There is never any shortage of new marketing tactics to help get the word out about the grand ways in which the world can be changed. And I suppose that is found wherever there is commerce, but it is often found more emotionally wrenching within the non-profit sector. I get that. You know? I understand that.
Unfortunately, though, sometimes we confuse the having of those feelings with the acting on those feelings and within the non-profit circle there is no shortage of passionate pleas, cries, and shouts directed toward those feelings.
I work in the communications department of a non-profit that many would categorize as a social-justice vehicle. And this is true, we are passionate about justice. This means that we are passionate about the message and the act of justice, and committed to follow-through.
I'll confess something to you, though, I frustrate myself sometimes because I am an artist and I want the medium to touch the deepest parts of a person and affect them at a heart level—but to evoke real change, it has to end with action. I'm also frustrated because I see non-profits who are less concerned with maximizing the actual effect a world over, and more concerned with marketing their message here.
But this frustration reigns me in, holds me back, gives me insight, and slows my reaction time and so I continue to let that frustration build and grow in me, teaching me to be circumspect.
DOING SOMETHING ISN'T DOING ANYTHING
When Invisible Children first came on the scene several years ago, I was in college and we, as college students are wont to do, rallied along that cause with the passion of an army of our own. We spent the night in cardboard boxes, we wore t-shirts and bracelets, we hung posters. We were doing something.
Or were we?
A few weeks ago I posted an article highlighting some social justice causes that on the front seem to be rocking the world. You've heard of all of them, I'm sure, because their marketing tactics are clearly working. You probably own a pair of TOMS (I do) or Warby Parkers (I might). Maybe you have a t-shirt emblazoned with the cause. You may or may not have donated money. What the article said so brilliantly, though, is that none of these causes are even coming close to solving the problem. The thing they are doing well is marketing to feelings, and feelings, if manipulated properly, can lie.
And that's what marketing is, really. We want to chose the perfect palette of colors, pick the perfect photo, tug on your heartstrings enough so that you'll take $60 out of your pocket and provide a pair of cheap canvas shoes that will last about four weeks for a street urchin in the slums of India.
I'm not judging. I do it too. Every single day I open up my Adobe Creative Suite and I manipulate sizes, shapes, and colors, wording and phrasing, photos and illustrations. I want to get you to give us $150 so that we can rescue one girl from the Red Light District. One girl. One girl who has been yanked from her home in rural Nepal, drugged, beaten, and who is now raped an average of 20 times a day. Can you afford to give me $150 to get her out of that life?
See what I did there?
We need to think very carefully about the difference between feeling something and acting on it. And, furthermore, we need to think very carefully about what 'acting' on it means. It doesn't mean a simple retweet or Facebook share. It does not mean hanging a poster or wearing a bracelet. And it most certainly doesn't mean that we've accomplished anything by doing any of the above.
KONY 2012 AND ME
I watched Kony 2012 (video at bottom of post, shared 57 Million times so far) the moment it came across my desk, that's what I do, I watch marketing tactics of other non-profits. And I won't lie, my heartstrings were pulled, my feelings were stirred, my righteousness sprang into action and I retweeted that video as soon as those 27 minutes were over. But after a few hours and a little thinking, I pulled that tweet down for multiple reasons.
1. CLEANING UP CLEAN MESSES
I'm not a fan of the US going around cleaning up messes in other countries. That makes me sound cold and heartless, I'm sure, but it's much more deeply thought-out than that simple sentence makes it sound. The most vocal supporters I know of Social Justice movements are the ones who are also most vocally anti-war (anti-Bush, anti-Republican). That's a huge red-flag in my mind in situations like this. We are all about cleaning up messes until the mess is ten years old and costing us billions of dollars. We want clean messes and wars never are.
2. THE ART OF POLITICS
I voted neither Republican nor Democrat in the last election and I have no plans of voting either in this election. However, the marketing strategy of the Obama campaign was brilliant. And the marketing campaign of Kony 2012 is equally brilliant, specifically in an election year. Did anyone else notice the interview of Shepard Fairey in Kony 2012? Do you even know who he is? Did anyone else notice the gorgeous design of the Kony 2012 Kit? Iconic and so familiar?
Shep Fairey is the designer responsible for the iconic HOPE poster used voraciously in 2008 during Obama's election campaign. The design of the Kony campaign is strikingly similar (though I don't believe Fairey designed it).
I don't mention that because I'm against Obama being re-elected, my politics have nothing to do with this. I mention it because what IC is doing, by inciting 57 Million young people to political revolution, has repercussions that 57 Million young people are not thinking about. My friend Tony wrote a brilliant post on young people rocking a vote that they know nothing about, so I won't rehash it here, but putting a hammer in the hands of someone does not mean they know how to use it correctly.
By using iconic design, interviewing a pop-culture design guru, IC was not only inciting 57 Million people to stopping Kony, but also saying "If we can get the Obama Administration to pay attention to us, send troops to inner-Africa, we're proving that history can repeat itself." And that is a possible 57 Million uneducated votes for Obama.
But what about in ten years when the US troops are tired and haggard from a war in Africa? Do we vote for our new iconic savior and bash Obama for the next ten years?
What are all of our social-justice cries gonna be then?
3. ENDURING ACTION
Paul said if we don't have love we're like a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal, and I'll be honest, folks, it's really, really easy to be both of those things these days. Social media spreads messages faster than ever before, and probably with less foresight and thought.
Real love, the kind Paul wrote about, is patient, it waits a moment or two and thinks. It is kind, it does what is long-term the best solution. It doesn't envy or boast in its brilliant marketing tactics. It isn't arrogant, thinking it can solve a 20 year issue by the end of April. It's not irritable or resentful, reactionary and disgruntled when people fuss at its motives. It doesn't rejoice at wrong-doing, but pursues truth (to its very end). It bears all things, even when it's unpopular within the non-profit sector, the social media sector, and the political sector. It believes all things, without manipulation. It hopes all things, even in the face of disappointment after disappointment. And it endures.
It endures beyond viral videos and passionate pleas. It endures when nothing seems to be changing. It endures when posters and bracelets and t-shirts don't seem to be working, when the money isn't there, and when the world isn't cheering from the sidelines.
So pass on that video if you like, by all means, get the word out about the monster that Joseph Kony is and the unspeakable acts of horror he's inflicted in inner-Africa. Educate your grandmothers and kids and shop-clerks in your small town. But think about what your action is doing. And then find some way to actually act.
To truly act might mean you have to do unpopular, sacrificial, or heart-breaking things. You may have to spend some time educating yourself politically, and directing your energy where it will really make a difference. These are things that will actually change the state of the world, and not give you the impression that you've done something heroic by retweeting a cool video.
Please make sure that you read the two articles that I linked to, as I think they both add valuable content to this post and are worth your time. Again:
If you're looking for action points, here are a few:
1. Partner with local aid groups in Africa. The stronger and more independent we can help people in the Congo, Southern Sudan, Uganda, etc. be, the more they are equipped to defend themselves against people like Kony. If you need a list of groups, I can get you one. (By the way, Invisible Children itself does a fair bit of on the ground aid in Africa, so if you're already supporting their aid work, keep on with it. But one thing to keep in mind is that we want to, whenever possible, support Africans doing aid in Africa—equipping them personally, instead of being an American crutch.)
2. Educate yourself and others here on what ramifications your "benevolent" actions have in other countries. Western tactics are not always the best tactics and it's very ethnocentric of us to act like they are.
3. PRAY! Kony is just a man. He's a monster. But he's just a man. He's done horrible, horrible things, but so did the Apostle Paul. He's not beyond the reach of God and so we pray for that!