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Missions 101

Thoughts and Lessons on Kony 2012, Social Media and Western Charity

Mar. 9, 2012By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

I wish TLI could create so much dialogue with one 30-minute video.  In 5 days Invisible Children has raised the profile of Joseph Kony, the man now famous for turning children into soldiers, with a video that has 55 million views.  The video's aim is to bring Joseph Kony to justice by raising his profile amongst people, especially younger ones tied into social media.

It Worked

I suppose that if the goal of Invisible Children in this film was to raise awareness in the US about this evil man, then mission accomplished.  Last night on local news channels in MN, the video was the lead story.  Popular radio commentators talked about it today. While I wonder if everyone has even watched all 30 minutes, it seems most people at least know the gist. 

What Christians Can Learn

This is one example of how quickly new can spread through social media, and Christians would do well to take note.  There are many worthwhile causes in the world that deserve help from people with great talent creating short films.  Christians are known for being behind the times when it comes to anything artistic.  Organizations that do invest in websites, good graphic design, branding and video production have a much easier time explaining their mission and inviting people to partner with them. Just think of Desiring God, Resurgence and others.  

But What about the Finances

Of course, anything that gets this big is going to receive some criticism, and we would be wise to take note.  The Atlantic Wire posted a tongue in cheek article about the finances.  Yesterday's post by Jeff Atherstone also highlighted the problem.  There seems to be some strange things going on with Invisible Children’s 990 (that's the tax form all non-profits file every year).  While reports vary, the group's financial statement indicates that 32% of the money Invisible Children received last year actually went toward direct services (money to Uganda).  The rest was spent on the production of film, travel costs and staff salaries.   Charity Navigator gives them 3 out of 4 stars.  

The rub of course is whether you believe in what Invisible Children is selling.  If you want to give to a non-profit who sees itself as raising awareness in the US by making t-shirts, bracelets and movies, then this is your organization.  If you want to see your money going directly to children in Uganda, you should probably go somewhere else.

What Christians Can Learn

Thank God for the Evangelical Counsel of Financial Accountability.  Started by Billy Graham as a way of bringing financial accountability to Christian organizations, the ECFA logo on an organizations website is a sign that you can trust where your money is going.  To be part of the ECFA you must have your books checked by an independent accounting firm yearly and adhere to the practices set forth by them.  Not only that, but at any time the ECFA can audit their members books to ensure people are following the rules.  The ECFA also has a lot of free resources, including compensation data to help churches and non-profits determine salaries for their employees.  If you are supporting an organization that is not part of the ECFA, call and ask them why!

Another take away is that we must be careful to clearly explain where the money goes, and it should not just be on our tax returns.  For example, TLI's books are open.  We can tell you the salaries of our employees, the cost of training pastors and the administrative fee (10%) that we take for all of our activities.  

But What about the Truthfulness of the Video

Here is where some criticism is justified.  Let me again say - Kony is an evil man.  There are many men like him in the world.  He does need to be dealt with.  But let's look at some facts:

  • A 2011 story accused Invisible Children of exaggerating the scope of LRA (Lord Resistance Army) abductions and murders and the use of children soldiers.  That does not mean what Kony has done is not evil.  It just means that Invisible Children expands the facts.
  • Joseph Kony has not been in Uganda in six years.  Not only that, we are not even sure he is alive!  This of course is a huge problem. Maybe the makers of the film are just unaware.
  • The LRA's numbers are now in the 100's and most of their crimes were 15-20 years ago.  That of course does not lessen what they have done.  The video is just 15 years late.
  • The Ugandan security forces are not exactly the kind of group you want to get behind!  As a matter of fact, they have been accused of similar crimes against humanity.

What Christians Can Learn

I have heard wonderful and glowing testimonies from short-term trips of how 1000's of people have come to Christ because of the trip that was taken.  I have read wonderful and glowing reports of how villages have been saved, sickness has been thwarted and churches have had their physical needs met, all from a group of 10 people who stayed somewhere for 10 days.

We are prone to exaggerate or imagine that our service has created bigger results than we think.

This is a problem.  It is so easy to exaggerate numbers.  I have caught myself doing it, almost as if it were natural.  Let's all try not to exaggerate how much we do and even relay the truth to supporters when things do not go as planned.  This leads to a great deal of transparency.

Western Charity - Toxic or Helpful?

I do not doubt the intentions of the filmmakers or those who are reposting this video all over Facebook. However, when the dust settles, what actually is going to be accomplished?  I offer some guidance here.

First, I would encourage you to read Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts.  These two books might open your eyes to the complexity of giving to charity and the often harmful things we as Western Christians cause through our generousity.  $1 trillion dollars in aid has been given to Africa in the last 50 years and they are worse off because of it!  It's good to think through why this is.  I am so thankful that people in the United States desire to help people in desperate need.  We just need to be more careful!

Second, read what Ugandans have to say.  Read the thoughts of a principal of a Christian University.  Read what a survivor of the LRA's attacks, whose life has been transformed by Christ says about this video.  Read what some Ugandans are saying.

Third, think about supporting gospel centered organizations that are restoring the broken lives of those who have been oppressed by the LRA.  Support ARCC, who is the only school I know of that has a degree in Child Development as well as an emphasis on disability ministry.  If you know anything about Africa, you know that this type of education is important.

Lastly, don't just repost a cool video until you know the facts.  Helping is just not that simple.




Darren Carlson is the Founder and President of Training Leaders International.  As President, Darren oversees the general direction of the ministry and serves as an advocate for pastors with little access to formal training and thoughtful cross-cultural theological engagement. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter

Tags:  uganda, charity
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