Is the criticism of KONY 2012 legit?

It’s been a full week since Invisible Children launched their now-famous “KONY 2012” film, which seeks to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, an African war criminal who’s responsible for the death and abduction of thousands of children. Seven days old, and KONY 2012 has garnered nearly 100 million views. With all this attention, both the film and Invisible Children itself have received their fair share of critics. Are the attacks warranted? In this post, we’ll deconstruct the criticism and find out.

But first, if you haven’t seen the film, watch it now:

Here’s a short list of what the critics have been saying:

There are several issues raised, but we’ll examine three of them here: (1) the way in which Invisible Children allocates its funding; (2) a critique of the film’s message and it’s “truthiness”; and (3) that the film and Invisible Children promote “slacktivism” instead of real action. Let’s tackle each of these directly:

Finances

Invisible Children has been called out an apparent lack of funding that is used on “direct” programs, i.e. work on the ground. Things like building schools and building radio towers. A cursory glance at their finances reveals that “only” 37% goes towards African programs. Typically, non-profits that primarily engage in “on the ground” work will allocate 80-90% of their expenses to those programs, and the rest towards overhead and fundraising. If Invisible Children were a traditional non-profit, then that number would be appalling. But Invisible Children isn’t a typical charity; instead; filmmaking and advocacy are also core parts of their mission. Making documentaries and educating people about Joseph Kony is what they do. If you look at their expenses used on all three of these programs, you’ll find that they’re just about as financial efficient as any non-profit. So as long as Invisible Children makes it clear that direct work is just one of their focuses, along with film-making and advocacy, this shouldn’t be an issue. And for someone who wants to educate others about Joseph Kony, supporting Invisible Children would be a great way to do that.

The Film

How many documentaries are you aware of that have universal appeal, and were made without bias? I can’t think of many either. Much of the criticism of the film itself has to do with it delivering an over-simplified message. Other critics point out that the film promotes that idea that Americans (and white people) are the “saviors” and that Africans aren’t capable of helping themselves. Those are valid points, and the film isn’t without its faults. But let’s also consider a few other factors. Who is the film intended for? Invisible Children focuses mainly on educating high-school kids, college students, and young adults, many of who are unlikely to know very much about foreign issues. And their audience isn’t as interested in sitting through a lengthy, comprehensive documentary as a foreign policy expert would be. So the fact that the film focuses on delivering a simple, easily understood message makes sense, considering its target audience. If the goal of the film is to engage a young generation around a pressing issue halfway around the world, then KONY 2012 is an astounding success. If it were to educate viewers on the long and nuanced history of war crimes in central Africa, then it would a failure, but that was never its intention.

Slacktivism

“Slacktivism” is a disparaging term used to describe feel-good actions that don’t have any real impact. When someone merely tweets about a cause and says “I’ve done my part”, that’s slacktivism. You’ll find Invisible Children accused of promoting slacktivism in more than one critique. If KONY 2012 campaign merely engaged 100 million people for 30 minutes and nothing else resulted, then yes, Invisible Children’s efforts would be pretty meaningless. But let’s not forget that no real action can start until people are aware of an issue. Sure, merely watching or sharing a video won’t do anything to directly change anything in the world. But that’s just as true for a film about Joseph Kony as it is for an IMAX movie about rescuing orangutans and elephants. But I don’t hear many people cracking down on IMAX movies, do you? Educating people about a cause is a first, and necessary, step to get people involved. In fact, Americans already suffer from a pretty severe lack of global awareness, so films like these are a great way to prevent future generations from becoming ignorant and passive about the rest of the world. Efforts to enlighten others about issues that cause human suffering in the world shouldn’t be criticized, they should be championed.

Invisible Children’s Response

This post wouldn’t be complete without including Invisible Children’s own response to criticisms KONY 2012, which they’ve done here. Their CEO also did a decent job of addressed detractors in this video, which he posted today:

Whether you agree with Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign or not, the important thing to watch is the results. What will happen now that nearly 100 million people have seen their latest film? Will our government change its support African troops in arresting Kony? Will children in central Africa be any safer? These questions are the ones that matter. If Joseph Kony is brought down and kids in central Africa can begin live without fear, then Invisible Children should be applauded for their efforts. Share your own thoughts in the comments below.

Will Causes end up the Yahoo! of web philanthropy?

