After witnessing an online debate over Kony 2012 the past few days, I wanted to put together a list of things I think people should consider about NGOs, nonprofits, and humanitarian efforts in general. Fact checking and debate are good things, but it seemed that a lot of the negativity was coming from some basic misunderstandings, fueled by ignorance and cynicism, and resulting in more of the same. The effects of these misunderstandings go way beyond the Kony 2012 issue. As someone who’s volunteered in rural Africa over the past few years, here’s some food for thought:
- The world is complex, but this does not justify inaction.
Yes, there are many sides to every story and people will not always agree on a problem’s causes and solutions. After some finite amount of research, discussion, and hand wringing, you still have to act.
- Mistakes get made, but this does not justify condemnation.
Any significant effort to improve the world will result in some mistakes. It is important to recognize these and adapt, but condemning a whole project over mistakes is counterproductive.
- Fundraising is not evil.
If you can get $2 for the cause for every $1 you spend fundraising, then fundraising is not greedy self-preservation but part of the solution. Bringing 50% of $1M to a project is more effective than bringing 70% of $500K. There is a balance to this, but it’s not to eschew fundraising.
- It costs money to run an organization well.
You need good people if you want to be efficient and effective. Compassionate or not, good people will be harder to find and keep if you pay poorly. Better people make sure the funds are used more efficiently. There is a balance to this, but it’s not to pay significantly under market.
- Raising awareness is meaningful.
Most projects that matter are too large for one person. This means large groups have to be mobilized. Raising awareness is part of this process. It is not a waste of time or money.
- Good presentation does not mean inauthenticity.
For good or ill, style can trump substance. Ignoring this would be detrimental to an organization. Being able to present things to a broad audience in an effective way doesn’t make one a charlatan.
- Emotions are not the opponents of facts.
Emotions based on accurate facts give meaning to those facts. Without emotion there is little reason to concern oneself with numbers or words on a page. Being made to feel compassion over a real issue is not manipulation, it’s communication.
- Criticism without an alternative suggestion is useless.
The easiest thing in the world is to dismiss someone else’s good efforts. It allows you to avoid guilt and feel superior at no cost. If you see a better way, bring it to the table and help. If you’re not willing to, ask yourself why not.
There is an endless list of things one can do to make the world a better place. If one doesn’t move you, pick another and help. There’s no need to disparage how others choose to help. The world has come a long way because of good people undaunted by the magnitude of need, the difficulty in helping, and unafraid of the criticism it can bring.