Archive for the ‘Politics and government’ Category
I was watching the Daily Show the other day and Jon Stewart made some passing reference to the Kony 2012 viral video and the campaign by Invisible Children to capture and bring to trial Joseph Kony in 2012. The video was the fastest growing viral video of all time and managed to secure millions of views, supporters and money from donations. I even blogged about it, taking a fairly on-the-fence position at the time. So I wondered: what ever happen to Kony and the campaign?
The goal failed. Kony was never captured.
When I was looking into what exactly happened with Kony 2012 I came across this excellent article by Manuel Barcia, Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds. Barcia argues a number of points that could have led to this campaign’s failure: reinforcing negative stereotypes about Africa and black people, bad PR situations (i.e. one of the co-founders going berserk in public), naiveté about the political situation and power structures in Eastern Africa, etc. In fact, that last point about not comprehending or being prepared for the political complexity in the countries where the LRA operate is highlighted in Invisible Children’s annual report on Kony 2012 (under the section “Why hasn’t Kony been caught?”). But this post mordem on the campaign underscores a lack of thorough analysis for what they were up against.
This lack of due diligence brings up another interesting point made in Barcia’s article, and also powerfully conveyed in Teju Cole’s article in the Atlantic, “The White Saviour Industrial Complex”. Both Barcia and Cole argue that Kony 2012 is reinforcing the subtext that “black men and women can only be redeemed by the superior intellectual and humane capabilities of the white man” (Barcia). And that Kony failed to address “the idea that those who are being helped [Ugandans] ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them [foreigners getting involved in their lives and politics]“.
While I agree, along with Barcia and Cole, that Kony 2012 failed in many ways, I do think it succeeded in some respects as well. For one, I think that a previously unknown non-profit generating this must attention, earned media coverage from around the world, activism and financial support from a social media video is unprecedented and incredibly impressive. Non-profits constantly struggle to get public attention for their causes, so Kony 2012 making headlines globally in traditional and new media is very rare. And doing it all from an inexpensive video is even rarer.
The second success, which is more of a silver lining lesson for the NGO community in general, is that bold, ambitious experiments are necessary in order to drive innovation and new approaches for tackling social, political and environmental issues. Many nonprofits lack the resources, backing or (frankly) balls to risk failure on experimental campaigns/approaches.
So, yes, Kony 2012 failed in its primary goal, but it would be wrong to characterize the entire campaign as “a failure”.
Save the Children was recently evicted from Pakistan for, presumably, accusations that they were somehow associated with the CIA and the mission that resulted in Bin Laden’s death. Also in the news is a story about reports from an NGO called Survival International that 80 indigenous Yanomami Indians in Venezuela were massacred. Hugo Chavez, the Venezuela president, responded by saying, “As soon as someone says something, or an NGO puts out some document, they [local and international media] take it and if it harms Chávez they say publish it, on the front page, for several days … and spice it up.”
Chavez paints NGOs as being subversive pot-stirrers that are out to get him. While it may be true that many Venezuelan NGOs disagree with Chavez’s policies and tactics, it is not as a personal vendetta but rather the way in which he is managing, or mismanaging, his country and its people.
As these two examples help highlight, despite their good intentions, nonprofits are often the target of political attacks. Consider also, the recent sabre rattling by the Canadian government that they are going to crack down on charities’ political activities. Is it just a coincidence that the government is trying to silence environmental charities at a time when oil, gas and other large industrial projects are vamping up? Or is politically motivated? Or what about charities having to disclose very detailed financial and staff information under the Patriot Act?
Charities are a popular whipping boy among politicians. They are outliers that can be blamed for subverting political aims and be attacked without too many consequences. They generally have low budgets to put up a fight with business or government and contribute little to the economic bottom line. So its easy for them to be attacked and blamed as being antithetical to national interest and undermining the economy and growth. Standing up for the poor and marginalized can be dangerous business.
But being involved in charity work is also de rigueur for the rich and famous – either as philanthropists or hands-on leaders (e.g. charity founder, board member, etc.). So there is a contradiction at work within the nonprofit sector: charities should work quietly in the corner and not ruffle any political feathers, but in oder to solve the issues they’re tackling they need to advocate for new/improved policies, greater funding and more responsible business practices. It’s an unfortunate position for many nonprofits to be in – a) trying help those that are in need while b) depending on the system that created the dependency in the first place to fund their work changing the social structure.
The media storm currently surrounding the UK government’s budget plans to limit tax relief from charitable donations raises the question of how important tax relief really is for major donors and philanthropists. And judging by the outcry from charities and philanthropists alike, I would say the answer is: very important.
What these proposed measures mean for major donors it that a) they will have to give more money to achieve the same impact or b) they will give less in order to avoid paying tax on their charitable gifts, thus hurting the charities they support (here’s a nice little illustration of how donations will work under the new rules). The cynic in us might say, ‘So what, they have to pay a bit more in taxes. That’s actually a good thing because their donations will achieve even more – money will go to charities and more tax money will benefit society.’
In other words, if a philanthropist’s giving remains constant under the new rules (and is above the tax relief cap), then more social good will be achieved. But the donor will have less disposable income to spend on non-charitable expenses. So, there are certainly arguments out there that the tax relief cap is beneficial and will make donor reassess why they’re giving in the first place.
The tax relief cap also raises wider political questions, like what role the state should play in society and wealth distribution and how much influence the richest individuals should have over social programs. But whatever your politics, smaller donations from the largest donors will undoubtedly have negative implications for charities – especially since, for most nonprofits, 80% of their income comes from their top 20% of donors. This again raises a question as to whether charities should be relying on donations as a long-term income/impact strategy, or whether social enterprises and impact investments might be a better alternative for scaling up to meet increasing demands.
