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The ‘Kony 2012’ Effect: Recovering From A Viral Sensation

Invisible Children co-founders Jason Russell, left, Bobby Bailey, center, and Laren Poole, record footage in Africa in 2007.

A little over two years ago, you, or somebody you know probably watched "Kony 2012," the Youtube video that redefined what it means to go viral.

The video was made by a small San Diego nonprofit called Invisible Children. It shed light on Joseph Kony, the central African warlord who recruited child soldiers.

Two years later, Joseph Kony is still on the loose, and Invisible Children has lived in the shadow of one viral moment. Now, to survive, Invisible Children has to redefine itself.

The sudden, massive popularity of "Kony 2012" took everyone at Invisible Children by surprise, says founder Jason Russell.

"We thought that virality looked like 500,000 or a million views within the year," Russell says. "We thought that was success. We had a 120 million views in five days."

The group had been making movies about Kony since 2004, but nothing had come close to the success of "Kony 2012."

The Downside Of Success

The technology website Mashable named it the most viral video of all time. Very quickly, the charity was receiving national and global media attention. Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesy admits the nonprofit wasn't ready at all.

"If you're going to release a video that gets 100 million views, your PR team needs to be bigger than one intern," he says.

Especially if you have to deal with criticism. Soon after its release, the bad reviews began piling on.

Some said the video focused on Kony at the expense of bigger problems facing central Africa. Others questioned how Invisible Children managed its money. People also called the video racist — one author called it part of the "white savior industrial complex."

At a screening of the film in Africa, Ugandans threw rocks at the screen.

Less than two weeks after "Kony 2012" hit the Web, Russell, who narrated the video, had a meltdown. TMZ had footage of Russell parading naked and yelling in the streets of San Diego.

Clearly, some things went wrong for the group. But after the video went live, a lot went right, too. Through the breakdown and the backlash, Invisible Children raised $32 million. The charity ramped up its on-the-ground work in Africa and its staffing. Russell says up to 300 people were working with the organization at its peak, including interns, volunteers and short-term workers.

This spring, President Obama committed more troops and money to find Kony. Invisible Children says he may very well be captured this year. If that happens, the charity might have literally worked itself out of a job.

But Invisible Children might not be around long enough to see that victory: Its income is drying up.

"Whether or not this organization is going to survive, I'm not sure," says Ken Berger, president of the watchdog group Charity Navigator.

Berger praises Invisible Children's governance and transparency, but, he says, "When you're talking about having a budget of $15 million, and only having about $5 million in revenues, that is not normal."

Berger says based on the charity's 2013 tax filings, Invisible Children has just $7 million in the bank.

"If that trend continues, they'd be wiped out in a year," he says.

Time To Find Another Bad Guy?

Invisible Children defends its spending, saying its goal was to devote whatever money it raised to work against Kony — which is what its supporters wanted.

The San Diego offices of Invisible Children look and feel like the organization is thriving, with an open floor plan, lots of windows and plenty of natural light. The staff is young and engaged; they look like they're saving the world and enjoying it.

But the charity has cut full-time staff almost in half since its "Kony 2012"-fueled peak. Russell says laying people off has been hard. He says if Kony is captured, the group is unlikely to find a new bad guy to pursue.

Russell stumbled upon Joseph Kony on accident. He went to Africa years ago to make a documentary about the Sudanese genocide. He only discovered the story of Kony after being blocked from entering Sudan, where Kony's group, the Lord's Resistance Army, operates.

"At our core, we have to be authentic, and the discovery of Joseph Kony and his crimes was so authentic," Russell says. "We can't muster that up and say OK, now we're going to Burma, or Colombia or North Korea."

But Invisible Children is planning to stick around. Recently, the group started a student conference called the Fourth Estate Summit, an effort to jumpstart youth activism across the world.

Invisible Children also began a consulting practice to teach others how to launch campaigns like "Kony 2012." They have a few clients so far, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and headphone maker Beats By Dre.

Russell says Invisible Children is bigger than just Joseph Kony.

"If I had to give an end-date to Invisible Children, well, at least this chapter, I would say, [it] would end in 2014," he says. "We'll reassess, and then come back with something equally as powerful."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/

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