March 13, 2012

Charity Behind Viral Video Failed to Respond to Watchdog Requests

A charity watchdog took the unusual step Monday of calling attention to the unwillingness of the nonprofit behind the popular "Kony 2012" video to provide basic information needed to certify whether donors should support it.

The BBB Wise Giving Alliance, an accreditation site for nonprofits, has tried for six years to persuade the group, Invisible Children, to undergo a  financial and governance review, to no avail.

During those six years, the Wise Giving Alliance says it has sent 18 letters, including a dozen by certified mail.

Invisible Children, which gained its nonprofit status in 2005, has prompted considerable scrutiny of its methods and finances after it made its video, which seeks the removal of an African warlord named Joseph Kony.

The Wise Giving Alliance says Invisible Children's video sends a mixed message. "We think that an organization that is willing to shine a light on others, and rightly so perhaps, should be willing to provide information on its own activities," says Art Taylor, chief executive of the watchdog group. "The whole point of the effort is to shine the light of truth on a terrible atrocity, and yet they seem to be reluctant to turn the light on themselves."

"We're not saying that they're a bad organization. We're not saying that they don't meet standards. We don't know," says Mr. Taylor.

On a Web page that responds to critics, Invisible Children included a section on why it has not responded to the BBB's Charity Accountability program, stating that the certification was "voluntary" and that the group wished to expand its governing board first.

The BBB's 20 criteria for charity accountability include a requirement that charities have more than five voting members on a board. Of those, no more than one member or 10 percent of members (whichever is greater) may be paid.

The criteria also require that at least 65 percent of a charity's income goes to providing services and no more than 35 percent is spent on fundraising.

Although Invisible Children has six voting members on its board, two of them are paid. The group says its small board reflects its "grass-roots foundation" and that it plans to add more members this year.

Invisible Children has not issued a response to the Wise Giving Alliance.

The Wise Giving Alliance typically reviews a charity if it is asked by donors to do so, as it says has happened with Invisible Children. Organizations that respond normally do so within 30 days, and the evaluation can take one to two months.

Mr. Taylor says he hopes that Invisible Children will now move to disclose the requested information.