Throw together 1990’s nostalgia, a celebrity appearance, and a hint of do-goodery, and your online post is guaranteed to go viral. Like it or not, millennials run the Internet and using this formula nearly assures myriad “likes,” “shares,” and “favorites,” faster than you can belt out the words “butterfly in the sky.”
Two weeks ago when RRKidz Inc. launched its Kickstarter project “Bring Reading Rainbow Back for Every Child, Everywhere,” the company sought to raise $1 million to bring the Reading Rainbow online application to “more platforms” and to “provide subscriptions to more classrooms that need them for FREE.” With twenty-three days to go in their fundraising campaign, RRKidz Inc. has already been blessed with 78,861 backers pledging over $3.5 million (as of Sunday evening). Under the leadership of LeVar Burton ("curator-in-chief") and Mark Wolfe (CEO, writer/director), the project has been executed well, receiving critical acclaim from Jezebel, Smithsonian, the Today show, and countless other sources.
However, every successful campaign requires its criticism, and last week’s Washington Post exposé certainly did not disappoint. The highlights from the article are threefold.
First, Caitlin Dewey raises the “obvious questions”:
If Reading Rainbow is so epically popular, then why was the show cancelled to begin with? And now that it’s coming back — as a for-profit company, not a charity — is it really the best vehicle for teaching literacy to "millions of children?"
Second, Dewey rails against the campaign’s veil of charity:
Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own . . . which, despite Burton’s charisma, is exactly what the Rainbow reboot is.
Lastly, the article attempts to wheedle interested backers to look elsewhere:
But if you’re donating to Reading Rainbow because of the grandiose charity rhetoric Burton’s employing on Kickstarter, you might want to look elsewhere — maybe the nonprofit Children’s Literacy Initiative or the Washington, D.C.- based First Book, both of which get high grades from Charity Navigator. They might not have LeVar’s nostalgia appeal, but there’s no doubt who those charities serve.
In a series of interviews promoting the campaign, LeVar Burton, the face of Reading Rainbow, indirectly responded to each of Dewey’s objections.
Burton replied to the criticism of trying to bring back a failed project in an interview with the Center for American Progress’s blog ThinkProgress:
In 2009, [Reading Rainbow] was [cancelled] due to No Child Left Behind. That government policy made a choice between teaching the rudiments of reading and fostering a love of reading. So the idea that I am trying to somehow revive a failed endeavor is bullshit. That’s right. I said it. Bullshit.
(Author’s note: Yes, Reading Rainbow will still be directed at children.)
On the topic of the company’s for-profit status:
I’d just like to address momentarily the idea that "you’re not a non-profit company, you’re a for-profit company." Well, yes, we are. . . . And the idea that Reading Rainbow was free when it was on television is really a mischaracterization of the way PBS works. There may have been no immediate costs to the consumer, but it wasn’t free. It was paid for by the government, and by viewers like you. So grab a Swatch, and find out what time it is!
Considering Kickstarter offers explicit rules against fundraising for charity, it should be no surprise that the Reading Rainbow campaign is not a charity; however, Dewey’s argument regarding the “grandiose charity rhetoric” seems to stand up. The Kickstarter promises, “We can make sure that millions of kids learn to love reading, but we can’t do it without you. That’s why I hope you’ll join me in making a difference!”
Looking even further, Burton’s project seems to be contradicting itself. In outside interviews, Burton addresses that Reading Rainbow particularly seeks to foster a “love of reading.” However, the Kickstarter’s message clouds that goal quite a bit. The first section under the page’s infographic talks about “why reading matters” and goes on to explain why illiteracy is a problem. Of course literacy and love of literature are related, but based on Burton’s own distinction, these objectives are confused in the Kickstarter’s sales pitch. It appears that Reading Rainbow is seeking the latter, but using the rhetoric of the former as part of its marketing campaign. Throw in the for-profit component and potential backers should be quite confused as to where their (not tax-deductible) donation is going.
Additionally, after Reading Rainbow raised nearly $3 million from Raymond’s Capital and the Kauffman Foundation within the last five years, backers should be requiring even greater transparency.
While I undeniably admit that for-profit philanthropy is beneficial (considering other boundaries of today’s philanthropic contexts), the Reading Rainbow project contrasts with traditional for-profit philanthropy in two ways. First, companies like TOMS and Warby Parker make the separation between their for-profit and charitable components abundantly clear (e.g., if you buy a pair of shoes, a pair of shoes is donated). Reading Rainbow, however, is continuing to raise money under quite ambiguous terms, viz. for-profit motives with traditionally non-profit ends. Can anyone truly say how much of my $5 pledge is going directly to children or schools? Second, as stated above, the vagueness surrounding the company’s goal should raise questions – are they trying to foster a love of reading (as the “Our Vision” section suggests) or are the trying to tackle problem of illiteracy (as the “Why Reading Matters” section suggests)?
Reading Rainbow can easily mitigate any or all of these concerns; however, until then, skepticism should outweigh nostalgia when deciding to pledge. Instead of lashing out at detractors (see above: ThinkProgress interview), Burton should be responding constructively so as to widen the base of Reading Rainbow’s supporters for a seemingly admirable cause.