storytelling is great, but real impact is better.

Storytelling.  It’s the easiest way to emotionally connect with your audience.  The problem is, storytelling doesn’t always tell the whole story.  And the whole story matters when it comes to international development.

Sometimes, a story is so compelling that people automatically take it at face value without taking the time to put it into context.  We see this all the time in social impact.  Because simplicity is what makes an idea stick.  If it’s too complex, people won’t remember it.  The problem is that international development is complex.  There’s no way around that.  No issue is as simple as a well told story may make it seem.  And, so, the perceived impact and actual impact doesn’t always match up.

The following are some examples of brands that have mastered the art of storytelling.  People can’t get enough of them.  But they still have a ways to go from an impact standpoint.

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Invisible Children + Kony 2012

Invisible Children released their newest film: Kony 2012.  It has gone viral.  I cannot tell you how many times it has popped up on my Facebook newsfeed.  It’s a good story.  The problem is, most of the people I see sharing the film don’t know anything about international development.  They don’t know anything about child soldiers.  They don’t know anything about the conflict in Uganda or the rest of Africa.  They are sharing the film because it’s a compelling, touching, tragic story.  And they accept the film completely as is.  To give IC credit, Kony 2012 does a brilliant job at raising awareness about the issue of child soldiers in the LRA.  But, the film itself falls short in providing relevant and factual information.  It supposes that military intervention is going to be the best and easiest plan of attack.  But that isn’t necessarily true.  Not to mention the fact that it has a “White Man’s Burden” feel to it.  You can read some well-written critiques of the film here, herehere, and here.

To be fair, IC has done some incredible advocacy work.  That work should not be discredited.  But, unfortunately, Kony 2012 doesn’t live up to its potential.

TOMS

I will start by saying I have a lot of respect for TOMS Shoes + Eyewear as a brand and a company.  They put social enterprise on the map.  Who knows where the state of social enterprise would be if it weren’t for the amount of visibility TOMS brought to the field.  I own a pair of TOMS.  And I will probably own more.  But it’s important for anyone supporting a cause to take a moment to look critically at the model.

The reason why so many people have bought TOMS is because it’s a good simple feel good story.  You buy one, you give one.  You buy a pair of shoes, you save a child’s life.  Okay, maybe that’s too simplistic.  But that’s essentially what it’s saying.

The problem is giving shoes away doesn’t necessarily solve too many problems.  Sure, kids need shoes.  But is donating millions of shoes truly the way to help the children of the world?  Some have pointed to the age old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  They have suggested an alternate model.  Instead of donating shoes that TOMS produces they could pay local shoemakers and donate locally made shoes.  Others plainly state that it’s just bad aid.

The point is from an impact standpoint there could be room for improvement in the TOMS model.  I think the new Eyewear line is proof of this.  The Eyewear line doesn’t just donate a pair of eyeglasses.  It also donates medical services.  It’s kind of hard to argue with donating medical services.  I think that was a really smart modification.

See?  Determining the overall net impact of TOMS isn’t easy.  Because the issue is complex.  But most people don’t take the time to look at the big picture to see how much of an impact their purchase actually has.

Kiva

Kiva is a microlending site.  Individual users go to the site and lend money to microfinance organizations who in turn lend money to microfinance group members.  The individual user is eventually paid back in full.

For many this seems like the easiest way to have an impact.  You donate money and you eventually get paid back.  You have an impact at zero cost.  How awesome is that?  What makes it more appealing is the stories of individuals similar to those who could receive your money.

The problem that I see with Kiva is that they currently have 187 organization listed as field partners.  Kiva has zero control over the interest rates that field partners charge.  Previously, they didn’t even list interest rates.  I am pleased to see that they now estimate interest rates.  But, you can’t search for organizations by interest rates.  And most interest rates that I have seen are 25%-40% and up.  So you have to do a lot of digging to find the organizations with the lowest interest rates.

Furthermore, Kiva pumped a whole lot of capital into a development system that was far from perfect.  I think they expanded the sector before it was really ready.  People are finally catching on to the fact that microfinance is not the be all end all of solving poverty.  There are a lot of changes that still need to be made to the traditional model to make it more efficient and effective.  You can read about some of the inefficiencies here.

And there are other issues that people have raised about Kiva here and here.  Though, to be fair, I think they have since tried to address some of these issues.

{I spent a good chunk of college researching microcredit.  I have much more to say on the subject, but I will leave that for another post.}

CAI

Three Cups of Tea.  I’ve read it.  You may have too.  If you have, chances are you also fell in love with Greg Morteson.  You may have even donated to the Central Asia Institute (CAI) after reading the book.  The story he told made it impossible not to want to help him in his quest to build schools in Pakistan.  Money poured into the CAI.

But then someone finally took the time to look at CAI’s financials.  60 Minutes broke the story.  It wasn’t pretty.  It turns out they were spending much more money on publicizing Morteson’s books in the U.S. than actually building schools and programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  It literally took years for people to figure this out even though the information was publicly available the entire time.  Why?  Because the story was so compelling.

You can read more about the scandal here or watch the 60 Minutes clip that originally broke the story.

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These organizations are incredible storytellers.  Which is why they are so popular.  And all of these organizations have good intentions.  They truly want to have an impact on the world.  But, good intentions aren’t enough.  The thought is not what counts.  What counts is the impact you actually have, not the impact you intended to have.

So, I urge you to be cautious when choosing causes to support.  Just because the story pulls at your heart strings, doesn’t mean that your research should stop there.  You still need to do your due diligence and dig a little deeper.  Because a good story is not always good for development.

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