Is the Kony 2012 Campaign a Flop? The Jury’s Still Out

By on Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Nonprofit Quarterly ran an interesting article about the Kony 2012 campaign fizzling out. The writer looks at several issues, including issues with Invisible Children effectively mobilizing its base for Make Kony Famous and Cover the Night  on April 20, questions about where the money raised is going, the fact that Ugandans (including some of the people appearing in the Kony Part II video) were upset by it and found it mis-represented their country, and the satires and lampoons that happened in the popular media based on the video and its creator’s mental breakdown.

It also raised a lot of questions about Invisible Children as a nonprofit, with the international NGO community asking where this small organization came from, that had produced this moving and emotional video that garnered the most hits ever on YouTube. I can’t help but think that some of the criticism, at least, was jealousy, that such a small group, unknown in broader circles, had stirred up such a ruckus. The crush of attention was so paralyzing that the film’s creator was hospitalized and images of him running naked in the streets became associated with the campaign and stimulated a flurry of additional media reports.

Instead of this being a nonprofit fairy tale where the bad guy gets captured and the good guys get what they came for, it’s become a case study in how rabid success can overwhelm a small nonprofit and its leaders.

It’s also sparked commentary from Ugandans and a new campaign called Stop the Pity by a nonprofit called Mama Hope which views the Kony 2012 video as feeding into stereotypes about Africans. They’ve released three videos using humor to create new perceptions of Africa and show it is full of capable people with the potential to support themselves.The aim is to create a new conversation about the continent and humanize the people who live there.

By and large, Invisible Children seems to be holding its own, but the organization is facing renewed scrutiny of its activities, memberships, fundraising, and work on the ground in Uganda. Invisible Children reported $13.7 million in revenue on its 990 with a significant amount held in assets (about $6 million) and a little more than 80% of funds going to program expenses. Charity Navigator gives the nonprofit a four star rating for financial management and a two star rating for accountability and transparency.  It’s Charity Navigator rating was lowered 15 points for not having an independent voting board with at least five members. The charity’s audited financials were prepared by an independent accountant, but it did not have an audit oversight committee. As a relatively young nonprofit founded in 2003, Invisible Children has still got some growing to do.

But is the Kony 2012 campaign a flop?

It definitely simplified the situation – and stirred ire among people who feel the Kony 2012 video mis-portrays their country and stereotypes Africans. But it also got Americans to talk about Africa a lot more than we have for a very long time. It’s garnered huge press attention in the United States and gotten people talking about something that to date, had never captured their attention before.

It did get us to talk about the warlord’s crimes. Kony and his weakened Lord’s Resistance Army continue to terrorize villages. Since leaving Uganda several years ago, they have targeted villagers in a triangle of forests straddling the Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan. Since 2008, the LRA has killed more than 2,400 people and kidnapped at least 3,400, according to the United Nations. Last year the LRA displaced 466,000 people.

The campaign sparked officials to do something. A rare bipartisan effort to condemn Kony is underway on Capitol Hill. The Associated Press reported that US Special Forces are involved in the hunt for Kony (attention an advisory military mission might not have garnered, were there not a campaign drawing attention to it) and President Obama also affirmed his commitment to helping locate the on the war criminal and bring him to justice.

The campaign demonstrated the power of social media in a new way. The numbers are staggering, with 88.9 million views on YouTube for the original Kony 2012 video. In an interview with the Washington Post, Invisible Children’s founder says their original goal was for the video to garner 500,000 views in a year.

It also affirmed the ability of a nonprofit organization to stir attention. Is Invisible Children perfect? No. Is their video perfect? No. But have they gotten people to talk about an issue and weigh in? Yes.

I think the jury is still out on whether the Kony 2012 campaign is a flop. This fairy tale soap opera nonprofit saga still has a few acts to go.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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