Invisible Children, the nonprofit behind the Kony 2012 film–often called the most viral video of all time–is slowly shutting down its operations. First, the U.S. office will close, leaving just a handful of remote workers behind to work on advocacy. Then, within 12 to 18 months, Invisible Children will hand off its work on the ground in East Africa to partner organizations.
The shutdown isn’t just about cofounder Jason Russell’s much publicized 2012 naked meltdown in the wake of the film’s viral success, though that certainly didn’t help the nonprofit’s fundraising after the huge infusion of money that followed the video. Invisible Children–which was founded to end the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an armed group of child soldiers in Uganda led by a mysterious, brutal leader, Joseph Kony–has spent most of the money it raised and is finding it hard to raise more, but that may not be the worst thing: The issue might be close enough to being resolved that the organization just isn’t needed anymore.
In a world where the next ice bucket challenge is a tweet away, how the organization handled the rush of cash, rode a wave of criticism, and dealt with the subsequent attention vacuum can be a lesson to every organization hoping for its own viral hit.
In March 2003, three young amateur documentary filmmakers from southern California–Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey–went to Africa in search of a story. That story nearly killed them; while in Uganda, a truck bombed by the LRA exploded in front of their eyes. After their experience, the filmmakers spent a month living in northern Uganda, witnessing the children who lived in fear of abduction. In 2004, their documentary, called Invisible Children: Rough Cut, was released. That was the beginning of Invisible Children: holding screenings of the film around the world and raising awareness of the LRA’s practices in the hopes that Joseph Kony could be brought to justice. Over the next few years, the group started doing more work to engage policymakers around finding the LRA leader and rescuing the children he abducted.
The cause started gaining traction. Global Night Commute, an Invisible Children event held in 2006, saw approximately 80,000 people sleeping in their city centers to raise awareness of the thousands of Ugandan children abducted by Kony. In 2010, after much encouragement from Invisible Children, President Obama signed the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, sending 100 American military advisors to help take down the war criminal. But Invisible Children was just getting started.
In 2005, Invisible Children’s first real year of operation, the group had $300,000 in net revenue from donations. By 2006, that number jumped to $3 million, then $7 million in 2007. Between 2008 and 2011, the group held steady with revenues between $8 and $13 million. Then came Kony 2012. The slick 30-minute film (check it out below) detailed the LRA’s exploits and set forth the goal of capturing Joseph Kony once and for all.
Over 100 million people viewed it within six days, and the money came pouring in. According to a Pew poll taken just after Kony 2012 came out, 58% of young adults in the U.S. were aware of the video. Out of the young people who suddenly knew about Kony 2012, 27% of them heard about it through social media. Oprah started tweeting about the film. So did Ryan Seacrest.
As a result of this success, Invisible Children had net revenue of $28 million in 2012. That money was quickly used to expand its operations in Uganda, Congo, and the Central African Republic, where it set up a global staff to help with protection, defection, and rehab efforts for former LRA soldiers.
“That campaign was way bigger than we pictured. It got us a ton of political momentum,” says Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey. It completely overwhelmed the organization, which was inundated with media requests (including one from us, which went unanswered in the craziness) and saw its website break under the pressure of the campaign. The critics didn’t take long to come out of the woodwork.
At Foreign Policy, Michael Wilkerson criticized the film for simplifying the conflict. Teju Cole wrote a piece in the Atlantic called “The White Savior Industrial Complex” that called out Invisible Children. Grant Oyston, the then-19-year-old author of a popular Tumblr called Visible Children, wrote in an email to Co.Exist at the time: “While I support much of Invisible Children’s work, and agree that the organization has been highly successful in increasing public awareness, I’m very concerned with the rhetoric Invisible Children is employing regarding ‘stopping at nothing’ to dispose of Kony. But after the awareness aspect, the actual means they propose to employ becomes a bit cloudy.” Oyston’s criticism was powerful enough to be downplayed by Invisible Children’s PR firm, according to BuzzFeed.
After the video went viral, Jason Russell–the director of Kony 2012–had a mental breakdown in the nude on the streets of San Diego. The clip of this breakdown, while not as popular as Kony 2012, garnered millions of views. “When your founder goes through a mental breakdown in such a public way, it absolutely confuses people. There was lots of unsubstantiated criticism from people about finances, and it gave lots of people an excuse to do nothing, to write us off,” says Keesey. “It took a lot of time for us to be able to explain that it was a mental health issue, not drugs or alcohol.”
