On Monday morning, Invisible Children, the organization behind the hugely popular "Kony 2012" viral video, announced major changes to its operations. The company will close its San Diego-based headquarters, it announced, and transfer its African-based operations to local partners over the next year.
It's a significant change for the company – and it may well spell its end. The staff in the U.S. office will be cut from 21 to four before the end of the year, while the number of staff working in Africa will be scaled down from 20 to 10 in March. Noelle West, communications director at Invisible Children, said it was "unlikely" that Invisible Children would continue in any form after its African operations were transferred.
Financial concerns appear to be the driving force behind the decision. "Over the last two years, it has become increasingly difficult to fundraise to the level necessary in order to sustain the current breadth of all of our programmatic work, both stateside and in Africa," West explains. "At this point we’ve exhausted all feasible options for raising the funds necessary for keeping our full U.S. operations going at the current capacity."
The news comes after a decade of operations for the organization, which was formed in 2003 by three young filmmakers (Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell) who wanted to raise awareness about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army – in particular focusing on the LRA's abduction of children for use as soldiers in Uganda and other central African countries.
While Invisible Children had operated for years, it wasn't until 2012's Stop Kony campaign that the organization became famous. The short film "Kony 2012" was released online in March that year and became a huge success on YouTube and social media, forcing the LRA into mainstream conversation. At the time of writing, "Kony 2012" had been viewed more than 100 million times.
The spread of the Stop Kony campaign was unprecedented: The hashtag #KONY2012 was tweeted 2.4 million times in March 2012 alone, and the campaign was deemed the "most viral video in history." A backlash to the video soon threatened to overshadow it, however.
Critics called the Stop Kony campaign simplistic and vague, while the organization's focus on directing money toward advocacy rather than the victims also came under scrutiny. Meanwhile, the online support was derided as "slacktivism" or "hashtag activisim." Some of the criticism took an increasingly personal tone: The portrayal of Africans in the film was called "soft bigotry," while the Americans behind Invisible Children were often portrayed as out-of-touch do-gooders: One picture of the three co-founders posing with guns alongside members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) became especially notorious.
The remarkable success of the film and the subsequent scrutiny clearly took those working at Invisible Children by surprise, and the organization struggled to cope. In one sad turn of events, Russell was hospitalized after an incident in San Diego. Even critics of the group began to feel sympathy for it, especially when other consequences of the film's success, such as the creation of a U.S.-backed African Union force to capture Kony, failed to make headlines.
More than two years later, experts remain divided on the Stop Kony campaign. "I absolutely think Invisible Children produced some good," Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, explains. "First, it essentially gave advocates a blueprint for how to do successful human rights advocacy on a big scale. It also helped expose the general public to a serious and long-standing issue that deserved attention and international action."
However, Laura Seay, a political scientist with Colby College, is less convinced. While Seay praises some of the work done by Invisible Children's partner, the Resolve, she argues that much of this was underway before the film came out and that Stop Kony had not contributed meaningfully to its success.
"Where are all the college students who bought KONY 2012 merchandise three years ago now?" Seay writes in an e-mail. "How many of them still pay attention to the LRA crisis, much less are willing to give up time and money to do something about it — or another cause relating to conflict in Africa or elsewhere? I'd be willing to bet it's a pretty small percentage."
Invisible Children had hoped to get past Kony 2012. In an interview with Buzzfeed this year, the organization had admitted that the backlash had hurt their fundraising abilities, but also touted the other things they had learned from it. "Has Invisible Children grown up?" the article asked.
West says that the critical response to the Stop Kony campaign was one factor in Monday's announcement. "The backlash made it easier for people to decide to sit on the sidelines rather than participate," West continued. "We were primarily an awareness-based fundraising model, and the campaign had such vast exposure we struggled to reinvent our fundraising model in this new environment."
Invisible Children will now invest any current and future funding in the transfer of its African programs to local partners, in what it is calling the Finishing Fund. It is also worth remembering that while the LRA has been significantly weakened over the past few years, it is still wreaking havoc and harming civilians. And Kony remains free, despite the millions spent to capture him.
See also: Was #Kony2012 a failure?