March 5, 2012: San Diego-based Invisible Children releases a 30-minute video called Kony 2012. It gets almost 112 million views during its first week on YouTube, prompting Time magazine to call it the most viral video ever.
The video introduces viewers to African warlord Joseph Kony and depicts the havoc that his Lord’s Resistance Army has wreaked on Ugandan families since the late 1980s. It describes killings, torture, maimings, and the capture of tens of thousands of children who are used as soldiers and sex slaves. The story of Kony’s tactics is horrifying—that’s never been up for debate—and the video tugs at even the numbest heartstrings.
Millions of Americans jump at the chance to support Invisible Children in its mission to capture Kony by the end of 2012. They buy T-shirts and bracelets, make donations, and feel proud of contributing to an effort against such abuse and violence.
But within days after the video’s release, they hear some questionable data about Invisible Children’s finances—that just 37 percent of the group’s funds are spent on aid in Africa, with the rest going toward such items as salaries for nearly 150 employees, travel, and film production.
Invisible Children’s director of idea development, Jedidiah Jenkins, says in an interview: “The truth about Invisible Children is that we are not an aid organization, and we don’t intend to be.”
What’s more, newspapers all over the country report that Kony hasn’t been operating from Uganda for years. All of a sudden, donors feel duped because they didn’t get the full story.
Although many people may have chosen to give to Invisible Children anyway, experts say they shouldn’t have done so on the spot, when emotion overran reason. A few simple steps could have empowered them to make a more informed decision about how and where to donate.
With the end-of-year giving season upon us, we asked industry experts how donors can find and vet a charity that’s worthy of their support.
Step 1: Pick a problem you care about
Barbara Harman heads the Harman Family Foundation and edits the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, an annual publication that profiles and recommends about 70 local charities. She says the first step toward becoming an engaged donor is to ask yourself what you care about. Whether seasoned or first-time givers, people become consistent donors and take more pride in their gifts when they contribute to an initiative they find important.
“I might make a small unplanned donation if a friend asks,” says Harman. “But I’m not likely to stay involved unless I really identify with the organization.”
Robert Zagorski—who volunteers several times a week and has donated to more than 60 groups in the past few years—suggests choosing a handful of causes that strike a chord for you. For him, those issues are hunger and homelessness, education, and animals. Zagorski has chosen about 15 local groups to support, including Higher Achievement, ThriveDC, Manna Food Center, Junior Achievement of Greater Washington, and HorseNet Horse Rescue.
Though he reevaluates and adds new charities regularly, Zagorski says he would never quit supporting one of his core organizations: “No way, because I care about the issue and I know about the impact.”
Step 2: Decide whether you’d rather invest locally or globally
Opinions vary about whether donating to a local charity or a larger national organization has greater impact. The short answer is that both are worthwhile, and it depends on what type of problem you’re most drawn to solving.
On the one hand, multinational charities help people in dire need all around the world and, to some extent, spread goodwill on behalf of the United States. The American Red Cross, for example, provides global disaster relief, dispatching employees and volunteers when large-scale tragedies strike. After the 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami ravaged Japan, the American Red Cross, which is based in Washington, contributed more than $240 million to disaster response, providing temporary homes, appliances, and other necessities.
Keep in mind, though, that new organizations frequently pop up in the wake of disasters. Following the earthquake and tsunami, Gary Almond, a regional president of the Better Business Bureau, said in a statement: “Unfortunately, we’ve seen time and time again that scammers will try to take advantage of the generosity of the public after a disaster; that’s why it’s so important to take your time and do your research before donating to relief efforts.” Always be wary of a group that has formed very quickly to address one need.
Disaster relief isn’t the only area in which choosing to give to a large, well-known institution can be a wise bet—in many cases, the vastness of an organization is its biggest strength. Having financial security as well as a large network of employees and volunteers enables bigger charities to tackle systemic problems—everything from disease to crumbling roads and infrastructure—effectively. The DC-based United Nations Foundation, for example, runs a campaign called Nothing but Nets that has provided more than 6.5 million insecticide-treated bed nets to families in Africa since 2006. Such netting can reduce malaria transmission by 90 percent.
One downside to funding this type of work is that you can’t feel the impact of your donation at home. There’s plenty of poverty and illness right here in Washington, and you may prefer to help someone in your own community avoid hunger, learn English, or gain job skills. You might want to beautify a blighted area that you drive by every day or help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Thousands of groups are doing this kind of work in Washington. The Arlington Free Clinic (arlingtonfreeclinic.org), Potomac Conservancy (potomac.org), DC Central Kitchen (dccentralkitchen.org), Literacy Council of Northern Virginia (lcnv.org), and Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (playtimeproject.net) are just a handful of highly regarded Washington-focused nonprofits that address specific community needs.