All this to say that I don’t think the tax relief cap is as black and white an issue as many are making it out to be.
The past couple weeks has seen Conservative governments in both Canada and the UK release their 2012 budgets. Traditionally, conservatives have been pro-charities because they want to reduce the size of government and the services it provides to citizens. The more the non-profit sector can step in to fill the gap of government services the better. It means taxes can be lowered and social services can be funded by private philanthropists. It’s no wonder charitable giving and the non-profit sector in the US is so huge. But social inequities continue to grow and many people find themselves marginalized and without basic services, like healthcare, adequate education and employment opportunities.
So it’s worrying that these newly announced budgets will hurt the non-proft sector’s ability to both fundraise and stand up for the people they are working to support. The UK budget primarily does the former (i.e. diminishing capacity to fund operations), while the Canadian budget does the latter (i.e. silencing advocacy and critics…plus some intended limiting of funding).
UK budget – hurting charity funding
The hipocracy of the “Big Society” is clearly demonstrated in the UK government’s budget move to limit charitable tax relief to £50,000 a year or 25% of the donor’s income (whichever is higher). Charitable tax relief means that individuals do not pay taxes on the money they donate to charity – which is meant to encourage philanthropy. So it is baffling that the conservatives want to put a limit on this relief (which was previously unlimited) and thereby give donors a disincentive to give large sums to charities at the same time that the government is cutting social programs! This could – and probably will - severely hurt non-profit funding, which is already forcing charities to downsize and close at unprecedented rates. For more on the budget implications for charity funding, check out this article from The Independent, Philanthropists: Giving up Giving?
Canadian budget – silencing critics
If the UK budget will hurt charities’ ability to raise funds, then the Canadian budget will hurt charities’ ability to perform their services. Essentially, the conservatives are seeking to clamp down on political activity and foreign funding of charities. Is it because of ongoing systematic problems and abuse of charitable status? No, it’s because, as some critics argue, the government is trying to muzzle its politically active opponents through fear mongering. Here is the Budget 2012 excerpt that causes concern for Canadian charities:
[U]nder the Income Tax Act charities may devote a limited amount of their resources [10%] to non-partisan political activities that are related to their charitable purposes. Recently, concerns have been raised that some charities may not be respecting the rules regarding political activities. There have also been calls for greater public transparency related to the political activities of charities, including the extent to which they may be funded by foreign sources.
What evidence do they have of “concerns being raised” about charities’ political activity? Presumably they mean their own concerns, because almost all charities are well below their allowable 10% of political activities, and there are by no means widespread abuses of this limit. And what “calls for greater public transparency” of “foreign funding” has there been? Perhaps they mean a few minority conservative Senators who are protecting industry interests and have no real case against international funders seeking to achieve the same charitable aims as their Canadian counterparts. What about foreign funding of Canadian industry? No mention of that of course.
Essentially this budget is the Canadian government’s public declaration that they won’t stand for charities that seek to criticize their policies and activities. It and the UK budget are very worrying for the short-term future of non-profits.
Changing political climates can have a significant impact on charities, their causes and overall fundraising aims. Oftentimes, however, shifts in the political landscape such as an election or a change in government leadership are not sufficiently taken into consideration when charities plan their strategies for the year ahead.
Think beyond donors
Political shifts are an integral time for non-profits to evaluate their stakeholder and engagement lists. Lots of charities focus too heavily on their donor or potential donor lists, but neglect the people who may have a hand in influencing their supporters or influencing policy related to their causes (e.g. the environment, social services, education, etc).
Start thinking now about how the next election and a possible shift in power might change your targets. Who are the likely rising stars in the political scene? Who are the people writing the party platforms? How can you target these individuals now so that your cause is already on their radar when they reach the next stage in their career?
Be wary of simply writing off political parties or people just because they are not yet in power. Also, distribute your campaigning efforts equally. You don’t want alienate your individual or business donors by blatantly favouring one political party or candidate over the other!
How can charities identify political influencers for their cause?
Start doing some research on what candidates may already be sympathetic to your non-profit’s particular cause. Does the new senator’s experience volunteering for the Peace Corps in Malawi when he was 23 make him more sympathetic to your international development charity? Does your new member of parliament’s PhD in environmental science make her more likely to vote against a bill that cuts funding to national parks? How can your charity’s work helping disadvantaged young people benefit from the new government’s drive to increase the number of people in vocational education? What new government grants are being released to the voluntary sector to support new targets for reducing the number of homeless people?
Take action and get your supporters involved
Also keep in mind that elections, campaigns and the shift in power from one political party to another can have a significant impact on what issues get the most media attention and what causes, local or national, are deemed most “worthy” of attention by politicians fighting for your vote. Take advantage of this time of heightened civic engagement to promote your own charity’s cause by getting your supporters more involved – whether it’s by asking them to volunteer their time or asking them to write letters to their local government representatives on your behalf.
With many charities getting or trying to get government funding, it is important to see the value of political analysis and “soft lobbying”. Promoting your cause with political influencers can increase much needed funding, awareness and support.
Do however keep in mind that most countries have some sort of national charity commissioning body which ensure that charities operate within their legal framework. In the UK for instance, the Charity Commission guidelines state that, “charities are free to participate in public debates and to use their voice to try to influence decisions which will support the work of the charity. However, there are particular legal requirements about political activity by charities… Charities can undertake political activity in support of their charitable aims, but it’s not acceptable for a charity to pursue its aims solely through political activities.” Check with your national charity governing body before engaging in political activity.