The 'Kony 2012' Effect: Recovering From A Viral Sensation The group Invisible Children shot to fame after its video "Kony 2012" went viral. The success led to a backlash, and now the organization must redefine its mission and its future.

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

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A little over two years ago, the YouTube video, "Kony 2012," redefined what it meant to go viral.


JASON RUSSELL: Who are you to end the war? I'm here to tell you, who are you not to?

SIMON: The video was made by small, San Diego nonprofit group called Invisible Children, and it was meant to shed light on Joseph Kony, the Central African warlord who recruited child soldiers.

Two years later, Joseph Kony is still on the loose, and the group Invisible Children is still working to stop him. NPR's Sam Sanders paid their office a visit to find out what's life like after the video?

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: I ask Invisible Children founder, Jason Russell, to reflect on "Kony 2012," and the first thing he points out is how it took everyone by surprise.

RUSSELL: We thought that virility looked like 500,000 views or a million views within the year. We thought that was success. We had 120 million views in five days.

SANDERS: Invisible Children had been making movies about Kony since 2004, but nothing had come close to "Kony 2012's" success. The technology website Mashable named it the most viral video of all time. Very quickly, the charity was receiving national and global media attention, and Invisible Children CEO, Ben Keesey, admits they weren't ready at all.

BEN KEESEY: If you're going to release a video that gets a hundred million views, your PR team needs to be bigger than one intern.

SANDERS: Especially if you have to deal with criticism. Soon after its release, "Kony 2012" got a lot of that. Some said the video focused on Kony, when he wasn't the biggest problem facing Central Africa. Others questioned how Invisible Children manage their money. And people said the video was racist, even part of what one author called the white savior industrial complex.

At a screening of the film in Africa, Ugandans threw rocks at the screen. Less than two weeks after "Kony 2012" hit the web, founder Jason Russell, the narrator of the video, had a meltdown. TMZ had footage of Russel parading naked and yelling in the streets.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: That's not your average crazy person going on a naked, obscenity-filled rant in the middle of the day. It's Jason Russell, the filmmaker of...

SANDERS: Clearly, some things went wrong. But after "Kony 2012," a lot went right, too. Through the breakdown and the backlash, Invisible Children raised $32 million. The charity ramped up their on-the-ground work in Africa and their staffing. Jason Russell says up to 300 people were working with the organization at its peak if you include interns, volunteers and short-term workers. This spring, President Obama committed more troops and money to find Joseph Kony. Invisible Children says he may very well be captured this year. If that happens, the charity might have literally worked themselves out of a job, but Invisible Children might not be around to see that victory. Their money's drying up.

KEN BERGER: Whether or not this organization is going to survive - I'm not sure.

SANDERS: Ken Berger is a president of the watchdog group Charity Navigator. Berger says Invisible Children's governance and transparency are good, better than in 2012, but...

BERGER: When you're talking about having a budget of $15 million and only having about

$5 million in revenues, that is not normal.

SANDERS: Berger says based on the charity's 2013 tax filings, they have just $7 million left in the bank.

BERGER: If that trend continues, they'd be wiped out in a year.

SANDERS: Invisible Children defends their spending. They say their goal was to spend whatever money they raised working against Kony - that that was what their supporters wanted them to do.

And the San Diego offices of Invisible Children look and feel like the organization is thriving. It's 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.


UNIDENTIFIED STAFF MEMBER: All right, thank you so much, Melina. You too, bye - $35.

SANDERS: One staffer has just locked in a donation. And when you do that, you get to ring the triangle.


SANDERS: Thirty-five dollars - it's something. But it would take over 300,000 donations of $35 to wipe out Invisible Children's deficit. And in fact, Invisible Children's cut its full-time staff almost in half since its "Kony 2012" -fueled peak. Jason Russell says laying people off has been hard, but it's part of the work.

I asked Russell if they'll just find a new bad guy if Kony were gone? He said, probably not. 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 not being able to get into Sudan.

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

SANDERS: But Invisible Children is planning to stick around. Recently, the group started something called the Fourth Estate, an effort to jumpstart youth activism across the world. Invisible Children also began a consulting practice to teach others hot to launch campaigns as successful as Kony 2012. They have a few clients so far, including the Gates Foundation and headphone maker Beats by Dre. Jason Russell says Invisible Children is and will be bigger than just Joseph Kony.

RUSSELL: If I had to give an ending to Invisible Children - well, at least this chapter - I would say would end in 2014. We'll reassess and then come back with something equally as powerful.

SANDERS: For two years now, Invisible Children has lived in the shadow of one viral moment - a moment that succeeded in defining a warlord named Joseph Kony for millions. Now, to survive, Invisible Children has to redefine itself. Sam Sanders, NPR News.

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