After the excitement over Kony 2012 calmed down, Invisible Children’s revenues dropped precipitously. “We knew it was a one-off event. We were intentional in saying that best thing for the long-term of our organization isn’t to sprinkle the money over 10 years, it’s to make a sizable impact on the LRA in the short term, all the way up to seeing the capture of Joseph Kony. The fact that Kony wasn’t taken down–that has been problematic,” says Keesey.
In 2013, the group’s revenues plunged to $5.5 million. And while Kony hasn’t been captured, the number of LRA fighters has dropped from over 2,000 (when Invisible Children launched in 2004) to 150 people today. This is at least partially because, in 2006, Kony was forced out of Uganda and into the jungle, where he is rumored to still reside with his band of militant children. Soon after, the LRA started breaking up into smaller factions that don’t have the destructive capabilities–like destroying entire towns–that they once possessed. U.S. forces, armed with funding from the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act (the political act supported by Invisible Children), have also helped chip away at Kony’s strength. This makes Invisible Children’s cause much less dire than it was a decade ago.
“It’s a story of major progress, but recently it’s been unsustainable for us to finance the organization in the same way,” says Keesey. “One of the things we’ve learned is that when you are a single-issue human rights organization like we are, trying to reduce the violence of the LRA and supporting communities, it’s hard to reinvent your story. Every year we had to find a new way to reengage citizens and policymakers.”
He points out that critics of the Kony 2012 campaign, who damned it for being focused on social media instead of solutions, failed to realize that Obama has to decide whether to reauthorize his LRA deployments every six months, forcing Invisible Children’s to constantly rally for political support. In other words, the Kony 2012 campaign may have been just as important for the widespread awareness it raised (and ostensibly the political pressure it created) than for any part of its role in bringing down Kony.
“Some of it is also the nature of when one specific cause has such a moment in the spotlight, it’s hard for the cause to sustain itself going forward. It’s fair to assume that the ALS ice bucket challenge won’t get $100 million next summer,” says Keesey.
This is a relatively new predicament for nonprofits: what to do after a viral hit offers an unprecedented moment in the sun, accompanied by more cash than they know what to do with. It’s a fair assumption that the money coming from a viral video or campaign is a one-time thing, and viral hits are too rare to bet on having a second one. The Invisible Children option–spending all the cash in one go–is an especially risky decision for organizations that have small budgets. But for an organization that doesn’t mind putting itself out of business in the name of a cause, it makes sense. The campaign to capture Kony and shut down the LRA is, in the near-term, more achievable than curing ALS.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for holding onto money and saving it up for future campaigns, as the ALS Foundation is doing (specifically directing a portion of money towards research over the next few years and deliberating on what to do with the rest). For nonprofits working on issues that will be around for the foreseeable future, this is probably the best option.
Invisible Children is now trying to raise $300,000 by the end of the year to fund all of its work in 2015–that is, targeted advocacy work in Washington, D.C., and Africa, not large media campaigns–before it shuts down. The organization is also trying to create a large volunteer network of activists that will hold leaders accountable on the LRA situation.
In spite of the organization’s impending shutdown, Keesey says he’d do everything the same again. While Invisible Children’s single-issue focus made its long-term viability questionable, it also gave the group a clear mission and metrics to work towards. It’s hard to engage people as effectively as Invisible Children has in an organization trying to tackle numerous issues at the same time.
“I really hope that we have inspired groups to realize that there are hundreds of millions of people on this planet that desperately want to make a difference in the world. When you give them a chance, engaging them through social media and face-to-face interaction, people show up,” says Keesey.
For other organizations launching initiatives that they hope will turn viral, there a few lessons to take away from the Invisible Children experience: Be prepared. Make sure you can withstand criticism and large amounts of traffic. Control the narrative.
Come up with a clear path for how you want to spend money if you end up with more than you expected. Do you care about expanding? Then consider saving your cash. If not–if there is an immediate need in the world that your money can address–think about how spending it all at once will affect your long-term plans. And once all the dust has settled, deploy more initiatives to keep your name in the spotlight. Otherwise, you might just fade away.