Guest post: Kony 2012 and a look inside the Invisible Children organization

[Note from Dave Algoso: The following is a guest post from David Hong. He's an international development professional, a friend-of-the-blog, and a self-described former "roadie" for Invisible Children. All opinions expressed below are entirely his.]

The social media tidal wave of #Kony2012 happened so quickly I was unaware of it until my girlfriend (someone not involved in international development work), told me about it. My knee jerk reaction was bewilderment. The fringe contacts of my Facebook feed (people who I doubt would be able to place Uganda on a map) were buzzing about the LRA and how Kony is the United States’ number one foreign policy priority. After reading through the Visible Children tumblr, Michael Wilkerson’s piece in Foreign Policy, Invisible Children’s response, Chris Blattman’s thoughts, and a slew of other opinions (including Dave Algoso’s blog), I was shocked at the amount of attention IC was receiving.

Most criticism has centered on poverty porn, borderline-deceptive advocacy, and troubling policy proposals. I don’t really take issue with those, as there are some compelling points being made. However, to malign the organization itself is all too close to the Easterly-esque here’s-what’s-wrong-with-everything-but-I-don’t-have-any-answers platform that doesn’t seem to inspire innovation in the field.

It became difficult to think about what I could offer up to the blogosphere gods. Then it came to me: I used to work for Invisible Children.

As a matter of full disclosure, I am a full supporter of Invisible Children, albeit a bit disaffected, and they are the primary reason I went into a career in international development in the nonprofit sector. I was an intern, not a paid staff member, and was not present during high-level staff meetings or major disagreements about organizational mission or direction, so please apply your preferred grain of salt.

I used to be a “roadie” for IC in 2007-2008. Basically, the position entailed booking screenings of the original “Rough Cut” documentary circa 2005 (focused on night commuting) and another film, “Sunday”, circa 2007 (about a boy living in an IDP camp) at venues around the country, mostly universities and churches. Then, my team and I would physically travel to those places to present the documentary, field questions, and drum up support for the organization.

One interesting aspect of the internship was getting an intimate look at how management and the founders made internal decisions. One IC mantra that was often repeated was: “we want to work ourselves out of a job” — meaning that our development and advocacy work would fuel the end to the conflict and ensure the safety of Northern Uganda’s children, thus rendering IC’s mission complete. However, like any other cause-based organization, solving the problem is antithetical to job security. As the LRA was pushed out of Northern Uganda, there was discussion about IC’s existential role. Now that the conflict was abating, what would the next phase of the organization look like? If the 2008 peace talks were successful and created a resolution to the conflict, where would IC stand? One of the founders wanted to expose issues involving conflict minerals in the DRC and another founder thought IC could develop into a media organization advocating on behalf of all “invisible children.”

Nonprofits rarely close doors in the way businesses go bankrupt, and to say “all causes are equal” is to ignore the realities of the nonprofit marketplace and the standing armies of “fundraising” and “resource mobilization.” IC has always been proud of its unique methodology as an advocacy and “NGO-style” development group; however, there are reasons why few organizations attempt to conquer both skills. For one, it’s hard. It’s hard enough to design programs that demonstrate effectiveness under rigorous standards (e.g. randomized control trials) and initiate campaigns that captivate public attention. My main critique of IC is that they are trying to do too much and are stretched too thin. There is a reason the One campaign doesn’t have direct programs, and why Oxfam doesn’t produce media that can win Sundance.

One unfortunate result of being a hybrid organization is financial mismanagement, but not in the way most critics have argued. During my time at IC, staff layoffs occurred twice, even with exponential revenue growth. Earmarked revenue for programs in Gulu couldn’t be allocated to support administrative or overhead costs in San Diego — resulting in downsizing and miffed ex-employees. There were stories of spending outlandish fees on renting space ($1,200 for one night at an auditorium) and that management salaries were higher (and in one case pitifully lower) than had been communicated to interns.

Is this at all surprising? It shouldn’t be. When I was there, the organization was 3 years old and the CEO was 24. Do I think he’s a brilliant leader and truly capable of running a large organization? Absolutely. However, as with anything else, there are growing pains and young organizations repeat the same mistakes their predecessors make. Let’s face it, entrepreneurs are inherently egotistical — it’s why and how they start successful ventures. You need some hubris. But what has been unfortunate about all of this is that IC could have avoided all the development wonk criticism by simply focusing on their strengths — media and advocacy (like I said before, I’m not addressing the sensationalist aspect of it, I more or less agree), which in this internet and social media-infected world is nothing to scoff at. It’s been entertaining to see how armchair academics are tangentially mentioning IC’s campaign as “effective” and “deserv[ing] credit.” As of this posting, Kony 2012 has over 70 million views. If your petition that got 100 signatures at a community college is effective, then this is a gamechanger.

As a campaign machine, Invisible Children could charge McKinsey-type consulting fees to organizations (are you listening GOP?) that want to start a social media movement. But they don’t. They’ve made inroads in cause marketing and policy that nonprofits can only dream of and upload their professional content online for free. One thing they do better than anyone I’ve seen or heard about is engagement with American youth. The same youth that are often portrayed as “lazy and apathetic” are the ones raising thousands of dollars and inspiring others to care about social justice issues. This is IC’s sweet spot: filmmaking and civic engagement. It’s arguably what they should stick to, instead of getting involved in the murky trenches of international peacekeeping and geopolitics.