Causes.com was one of the more exciting things to happen in the online philanthropic space when it launched in 2007. Here was a charitable platform that offered something truly unique at the time – deep integration with Facebook – just as the social network’s user growth started to chart skyward. Moreover, Causes founders Joe Green and Sean Parker had close ties with the early Facebook team, giving them a strong connection that any startup would envy.

Early advantage doesn’t sustain

But these things do not a successful startup make. Causes did accomplish some amazing numbers – over 170 million people have used Causes at some point, and they’ve raised over $40 million for charity. Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at. But where is Causes headed form here? Take a look at their monthly active users since September 2009, and the answer isn’t pretty:

A massive user base, impressive numbers, but users headed out the door. Remind you of anyone? How about Yahoo!? There’s more than one similarity that the two platforms share:

  • Identify crisis – like the purple web giant, Causes doesn’t seem to be sure of what it wants to be. Is it a site for non-profits to raise money? A platform for individuals to raise awareness? A better way to share your philanthropic activity with your friends? A campaign tool for corporations and non-profits to deliver messaging? It’s tried all of these things. It does some of them well, but none of them better than anyone else.
  • Scattered content strategy – Yahoo! was all over the board here, publishing content from its partners, producing material itself, and even allowing its users to generate and share content. Causes isn’t much different. Thoughtful, well-produced campaigns lie right alongside spammy calls to “Abolish the Band Nickelback”. And that material is mashed together with features that Causes develops itself, often with corporate messaging involved as well. The result is a confusing mix with highly diverging styles, purpose, and quality.
  • A “big but cheap” user base – nearly 300 million people are active users of Yahoo!’s services. That’s an asset nearly any web company would kill to have. But what are those users worth to Yahoo!? Are they actively engaging in (or even paying for) a product? Or are they just inactive names in a database? It’s not clear if is a long-term asset for Yahoo!, or just a number. With 170 million users of its own, but declining usage over the past couple years, Causes should question the value of its own user base.
  • Poor UI – do you remember what websites looked like ten years ago? No? Just go to yahoo.com and you’ll see. Causes.com’s UI suffered a different fate – not of being outdated, but of just being plain awkward. It felt like each part of the site was designed by a individuals working in nearly complete isolation from each other, only to come together at the last minute to make things consistent.
Is there light ahead?

Fortunately, Causes is midway through a makeover. The platform has some great things going for it, and it would be fantastic to see it take off again. How are they doing?

Good – The user experience is far more streamlined – each page now feels like it’s a part of the same app. And all of the site itself, (except for payment processing), is now hosted externally from Facebook. Earlier versions of Causes were just Facebook apps veiled as websites, and they gave you this uneasy feeling of not knowing where you were on the web. The new standalone site feels much more solid.

Caution – The whole issue about hosting/publishing/creating content still exists. Causes still needs some streamlining here. And since there are still about a dozen “causes” related to abolishing Nickelback, there hasn’t been done much about elevating the level of quality, either.

Warning – The site still suffers from an identity crisis. Until Causes can focus on doing one thing better than anyone else, I don’t believe users are going to stick around. Who is the site really made for, and for what purpose? I don’t feel like I can answer this question well, and that doesn’t bode well for any web product.

Causes will definitely be worth watching this year. This should’t be the last of its improvements. But there is no shortage of other cause-based startups who’d like to bite off a large chuck of its users for good. Stick around, there’s plenty more to come.

What do you think – will Causes turn into a the Yahoo! of philanthropy, or can it turn itself around?

Pinterest is just a bunch of bumper stickers

Pinterest is mainly a site for (mainly) women to share things they love. Recipes, fashion, and furniture abound. But that didn’t stop me from trying it out. After all, Pinterest has been experiencing massive growth, so it must be doing something right. In this post, we’re going to take a look one thing it’s doing particularly well, and what this means for causes.

Pinterest has done a great job of allowing users to curate their own identify, by giving them simple, visually appealing ways to “pin” content available for other users to see. It’s a new concept for the web, but it’s merely a new take on something we already see all the time – the heavily bumper-stickered car, shouting to the world a hundred brief messages about the kind of person who’s behind the wheel.

