Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nothing is more powerful than knowledge

When my 13-year-old grandson sent me a link to a YouTube video about Joseph Kony, the video already had been viewed 20 million times. It was posted by the not-for-profit, Invisible Children. Its stated goal was to raise awareness about Kony, a war criminal who has led the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group in Africa, since 1987.

The well-produced video tells a moving story about 30,000 children kidnapped over the past several decades. There's a message to contact influential politicians and celebrities to ask them to help bring awareness and an end to Kony.

By the time I viewed the Kony video, articles had been posted online calling into question exactly what Invisible Children was asking viewers to do, asking whether the video oversimplified the issue, and also closely examining the not-for-profit's 990-form, the disclosure that every not-for-profit in the U.S. has to file annually with the Internal Revenue Service. The backlash was swift and strong, questioning the group's finances and indicating its intentions may be misguided. By the time I went to bed that night, the video had been viewed more than 37 million times.

Fueled partly by teenage enthusiasm, a lot of attention was being paid. Teenagers tweeted their friends and emailed their parents. Word spread.

No one involved in the back-and-forth has questioned whether Kony is a war criminal who should be stopped. The questions have revolved mostly around whether there is something suspect about the operations of this not-for-profit.

Rebecca Rosen, a writer for The Atlantic, addressed head on what happens if those teenagers who got caught up in the frenzy to help to engage in a collective good act somehow feel they were duped. "In the end, the people (teenagers) who spread this video were motivated by a desire to help, no matter how misguided and problematic the organization behind it," she writes. "It is easy to be cynical, but the desire to do good by your fellow person is widespread."

What the Invisible Children's "Stop Kony" campaign shows us, in addition to the power of a well-orchestrated social media campaign, is the responsibility each of us has to learn about the causes with which we get involved. There is no charge to view the 990 financial disclosure forms that firms like make available for most not-for-profits in the U.S. The operation of not-for-profits, such as Invisible Children, are rated on - also available for viewing at no charge.

The right thing for anyone trying to sort through the positive and negative response to the Invisible Children campaign - as with any not-for-profit with which you are contemplating engagement - is to learn as much as possible about the organization so you are able to make an informed decision. The information is out there and simple to find. Once informed, whether or not to commit to an organization and its efforts is your choice.

As I am filing this column with my editor, the "Kony 2012" video has been viewed 70,624,061 times. This seems a great teaching moment - not to tell teenagers what to do, but to help them think critically about the decisions they make. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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