The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why did Invisible Children dissolve?

The leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, left, and his deputy Vincent Otti sit inside a tent at Ri-Kwamba in Southern Sudan on Nov. 12, 2006. (Stuart Price/AP)

The American organization Invisible Children (IC) announced in mid-December that it is going through a “transition.” The organization, which took the world by storm with the viral Kony 2012 video, announced that most of the staff – including Jason Russell, the only remaining founder – will stop working for the organization and that a small team of four individuals will work through 2015 to continue their lobbying efforts and formally hand over their Africa-based programs by the year’s end. In other words, the organization, which has been raising awareness and action on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader Joseph Kony for the past 10 years, is slowly phasing out. For now, it appears Invisible Children won’t outlive the rebel group it was formed to stop.

Invisible Children was new and groundbreaking in many ways. The organization started after three young, inexperienced filmmakers produced a DVD whose target audience came to represent a new demographic for charitable giving: American teenagers, most notably young, white, middle-  and upper-class girls and young women. Through adeptly produced media campaigns that relied heavily on sensationalized films, a strong social media presence and regular collaboration with celebrities, their message resonated strongly with this demographic. The organization’s capacity for grass-roots mobilization on an African conflict was almost unprecedented. In doing so, they managed to bring a great deal of attention to the conflict. Most importantly, because their mission coincided with a number of public policy priorities of the Obama administration (such as the prevention of mass atrocities and conflict prevention and regional security cooperation in Africa),  they had a profound impact on U.S. policy toward the LRA crisis, most notably the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act and the decision to send U.S. military advisers to the region to assist Ugandan military forces hunting for Kony. The alignment of these policy priorities with Invisible Children’s mission has also led to close collaboration between the U.S. military and Invisible Children in the field.

The organization was not only new in its style and its capacity to mobilize tens of thousands of youth, it was also at the vanguard of a new ideology of charitable giving – proffered by prominent figures such as Dan Pallotta – which believes that NGOs and other nonprofit entities work best when they are allowed to operate according to the same market principles that the for-profit world does. Whereas nonprofits have traditionally sought to minimize both their overhead and risk in order to maximize and secure the impact of their donors’ contributions, market-based models prioritize surplus-centered risk and large investments in personnel as a way of generating the largest possible return on their investment. Invisible Children’s recent announcement – essentially marking the beginning of the end for the organization — highlights the underbelly of both the style and market-based principles of this market-based ideology of charitable giving.

In order to appeal to a large group of people — particularly teenagers — it is to be expected that the complexities of a now-27-year-old war would be presented in a slim-downed narrative. As one of us has written recently, all actors construct a particular LRA narrative based upon the audience they wish to influence. However, the politics of the conflict can only bend so far to suit a particular narrative until they break. This has been a major problem of Invisible Children’s campaigns long before the public condemnation that came with the release of Kony 2012. Dubious, exaggerated, and sometimes incorrect casual relations and information have been presented in order to simplify the conflict and inflate Invisible Children’s role in stopping it. Their last and final campaign is no exception.

Directly after their announcement, CEO Ben Keesey used a campaigning picture to claim that IC’s actions led to a number of spectacular results, including a 98 percent reduction of Uganda’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) since 2005. This is a manifest misrepresentation of facts: Ugandan IDPs went home for a variety of reasons (such as the Juba Peace Process, declining support to the LRA from Sudan, various forms of local pressure, the LRA’s move to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, among others) and the efforts of a wide range of governmental and nongovernmental actors. This is a blatant misreading of the conflict’s dynamics in favor of a sort of misplaced narcissism, reminiscent of the organization Falling Whistles taking unearned credit for the defeat of Congolese rebel organization M23.

Similarly, in their efforts to construct absolute categories of “good” and “evil,” Keesey argues in a recent op-ed in the New York Times that the LRA was directly responsible for the death of 1,000 displaced persons per week. While there is no doubt that the LRA has committed horrific acts, the difficult circumstances in the IDP camps were to a large extent caused by the Ugandan government’s strategy of forced displacement, which suggests that there is plenty of blame to go around for the deaths of displaced Ugandans during the war’s darkest days.

While it is certainly difficult to attract sustained attention to a complex cause, IC is not unaware of the myriad dynamics of the conflict. One of its closest partners, Resolve, for example, often produces well-researched reports on the issue. Yet, in its drive to have the widest possible reach, Invisible Children regularly decided instead to rely on questionable connections between its work and changes in the LRA’s activities on the ground.