Here are couple stereotypical classics: first, the eco-liberal Prius (driving 10 miles under the speed limit), with the mandatory Coexist, Free Tibet, and “Topless Mountains are Obscene” bumper stickers, accompanied by a tasteful arrangement of anti-war and local farmer’s market decals. It’s arch-enemy is the “we’ll never run out of oil, I’m not compensating for anything” gun-rack equipped Dodge Ram with 40″ tires. At minimum, a full array of George W. Bush, NRA, and Support Our Troops decals are present, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see the classy image of Calvin taking a leak on the Ford logo.

They seem like polar opposites, but what do these two vehicles have in common? Owners who feel strongly about their identify and want to express it to the world. They’ve simply chosen their vehicles as a medium for doing so, by prominently displaying organizations, attitudes, and movements they associate themselves with.

While most of us don’t drive cars like either of those, we still want to be seen as unique individuals with defined interests. That’s where Pinterest comes in. Users can easily “pin” images of things they love and display them to the world. Visit any Pinterest user’s profile, and it doesn’t take long to see what they’re into. From there, you can probably begin to deduce a little bit about their personality, their beliefs, values, and so on. It’s a quick, lightweight, and addicting.

Essentially, Pinterest has created a virtual version of the bumper sticker-clad car. The difference is that the content is much less tacky, it’s easy to share and “repin”, and there’s no messy glue to remove when you want to move on to something new.

So why should the world of causes care about all of this? Again, most people have a strong desire to tell the world about who they are. And a person’s giving choices are no less a part of their identity than the other ephemera that Pinterest users share. In fact, I’d argue that the manner in which someone supports causes is one of the most revealing characteristics about who they are. Every philanthropic person has a unique “cause identity” that’s made up of the donations they’ve made, the hours they’ve volunteered, and any other talent they’ve shared towards the greater good. So why can’t we just as easily share those actions like we do with recipes and pictures of shoes? It would be a hugely revealing statement about one’s values.

Unfortunately, most of our cause-related activity is private, forgotten, or simply not available on the web. Our “cause identity” is separate from the rest of our identify, but I don’t had a good explanation as to why. But I guarantee that this will change, and I plan to be a part of it!

What do you think – how can causes be better incorporated into one’s identity on the web? What other things can we learn from Pinterest that can be applied to causes?

Why did SwipeGood fail?

I’ve written about SwipeGood in the past; I was impressed by the simplicity in which they allowed consumers to set aside a little money for charity. But SwipeGood will be shutting its doors soon, evidenced by this message they sent to their users recently:

Hey SwipeGoods,

It’s with a heavy heart that I say SwipeGood is shutting its doors soon. No new users will be able to sign up. However, existing users will be able to log into their accounts and see their previous donations for several months.

While you may not be able to give your change, please keep up the great support of organizations such as Room To Read by giving to them directly at http://www.roomtoread.org/.

Team SwipeGood

So why did SwipeGood fail? It wasn’t for lack of exposure. They had plenty of coverage, from Mashable, TechCrunch, Simon Mainwaring, Good.is, and Fast Company, to name a few. Backed by the well-connected incubator Y Combinator, endorsed by Ashton Kutcher (right on the home page, no less), and founded by what look like some pretty bright guys, SwipeGood certainly had the financial and human capital needed to get off the ground.

An easy answer might be that their business model wasn’t well thought-out. But I think it was. Here’s some simple math: Let’s assume that the average user charges their credit card 40x per month. Assuming an average “round up” of $0.50, that would equate to $20 of monthly donations. SwipeGood takes out 2.5% for credit card fees and 5% for operating costs, so 5% x $20 equals $1. Each user would be worth $1/month, or $12/year. Now, let’s make some assumptions about SwipeGood’s operating costs. I counted three employees – let’s pretend that the cost of salaries, taxes, etc. for each is $100,000, for a total of $300,000/year. Now let’s assume another $200,000/year for things like office space, legal work, servers, insurance, etc. SwipeGood would need $500,000 each year just to cover costs. Now let’s give them a meager 10% profit margin; they’d then need to rake in $550,000 each year.

Have you done the math already? With those assumptions, SwipeGood would need 45,833 users to make a small profit. Hardly an insurmountable user base to achieve. That is, of course, assuming  you have a compelling product. Obviously it wasn’t, so here are my thoughts as to why.

Getting users to try something new requires one of two things: it must allow them to do something they already do, but cheaper, or it must allow them to do something they want to, but can’t. SwipeGood did neither.

