Monday, March 12, 2012

a consultant's non-objective response to Kony 2012

"And a child shall lead them." - Isaiah 11:6

I'm struggling to write this post, as it's difficult to find the right entry point. So I'm just going to dive in and sort it out later. Earlier today, two of the most important roles I play in my life intersected, and the results nearly floored me. I wanted to get this experience captured quickly because it really struck a chord with me. I hope you find it meaningful as well.

In my career role, I'm a consultant, currently focusing on the Digital Strategy and Social Enterprise domains. I like to think I'm pretty good at it; my clients keep asking me back, so I must be doing something right. Besides having the prerequisite knowledge and skill, I also love the work. Some of the details I could do without (e.g., the long hours and travel), but I am excited to get up in the morning knowing that the opportunity exists for me to have a positive impact on my client organizations and the humans that come together to make them work.

At home, I'm Dad to my 12-year old son, Matthew. Compared to being a consultant, I love fatherhood immeasurably more and understand it considerably less. I am amazed, frustrated, impassioned, frightened and more every day as a parent, sometimes all within the span of a minute. Still, every day I go to bed looking forward to the next.

What brought these roles together? Matt came home from school this past Friday having seen the Kony 2012 video at school. Obviously, I was aware of it--I had seen a few clips and had fully internalized the volumes of expert opinion on the Invisible Children movement as yet another watershed moment in social media history. So when he asked about it, we were able to have an informed discussion (although a bit awkward: I still struggle with explaining why there is so much pain in the world). And I thought that was the end of it.

On Sunday morning the ground shifted. The family (Susan, Matt and me) and cats were enjoying weekend reading on the sofa, when Matt pulled Susan and I out of our books to say "I want to show you something." The three of us sat quietly for 25 minutes while the Kony 2012 video played, then we proceeded to talk about the things we could do to help in this cause: look for additional information to improve our understanding, call or write our elected representatives, donate to this group and others, tell friends and acquaintances (on & offline), stay connected. Matt had self-enlisted, and then invited us to participate. I was proud of him for his compassion for others, and for his courage to share it with us.

Invisible Children: inexperienced or insidious?

This is as good a point as any to address the controversy around the Kony 2012 video, and my struggle to write this. I'm well aware of the human and organizational flaws inherent in the Kony 2012 movement. To summarize the key concerns:
  1. The video is overly simplistic in its response and can be emotionally manipulative;
  2. The sponsoring organization (Invisible Children) spends too much on awareness and not enough on solving problems "on the ground';
  3. Invisible Children receives funding from sources whose motives are considered questionable by some external observers.
Regarding the first point, I would say that Invisible Children has accomplished for Joseph Kony what every single CPG company is paying a fortune to do for their products: build awareness. In an environment where ideas have become "productized", Cause Marketing is no different than traditional Product Marketing. You can't solve a problem / sell a product until people know of the need; you have to make people aware. It's overly optimistic on the part of critics to assume that, in this media saturated environment, people are going to sit still for the details before you've given them a frame of reference. Today, you have 70 million people who now have a reasonably accurate (if not fully complete) understanding of the situation. That's 70 million more than yesterday. And, like any engagement funnel, some portion of them will be looking for more detail.

From this, it follows that it costs money to build awareness. There is a misconception among many that social media makes things happen for free. The costs are different, and often less, than traditional marketing campaigns, but they don't zero out. While I agree that the percentage of funds raised actually benefiting the cause is low at this time (30%), some back-of-envelope calculations indicate that their current spending per "conversion" is more efficient than "for profit" industry benchmarks. Like with any startup (as good a description as any for Invisible Children) expense ratios are high at launch (when revenue is low) and trend downwards as success is realized. It would be interesting to see their marketing expense per dollar contributed (a valid metric for this discussion) in comparison to more traditional non-profits who rely heavily on traditional cause marketing tactics (e.g., American Red Cross, Sierra Club).

A response to the third item is entirely personal--there's no objective good answer. However, any organization that solicits contributions in the social domain receives money from people and organizations across the belief spectrum. People choose the cause; the cause doesn't choose the people. Maybe I'm being too lenient on this topic. I do know that if they were working to save my son, I'd be a lot less concerned where they were passing the hat. I would also suggest that if we wait for the perfect opportunity to donate, we'll be waiting a long time.

Why is all this important? Speaking for myself as a consultant (and for many others in the profession), we have a tendency to prize objectivity. We're valued for our ability to step into an environment, make dispassionate assessments, and provide recommendations that will change things for the better. In this focus on objectivity, we sometimes lose sight of emotion, of purpose. We know the benchmarks, the best practices, the methodologies; but we fail to connect with the human stories that slow or interfere with precision. It is the messiness of the human narrative that creates engagement.

There is so much going on with the viral success of Kony 2012 that could be (and already has been) intellectually dissected by a cadre of experts. As a consultant, my mind is already cranking out ideas about how the virality of this cultural phenomenon will shape my future work. However, when we focus on the mechanics and metrics ("wow, more than 71 million viewings!"), we overlook the collective human stories that make the numbers possible. We miss out on the meaning inherent in family sharing time together on a Sunday morning, embracing the possibilities offered to engage with shared purpose in a global effort for good.

Moments like these help me bring humility to my work as a consultant: remembering that we don't create connectedness and social good with our work. The talented architect doesn't make a home; she designs with intent and honesty based on her understanding and intuition of the future occupants' dreams and wishes, and hopes for their fulfillment. The best we can accomplish is to create rich opportunities for people of purpose to come together, and to participate fully in what emerges.

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