12 thoughts on “Guest post: Kony 2012 and a look inside the Invisible Children organization

  1. One correction David — Invisible Children cannot charge McKinsey type fees for social media consulting because THEY don’t even know why this campaign worked, according the founder and leadership at IC themselves. Viral campaigns are rarely successful because of of some structural brilliance. The only exception I can think of is http://www.GirlEffect.org — which broke the rules (if there were any) about how to market a cause successfully. McKinsey probably wouldn’t have predicted either the GirlEffect or Kony2012 campaigns would have worked because they focus on disseminating conventional, tested wisdom and stay away from experimental approaches (the kinds that are occasionally game changers but usually just failed learning experiences).

    I’ll be most interested in seeing what IC learns from this. Do they transform given a shift in what Uganda needs or do they release a series of copy-cat videos trying to recreate their past successes? I predict no NGO will get their copy-cat viral video to reach 100 million views just by copying IC’s style and focus. I also suspect there are many more invisible children around the world who deserve this organization’s attention in 2013 more than those who have been exposed.

    • Thanks for the feedback Marc, although the McKinsey comment was more hyperbole than anything else and was not a reference to consulting firm’s method or approach. Having worked inside the organization, I can tell you that they do know what they’re doing with these campaigns and have witnessed remarkable success over the years. Remember, this is an organization that was started by three film students and have now brought global attention to an issue no one (hyperbole again) was talking about a few years ago.

      Another thought on their approach is characterized well by my friend James Pearson, he writes, “The films Invisible Children makes are not advocacy films at all, they are advocacy advertising, advocacy propaganda. They are simplistic and over-produced and pop-cultured because that is what we as Americans respond to. Invisible Children pioneered this space, a space where other advocacy organizations still fear to tread, because they want to reach Americans. Lots of them. And they are flogged for it every time they release a new film. How far they bend reality, and have bent it again with Kony 2012, is something about which I disagree with them. But whether we agree or not, it’s important to realize that their over-simplifications are not simple-minded, they are strategic. There is much more depth behind the scenes.”

      You said, “I also suspect there are many more invisible children around the world who deserve this organization’s attention in 2013 more than those who have been exposed.” Are you now the arbiter of who is most deserving? Or was that just hyperbole?

  2. Well-written and thank you for your perspective, David.

    I take one relatively trivial exception to your assumption that entrepreneurs are inherently egotistical. That’s a false blanket statement. But otherwise, your core point about IC perhaps trying to tackle too many things at once is an interesting perspective that I’ll chew on a bit.

    This has been one of the more useful commentaries I’ve seen about the whole thing since it began. Thanks, again.

    • Thanks for the feedback Danya. I’m sure it is a generalization, but it’s one whose exception I haven’t seen. And in this context I’m not positing that egotism is a negative thing, in fact it’s what drives entrepreneurs to take risks the rest of us wouldn’t, right?

  3. This needs to be said more: getting attention for an issue does not make a good advocacy campaign, even if the level of attention is a ‘gamechanging’ (which I actually don’t agree with). Who pays attention, how the issue is presented and what actions are being suggested are what makes an advocacy campaign – on all three counts, particularly the last two, the IC campaign is deeply flawed.

  4. The part I take issue with is the “financial mismanagement” and “miffed ex-employees.” I am sure there are employees that felt “miffed,” but I am sure there are a whole probably many more of them that felt grace, understanding, and positive acceptance of what had to happen for Invisible Children to continue to use their finances wisely. I don’t call laying off employees when the economy calls for it “financial mismanagement.” I call it doing what has to be done.

    (disclaimer: I have absolutely no idea if anything David Hong has said about the organization is actually true; I am just responding to what he has written.)

    • Thanks for the feedback, Mary. The context of downsizing happened during a period of growth. Check it out yourself: http://www.invisiblechildren.com/financials.html In 2006, total organizational revenue was $3.3 million, in 2008 it was $7.3 million. The math doesn’t add up.

      It was less about simply “letting someone go” and more about the organizational culture. This is difficult to explain, but IC had (maybe still has) a familial environment. You don’t just spend the workday with your co-workers, you see them after hours too. It’s a very tight community. When someone is let go, it feels deeply personal.

  5. I’ve been in the fence about this whole IC affair for a week now. I think the one thing that has been nagging me most is that I’ve worked in Uganda for over a year and LRA hasn’t one come up with any of these NGOs. I wouldn’t have known it was an issue if Mussevenie didn’t plaster 40-foot tall billboards saying “28 rebel groups exterminated… you’re welcome.” (to paraphrase him and John Hodgeman)

    What I DO know is that many other social issues are being raised in Uganda – and none of them seem to be newsworthy, in spite of being quite humanworthy.

    Now granted I didn’t ask about LRA / Kony and I’ve never worked in the North – so either I’m hopelessly uninformed, or Ugandans in the South don’t speak of it, or… this is an issue that appeals mostly to the up-and-coming filmmaker.

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