Is Giving Money To Invisible Children a Waste?

I get to play Dear Abby for a day! Check out this question from a reader of yesterday’s post:

Ok.  You are the perfect person to help me with my dilemma.  E* wants to buy their “kit” and help this problem.  I read that this is a total waste of money and the money is really going to Ugandan military who are doing their own share of raping and looting.  I do not want to squash her hopeful spirit.  I am logical.  She runs off of emotions.  What is your advice.  My mom says to just order the kit for her.  Help!!!

– Confused Mom of Loving Teen


Dear Confused Mom,

Thanks so much for your comment. The perfectionist in me LOVES being called the “perfect person” for something. And it’s not every day that a non-mom like me gets asked parenting advice from an amazing mom of three; so thanks!

I have a ton of ideas.

First of all, what an awesome and loving person you are raising! Yay, E*!

Question: have you watched the film (Kony 2012)? I think anyone who does would agree that this team, Invisible Children (IC), has got a savvy edge on communicating with young Americans. They tap into emotions with a compelling story coupled with flashy visuals and calls to action — not only to buy “a kit” — but also to get involved in a variety of ways (I’ll list some below).

Personally, I love their videos. I see them as gateway interest catchers. People who might not have otherwise thought about anything outside their own boundaries begin to learn about struggles on the other side of the planet. When compassion is cultivated, it doesn’t stop with one cause, it shapes the information we seek, the conversations we have, the very ways we choose to spend our time.

Your concerns are understandable. In case you haven’t seen it, IC issued a response to the criticism this week. You can read it here. Depending on E*’s age, maybe this is a good time to web surf with her and talk about fact checking, digging deeper for educational sources, and learning to make charitable donations wisely.

I’m sure you’ve talked with her about why she feels compelled to dive in to the cause. Now that her interest is spiked, maybe she would be open to watching this from Rose, a Ugandan blogger. Rose speaks eloquently about some of the problems with IC’s approach. Her video gives us an opportunity to hear from someone much closer to the issues than we are. Yet, I confess, if my passion hadn’t been sparked by Invisible Children’s shiny presentation, I might not have sat still to hear Rose’s six minute talking-head vlog. I hate admitting that about myself, but it’s true.

As for the question on whether or not to allow E* to buy a kit (let’s pretend they didn’t sell out last night) — Would she be spending her own money on it? Does she get full discretion on how she spends her own funds?

If she’s asking you to fund it, I don’t see anything wrong with letting her know what your reservations are. Wait. I’m being naive about the willingness of a young teen to have a calm conversation, aren’t it? “HOW CAN YOU BE SO CRUEL, MOM!” I suddenly remember my own days of screaming and door slamming.

Bottom line: I think the positives outweigh the negatives in allowing her to spend money (yours or hers) at Invisible Children.

Why? Most of us readily plunk down $15 for a ticket to a 90 minute movie filled with product placement. So, in exchange for watching some very entertaining commercials, we’re funding a for-profit industry. We don’t ask Jerry Bruckheimer what he does with his pirate’s booty (I couldn’t resist.) Here are some of the products thrown at us when we go to the theater:

The questions we raise about IC would be great questions to ask ourselves about all of our spending.

If we buy these products, where is the money going — what will the product sellers do with their profits? Was anyone hurt in the making of these products? What else could we buy instead?

We don’t usually ask these questions. We decide what we want and we acquire it.

Invisible Children is doing a great job of spreading the message that we have the power to do something positive with our time and money. (Am I thoroughly investigating my use of the word “positive” here? Admittedly: no. But I think I’ve got the broad strokes right.)

My expectation of IC isn’t that their primary role is to provide services to the poor. I see them as filmmakers. They make moving videos that inspire people to ask questions, to learn, to give, to get off the damn sofa. What they do costs money, and I don’t mind contributing.

But for someone like your daughter, I can see that you’d want to offer her non-check-writing ways to get involved with worthy causes. Here are some ideas:

  • She can start a book drive.
  • She can write letters for Amnesty International. (You might want to screen the cases for her in advance.)
  • And since we’re in a consumer culture and buying seems inevitable, she can do her gift shopping at alternative places like Mend and Global Girlfriend.

Coming up with suggestions is tricky because, although I recommend Nicholas Kristof’s book Half the Sky (a tremendous educational resource) to adults, tales of human trafficking and sex slavery are precisely the things we’re trying to protect young people like E* from.

I’ve recently encountered The Girl Effect (video here) — which seems age appropriate, but I’m conflicted about the fact that it’s sponsored by (once human rights violators) NIKE, Inc.! And why is donating farm animals so often a part of helping people in developing countries? I have this Heifer vs. PETA fight in my head all the time.

It’s complex and confusing — what do we do? We watch and learn, and act and love, and learn and watch, and listen and love, and listen some more, and learn some more, and ultimately, we do the best we can.

So, the Kony 2012 campaign is flawed. What’s clear to me is that the energy in E* — and everyone like her who is moved by the work of Invisible Children — will long outlast Kony and the LRA. Your daughter is thinking globally with compassion — what a beautiful thing.


2 thoughts on “Is Giving Money To Invisible Children a Waste?

  1. Very well stated and amazing advice. I will check out some of your links. These are some very valid points. To answer the questions about whose money she was spending, her initial proposition was, “What can I do to earn $35? I want to buy a Kony 2012 kit,” with tears in her eyes. I also think, “Mom you are so cruel” may have popped out of her mouth at some time too. Thanks for your feedback. You are so right. We drop money on lots of stuff/junk that really isn’t helping anyone at all and I don’t think twice about it. {{Your Toy Story picture totally has me laughing – how did you know?}}

    I will send her the link to this post and I will try to be more supportive in the future. Thanks for everything.

    Mindy, you’re PLENTY supportive, I’m sure. You don’t want your children to leap before looking — that’s good parenting. I LOVE that one of E*’s first motivations to earn money (the first?) was for someone other than herself. Wow. You’re doing a great job. E* is one to watch. Peace Corps? Thanks for continuing the conversation. Your writing prompts always speak to me. Oh–and re: Toy Story, you’re talking to Laurie’s sister-in-law here, I know of The Church of Disney. :) xo

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