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.