These kinds of problematic representations ultimately led to a backlash against the organization. This became particularly clear during and after the Kony 2012 campaign and had a fundamental effect on the fundraising efforts of the organization. Traditionally, most of IC’s funds were collected as a result of its tours: countrywide presentations in high schools and colleges about the conflict and the organization’s work during which merchandise such as T-shirts and DVDs were sold and a large number of donations were collected. Yet, the increasing (and often negative) exposure the organization received after Kony 2012’s release made this model increasingly difficult. Whereas before Kony 2012 crowds were made up of eager and enthusiastic students, suddenly extremely critical questions were asked to Invisible Children volunteers and the Ugandan beneficiaries who joined them. These young critics challenged the organization, its use of the money raised through the Kony 2012 campaign, as well as the very existence of the LRA.

As one former Ugandan beneficiary who traveled on these tours recounts,

“Before Kony 2012, people were so motivated, and there was so much passion (..). But then, things changed: the documentary [Kony 2012] opened people’s mind differently about the LRA and Invisible Children as an organization. The questions we received were: ‘People say you’re a scam! We’re aware of his [Kony’s] death, and you’re raising funds on this.’ So during that tour, we were not raising much money at all.”

Many American and Ugandan volunteers struggled with the oftentimes hostile atmosphere and the major change of attitude in their audiences during the Kony 2012 tour. Some of these criticisms stemmed from clearly misinformed but widely shared responses/criticisms presenting Kony and the LRA as no longer existent; but they nevertheless had a substantially damaging effect to the organization’s ability to continue with its established fundraising model. A former American volunteer who took part in these tours described Kony 2012 as a “serious hit to the organization” which it continue to face. Ugandan beneficiaries who toured the United States also harbored other concerns about the way the organization represented the conflict and its hopeful conclusion. As one Ugandan volunteer told us:

“In the Kony 2012 tour, I had to say that Kony was going to be arrested in 2012, and that he was going to be brought to justice in The Hague, and so on. I had to say that, but I was very sure in my head that that was not going to happen. I really thought it was not going to happen. That was a big lie! They have been looking for him for over 25 years! I felt very uncomfortable saying this.”

A second important issue is the market-based functioning of Invisible Children, whose operations have become increasingly in line with Dan Pallotta’s thinking. Russell and Keesey often cite Pallotta’s work as a major influence on how they conceptualize the future of charity and Pallotta sits on their advisory board. He was also a featured speaker at IC events in 2009, 2012 and 2013. Pallotta’s basic argument is that charities should be run according to private sector principles. Concretely, he argues for the “multiplying effect of smart investments.” This involves paying large overheads in order to attract the most talented people who in turn are expected to produce the best results, but also in the belief that higher spending in these “smart investments” will pay off: the more you spend, the more you raise and therefore the more you grow. This worked in the past for Invisible Children. At least a handful of the major events it organized in past years entailed serious risk and relied on total confidence in its success but each time it was able to generate major resources and come out financially for the better.

Kony 2012 continued this pattern: it generated an unprecedented amount of funds for the organization and – in line with the philosophy that bold investments produce continued growth – the vast majority of this money was spent immediately to expand Invisible Children’s Central Africa programs – and to fund damage control efforts needed after Kony 2012. However, this kind of growth model only works if, at a minimum, an organization maintains the same market share, and ideally continues growing. This didn’t happen for Invisible Children. As highlighted above, its resource base collapsed. While much of its Kony 2012-funded resources were spent, few new funds were collected, leading to a gradual reduction of its programs and, now, this final period of “transition.”

While in many ways this most recent announcement by Invisible Children had been some time coming – the organization went through major restructurings earlier this year in response to increasingly grim financial outlooks – its gravity is nevertheless telling of the lasting impact of protracted public scrutiny on a model that prioritizes risk while expecting continued growth. It particularly highlights the necessity to avoid misrepresentations or overstating a group’s causal effect on outcomes in conflict situations. Kony 2012 was not the first time Invisible Children had been confronted with accusations of grossly misrepresenting the conflict or its role in ending it. It did initiate, however, an overwhelming tidal wave of exposure to which the organization was ill-prepared to respond. Behind such catchy phrases as “Jump First, Fear Later” and “Don’t study history, make history,” the organization regularly motioned to the sort of market-driven ideology of charitable giving that figures like Pallotta promote. At the moment of its overexposure, Invisible Children behaved accordingly: it hired a public relations consultant, became increasingly insular in its justifications, and dug its heels in for what it hoped would be a short-term setback. For better or for worse, that short-term setback prefaced its long-term closure and its brand remains tarnished.

Unlike a for-profit corporation, however, Invisible Children’s closure will have lasting effects on the many communities and students to whom it committed and whose lived experiences it aims to represent. Charitable organizations have a profoundly different set of relationships with their beneficiaries, a group of people who are neither their customers nor their investors, which begs further reflection on the ultimately self-defeating effects of presenting hollowed out narratives as whole.

Kristof Titeca is a lecturer at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. You can follow him on Twitter.  Matthew Sebastian is a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. You can also follow him on Twitter.