices stuck a particular chord with me because it reminded me of how MUCH I think the International Development industry is in dire need of being restructured. Although notions of fundraising and development aren’t as important for development agencies as they are for non-profits, the whole campaign reminded me of the importance of raising money, even when it’s not necessarily the organization’s ultimate bottom line. Here’s why:
Even at non-profits, “sex sells.”
For the absolute longest, I generally associated this phrase with for-profits. From DECA during high school, to flyers for activities at Penn, to everyday commercials, I learned (quite obviously) that sex sells. So how does this phrase apply to non-profits? Though non-profits aren’t necessarily “selling” a product or service, they do need to market their cause to drive donations in order to carry out their mission.
Perhaps “sex” isn’t the proper term when it comes to marketing at non-profits. Maybe “heart-touching” or “emotion” might be more appropriate. Whatever the word, marketing (re: development and fundraising) is clearly important for most non-profits.
However, that the bulk of IC’s spending isn’t on “direct services,” but on awareness and filmmaking, I think, is a clear example that demonstrates how awareness (and hence, presumably fundraising) may all to often be of more concern for non-profits than to actually conduct “on-the ground” actions that actually drive change. Of course, defining “change” is much harder when the bottom line isn’t as tangible as turning a profit for shareholders.
IC definitely did a great job at raising awareness this past week about their cause, but as a (theoretical) donor, wouldn’t I rather see my donation going to activities that are changing things in Uganda, rather than just raising awareness about the issue? Of course!
Sadly though, I think most non-profit contributors (myself included) pay far more attention and get much more joy in donating after seeing something heart-moving than to take the time to research how donations are being spent. If only there was a way to make it easier for donors to more easily figure this out. At the very least, it’d definitely provide much more transparency concerning the activities for non-profits, let alone raising accountability.