Most madmen love the idea of fame so Joseph Kony’s wet dream just came true. He’s trending. He’s gone viral. He’s bigger than Victoria Beckham, Tiger Woods and Newt Gingrich all together. He’s still nuts, of course, but his madness has become the social media equivalent of a cuddly polar bear cub eating an ice cream cone.
Have you seen the stir caused by the success (over 50,000,000 views!) of Invisible Children’s video; of their campaign to stop butcher extraordinaire Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army? Check out Michael Wilkerson’s blistering critique, and then the critique of the critique (in the comments). The blogosphere is choked with aid agency pundits like me getting steamed by the sheer ego of Invisible Children. Even the Ugandans are pissed off. Although Obama jumped on the bandwagon.
Ok, they’re an easy target. A problematic approach to facts (oops, you mean Kony isn’t even in Uganda), a seemingly unprecedented exploitation of sentimentality (ugh, not his own oh-so-cute son again), ego so far beyond borders it becomes the ether of the message itself, a healthy dose of white-man-to-the-rescue-ism, and a “solution” that solves little . . . the critique is all spot on. Then again, what’s so new about any of that in the world of charity fundraising? Just look at some of the appeals launched around the Somalia crisis, Darfur, or, perhaps in the near future, the Sahel. Invisible Children isn’t that different. They’ve just raised the game.
So why, really, are we aid insiders so bothered? It’s the big green monster. Is there another charity whose message has captivated so many so fast? About six months ago, my niece “Lisa” in Chicago excitedly asked me to contribute to Invisible Children. At the time, I’d never heard of it. I poked around. I can’t say I was taken by the cause, but I couldn’t help feeling envious of IC’s having so effectively reached Lisa, usually more interested in dance and boys. These young upstarts at IC are the next big thing. And we aren’t.
Why? Well, for one, they have a simple message that people grasp. For another, good looks. More importantly, Invisible Children has discovered what the entertainment industry figured out a decade ago. It’s not about us old timers. It’s not people who read the Philip Roth or contribute conscientiously to their pension fund. It’s about the under 25s, maybe even the under 15s. It’s about the kids. That’s why there are a couple dozen TV shows about teenage vampires. That’s why we have Jedward.
The aid industry has just been Biebered. IC’s hundreds of thousands of donor / activist – they were invisible to us. Kids. That’s the target and that’s the message. If you think the aid world depends on gray haired HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals, aka rich folk), wait and see what IC does with its pubescent legions.
My advice to the aid industry? First, get over it. Then, get on the boat. Invisible Children has more than an audience, more than loyal donors. They’ve built a repository of faithusiasm that will make change happen. As a colleague of mine lamented, too bad we can’t do for tuberculosis or Eastern Congo what they’ve done for Kony. Invisible Children might well deserve our scorn, but we’d be smarter to take notes. They are schooling us in comms, mobilization and fundraising. While we try to exploit social media to improve return on investment, IC turned social media into operations itself.
They don’t have any shame, and they don’t have doubts. They don’t have any hang ups about dreaming. When was the last time any of us from inside the aid cartel conveyed a dream? Oh, and because I can’t resist, what’s one more thing IC doesn’t have? A sense of irony. With image after image of saluting school kids in uniform, they’ve built a business model on the commitment to cause and enlistment of children in the service of one man’s vision. When they finally get him, I bet even a madman like Kony will appreciate that.