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The 'Kony 2012' Effect: Recovering From A Viral Sensation

A box brims with "Kony 2012" posters at Invisible Children offices in March 2012. The group had to increase staff after the success of the film, but now it has a budget problem.
John Mone
A box brims with "Kony 2012" posters at Invisible Children offices in March 2012. The group had to increase staff after the success of the film, but now it has a budget problem.

A little over two years ago, you or somebody you know probably watched "Kony 2012," the YouTube video that redefined what it means to go viral.

The video was made by a small San Diego nonprofit called Invisible Children. It shed light on Joseph Kony, the central African warlord who recruited child soldiers.

Two years later, Kony is still on the loose, and Invisible Children has lived in the shadow of one viral moment. Now, to survive, Invisible Children has to redefine itself.

On a sunny San Diego morning, Jason Russell sits, impeccably dressed, at his desk in his well-lit, well-decorated office. Bringing Kony to justice was Russell's sole purpose when he founded Invisible Children almost a decade ago.

One of the first things Russell points out is how much the success of "Kony 2012" took everyone by surprise.

"We thought that virality looked like 500,000 or a million views within the year," he says. "We thought that was success. We had 120 million views in five days."

The Downside Of Success

Once released, the video was tweeted by celebrities like Rihanna and even Bill Gates. The technology website Mashable quickly named it the most viral video of all time.

Within days, Invisible Children was receiving national and global media attention. And Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesy admits they weren't ready at all.

"If you're gonna release a video that gets a hundred million views," he says, "your PR needs to be bigger than one intern."

Especially if you have to deal with criticism. Soon after its release, the bad reviews piled on.

Some said the video focused on Kony at the expense of bigger problems facing central Africa. Others questioned how Invisible Children managed its money. People also called the video racist — one author called it part of the "white savior industrial complex."

Russell, who is white, takes that in stride. "You know, I've studied African history," he says. "I've studied African-American history. Ever since I was 16, I've been obsessed with it all. That wasn't a new term to me or our organization."

Russell believes in the work. He believes he's right.

In 2012, lots of people didn't feel that way. At a screening of the film, Ugandans threw rocks at the screen.

Less than two weeks after "Kony 2012" hit the Web, Russell, who narrated the video, had a meltdown. TMZ had footage of Russell parading naked and yelling in the streets of San Diego.

Money Becomes The Subject

Clearly, some things went wrong for the group. But after the video went live, a lot went right, too. Through the breakdown and the backlash, Invisible Children raised $32 million. The charity ramped up its on-the-ground work in Africa and its staffing. Russell says up to 300 people were working with the organization at its peak, including interns, volunteers and short-term workers.

This spring, President Obama committed more troops and money to find Kony. Invisible Children says he may very well be captured this year.

But Invisible Children might not be around long enough to see that victory: Its income is drying up.

"Whether or not this organization is going to survive, I'm not sure," says Ken Berger, president of the watchdog group Charity Navigator.

Berger praises Invisible Children's governance and transparency, but, he says, "When you're talking about having a budget of $15 million, and only having about $5 million in revenues, that is not normal."

Berger says based on the charity's 2013 tax filings, Invisible Children has just $7 million in the bank.

"If that trend continues, they'd be wiped out in a year," he says.

Invisible Children defends its spending, saying its goal was to devote whatever money it raised to work against Kony — which is what its supporters wanted.

'Your Job Is To Work Yourself Out Of A Job'

The San Diego offices of Invisible Children look and feel like the organization is thriving. It has an open floor plan, lots of windows and natural light. The staff is young and engaged; they look like they're saving the world and enjoying it.

In one part of the office, staffers and volunteers take donations over the phone. When a staffer locks in a donation, they ring a triangle and everyone cheers.

One $35 donation comes in. The gong is rung to brief celebration. It's something, but it would take over 300,000 donations of $35 to wipe out Invisible Children's deficit.

The charity has cut full-time staff almost in half since its "Kony 2012"-fueled peak. Russell says laying people off has been hard.

"These individuals have fought alongside you and passed bills through Congress," he says. "It's always challenging to let people go that are your friends. Everyone understands what we're doing here. Every time someone's hired here, we say, 'Your job is to work yourself out of a job.' "

Invisible Children might do just that. Not just financially — they could lose their reason for being. If Kony is captured, Russell says his organization is unlikely to find a new bad guy to pursue.

Searching For A New Mission

Russell stumbled upon Joseph Kony on accident. He went to Africa years ago to make a documentary about the Sudanese genocide. He only discovered the story of Kony after being blocked from entering Sudan, where Kony's group, the Lord's Resistance Army, operates.

"At our core, we have to be authentic, and the discovery of Joseph Kony and his crimes was so authentic," Russell says. "We can't muster that up and say 'OK, now we're going to Burma, or Colombia or North Korea.' "

But Invisible Children is planning to stick around. Recently, the group started a student conference called the Fourth Estate Summit, an effort to jumpstart youth activism across the world.

Invisible Children also began a consulting practice to teach others how to launch campaigns like "Kony 2012." So far, they've worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and headphone maker Beats By Dre.
Russell says Invisible Children is bigger than just Joseph Kony.

"If I had to give an end-date to Invisible Children, well, at least this chapter, I would say, [it] would end in 2014," he says. "We'll reassess, and then come back with something equally as powerful."

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Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
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