To the first point, SwipeGood actually made it more expensive to give to charity: by taking a 7.5% cut, SwipeGood’s model was necessarily more costly than giving directly to a charity. At best, a user might know that non-profits have to pay credit card fees too. But that doesn’t mean he’d be willing to pay additional fees on top of that. At worst, the user assumes that all of the 7.5% cut is money that a non-profit would have received otherwise. Regardless of what the user thinks, he’s not left feeling any better in either situation. Witness another new fundraising startup: rally.org, whose 4.5% fee charged to non-profits covers everything, including credit card fees. It will be interesting to see if they fare any better. At least they are up front about the costs – it is listed right on the homepage, instead of buried in the FAQs on SwipeGood’s page. Anyway, SwipeGood hardly made it cheaper to donate.

To the second point, the giving experience through SwipeGood was neither new nor better. Donors can already sign up for recurring donations nearly anywhere else, so this feature wasn’t novel. But here’s the real kicker – SwipeGood offered no real way for users to build relationships with charities. Instead, it was static experience – it could never improve, regardless of how much a donor gave. To me, the fact that SwipeGood didn’t allow users to further connect with charities reflects a deep misunderstanding of why people choose to donate at all. Giving isn’t a purely mechanical action that one simply turns on and off. It’s an emotional, altruistic action that requires real human connections to work well. A non-profit isn’t necessarily successful at fundraising because it offers the easiest donation process on its website. Instead, successful charities know how to build relationships with their donors, and they are able to create a bond between the giver and the receiver. They know how to thank donors for their support. And they know how to make them feel good about the experience so they continue to give. SwipeGood offered none of this, and left users with a sliver of the giving experience that they deserved and could easily find elsewhere.

SwipeGood wouldn’t be a bad idea, IF it were part of a larger service that cultivated relationships between donors and charities. In that case, it could be a GREAT idea. But on its own, it failed to provide the human connectivity that fuels philanthropy at its core. Hopefully the SwipeGood team will come up with something more compelling next time around – at least their intentions are in the right place.

What do you think – what could SwipeGood have done to create a more engaging giving experience?

When Daily Deals and Causes Combine

This blog is all about finding innovative (and easy) ways for people to engage in philanthropy. Here’s a no-brainer – daily deals site Living Social has started to offer cause-related deals, in which your donation is doubled by a corporate sponsor. The current offering is for Marine Toys for Tots:

Today, we’re offering an opportunity to express our gratitude for all we have by helping those who have less. Donate $5 to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation and Toys”R”UsHasbro, and other corporate partners will donate $5 worth of toys for a $10 total contribution up to $1 million.

It’s a great start, and an offering I hope Living Social will continue to pursue. Next time around, here are a few suggestions to make these cause-related deals even more compelling:

  • Offer users a choice. Marine Toys for Tots may not appeal to everyone, so why not take a note from PinkDingo and at least give donors a choice of a few charities?
  • Don’t exclude retail. SocialGoodies understands this. Why not set aside some of the savings from a traditional retail daily deal to causes?
  • Give some reward. Give buyers of cause-related deals some credit for their donations, like early access to deals, or a special “thank-you” from the charity. Something to make your cause offering more compelling than other ways to give.
  • Make them easy to find. If you don’t have the email offer, finding a cause-related deal on Living Social’s site is a bit of a chore. Look hard enough and you’ll find it under “Families”. Shouldn’t there be a dedicated section for these?
The exciting thing about cause-related daily deals is that they start to blur the line between pure philanthropy and pure retail. If companies find that they can better attract and engage customers by adding a cause-element to their retail offerings, we should start to see even more innovation in this space. Offers like this from Living Social are (hopefully) just the tip of the iceberg.

What do you think about cause-related deals? How else can they be improved, and who has the best offerings?

Ask or Engage?

I’m starting to realize how important personal relevancy is when charities ask for money. I believe that a donation appeal from a brand that hasn’t made itself relevant to donors would have to be 10x as effective as an appeal from an engaged brand, in order to have the same result.

Case in point: I received two solicitation letters in the mail this week – both of them mediocre. One was from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS); the other from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).

