Lessons from KONY 2012

What you can learn from the controversy surrounding this year’s biggest viral video.

KONY 2012Last week, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign went instantly viral. By Thursday night, the 30-minute video, focused on building an advocacy campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice, had more than 79 million views.

Non-profits dream about creating viral videos like this. Imagine if your cause reached 79 million in a week. Imagine the difference that you could make.

Millions of people have jumped behind Kony 2012, but the criticisms have been equally loud. There are many. Some criticize the financial dealings of Invisible Children. Others call into question the very nature of their efforts.

Invisible Children has issued a response to the criticism. They now face a very complicated damage control campaign.

Is your organization prepared for intense scrutiny?

At Masterworks, we spend our days helping ministries like yours get the word out about your work. If you’re doing compelling work, there’s always a chance that a story you tell will go big. OK, maybe not 79-million big, but are you ready for the story that reaches even 10,000?

Here’s 3 steps you can take to safeguard your organization against future scrutiny:

A quick disclaimer here: these comments are no way a judgment of Invisible Children or Kony 2012. I don’t know the interior workings of their organization or have enough knowledge of the Lord’s Resistance Army and Joseph Kony to make criticisms.

1. Financial transparency pays off every time

Make sure people have easy access to financial accountability documents. More is better. Audits, 990s and those pie graphs that show how you spend your money are good. Outside links to independent watchdog organizations like ECFA, Ministrywatch.com and  Charity Navigator are even better.


In his non-profit usability report, digital usability guru Jakob Nielsen says that this financial accountability info is a key factor potential donors look for when they are deciding whether or not to donate to an organization. Make it easy to find, don’t bury it.

Don’t just show what makes you look good. If there’s an issue that people may question, admit it, then work to correct it.

It’s especially important to do this because watchdog organizations, like Charity Navigator, award star ratings. 3 out of 4 stars can look bad if you don’t take the time to say explain why it was received.

Invisible Children’s score suffers because they don’t have enough independent board members. Their case illustrates that financial mismanagement isn’t the only factor that can lower your score. You’ll need to explain why your score is low or potential donors and supporters will assume that you don’t handle your money well.

Financial accountability is there for a reason: accountability. Be proactive. Be honest. Correct problems that arise.

2. Don’t exaggerate the impact your supporters can make

Critics of Kony 2012 say the campaign exaggerates how easy it will be to bring Joseph Kony to justice. They argue that buying an advocacy kit, wearing a bracelet, and sharing the video, actually asks too little of people. The reality, they claim, is that arresting Joseph Kony is long and complicated. If it wasn’t, he would have been brought to justice years ago.

The temptation to tell the next big story can be big. I understand because I serve on the board of a small non-profit. We want (and need) to get our story out to anyone who will listen.

The need to grow your constituent base should never lead you to stretch the truth. It’s important to share how your donors can participate in your mission, but don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Instead, cast an ambitious vision and provide donors with goals and actions that they can actually accomplish.

3. Don’t oversimplify

It’s also important not to oversimplify a problem. Your donors deserve to know the challenges you face. They’re your partners after all.

The bottom line, your donors are smart people. They can tell when you aren’t telling the whole story. Be honest. You’re already doing amazing things that they want to support.

Be careful with this one. Direct marketing efforts around complex efforts only work when you:

– Explain the problem clearly.

– Involve the donor’s emotions.

– Give them meaningful ways to respond.

What do you think of the Kony 2012 campaign? What have you learned from the criticisms?

Shoot me an email, leave a comment below, or let’s talk on Twitter.