The letter from the LLS had a nickel taped to it (what?) and some cheesy Christmas-themed return address labels. I’m not sure what the tactic was, but I think that the money and labels were supposed to make me feel obligated to help the LLS in return. Maybe that’s some tried-and-true tactic in the direct-mail world, but to me it just felt manipulative.

The letter from the ATC wasn’t much better. It relied mainly on a four-page, single-spaced letter; who has team to read that? And despite the fact that the Appalachian Trail is one of the most beautiful parts of the East Coast, the appeal was surprisingly lacking of photos. That’s like dating a supermodel but only telling your friends how your girlfriend is a really safe driver. Kind of missing some key points.

So what did I do with each letter? I threw the one from the in Leukemia & Lymphoma Society the trash and put the nickel they sent me in the change bowl. Meanwhile, I wrote the Appalachian Trail Conservancy a nice fat check. Why such different treatment? It all comes down to relevancy.

I’ve hiked every foot of the 2175-mile Appalachian Trail, so I have plenty of personal interest in keeping it protected for future hikers. I’ve even visited the headquarters of the ATC, and I know first hand how important their efforts are. And while I’m sure the LLS does great work, I know no one whose been affected by those diseases, so I don’t have nearly the same connection.

The ATC could have sent me a cardboard postcard asking me for money, and the LLS could have delivered as glossy, well-produced report (free of money and address labels) and my actions wouldn’t have been much different. So I don’t think that these organizations are even looking at this the right way. Instead of coming up with fancy ways to mail me junk I don’t want or won’t read, these organizations need to focus their efforts on getting people engaged with their work – well before the solicitation letters go out. Anything else is probably just wasted effort.

What do you think? Should charities go straight for the ask, or should they focus on engaging people with their brands and their programs first?

3 Ways Zynga’s CastleVille Promo Could Integrate Causes Better

Zynga, the heavy hitter in the social gaming space, announced a new cause-promotion last week for one of their new games, CastleVille. While Zynga should be commended for making efforts to support causes through its marketing, they’ve fallen short of integrating charity into the promotion as well as they could have.

Here’s how the promo works: visit the CastleVille page on Facebook and “Like” the game. Then, select one of three non-profits to whom you’d like to designate a donation from Zynga. If CastleVille reaches 5 million “Likes”, then Zynga will donate $100,000 to these causes. The non-profit with the most votes will receive $40,000, while the other two each receive $30,000.

Again, it’s great that Zynga has decided to integrate charitable support into the promotion of a new game. But they could have done a much better job on making the integration with causes more meaningful. Here are three ways they could have turned a single into a home run:

1. Integrate with the product: Three causes are presented for voting: clean water (via water.org), disaster relief (via Direct Relief International), and Education (via Save the Children). Try to find any relationship with the game, which is about exploring a medieval world with your friends, and you won’t find much of a connection. Not that there has to be an overt link (is there even such a think as a medieval-based non-profit?), but some attempt to connect the two would have made the causes much more relevant. For example, are there characters in the game that Zynga could have associated with each non-profit? Even a loose connection would have been better than nothing at all; instead, the causes feel tacked on to the promotion, without much thought.

2. Provide context: You might have expected that Zynga would have provided some further background information about the three non-profits they’ve presented. But there’s almost nothing to provide any context around these causes. For clean water, for example, all users see is a generic water icon, which turns into a water.org logo when the moused over. Users don’t need a complicated set of information to read through, but some additional background would have added some real meaning. How about a picture of the people who are being helped? Or maybe a tidbit of information about where in the world the money is being used? Taking a page from Donorschoose.org or GlobalGiving.org would have made the causes much more real.

3. Allow users to step it up: Liking content on Facebook is a sure-fire way to allow users to show their support of something. Great. But what if someone really wants to see that $100,000 get donated? Short of spamming their friends to Like the CastleVille page, there’s not much else a cause-advocate can do. So how about allowing users to buy more Likes buy pre-purchasing virtual items in CastleVille? Or give fans a CastleVille character to use as their Facebook profile pic to drive further awareness? At the very least, Zynga could have offered users the chance to donate to those charities directly, by providing links to each non-profit’s site right on the Facebook page.

Will Zynga’s latest cause campaign obtain the 5 million Likes they’re striving for? It’s too early to say, but at the time of this writing (about a week into the promo), there were about 300,000 fans. What do you think? What are some ways Zynga could have done a better job of integrating with causes?