The lesson of Kony 2012

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It all started with a YouTube video. The small California-based NGO Invisible Children, Inc. published a short film titled KONY 2012 on March 5, 2012. It introduced a serious humanitarian problem that few Americans were aware of at the time. Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord for the Lord’s Resistance Army, was actively involved in a series of human rights violations, including the conscription of child soldiers. The goal of the video was to make Kony and his LRA famous, to place him amidst other well-known villains like Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden.

To that extent, KONY 2012 exceeded expectations. It received over 100 million views and garnered attention from George Clooney and President Obama.

But what did it actually achieve? More than six years later, the LRA continues to terrorize and there’s no updated information about Kony himself. Children in the Sub-Sahara continue to be conscripted into rebel armies. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, wrote in a testimony to Congress that the LRA is still active and threatening. The dense rainforests between Uganda and the Congo Basin provide excellent cover for the LRA, and the Ugandan government has decided to withdraw operations against Kony.

Even Invisible Children had to wind down operations. It closed its San Diego headquarters, reduced staff and discharged its operations in Africa. Difficulty with fundraising was cited as the reason. The organization’s leadership expected a complete cessation of the NGO as early as 2015.

The failure of Kony 2012 teaches a lesson about effective activism. Participating in the media frenzy was incredibly popular in 2012. Millions of people were eager to write hashtags, overlay profile pictures, share posts and give likes on Facebook. Millions of people were activists so long as they didn’t have to do any real action. That was the problem.

Think of contributors to NGOs as investors. People inside and outside of the NGO invest money or labor to achieve that NGO’s mission. The most effective NGOs are supported by a group of high-quality investors. These are people who have a stake in the mission. They donate money and closely track how the NGO uses it. They measure progress and provide feedback.

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Low-quality investors are more interested in association than participation. They want to be associated with #StopKony, but they don’t want to donate or work on it. Evidence for this can be found in the Cover the Night event, which was set for April 20, 2012. Some 3.5 million people in cities around the world pledged to turn out on that day and blanket public spaces with Kony posters. Actual turnout was dismal. Nineteen-thousand people indicated that they would turn out for Sydney’s Cover the Night via Facebook — about 25 were seen. A #StopKony student club at the University of Washington gathered over 100 new members leading up to Cover the Night — about 12 showed up. A group of activists hung up posters in Seattle while a public security officer followed behind them to remove the posters.

Invisible Children was a well-meaning organization with a noble purpose. But it banked everything on low-quality investors, which made it unsustainable. The term “slacktivist” has come to describe internet users who engage in a humanitarian effort as far as clicking like or typing a hashtag but nothing more. The attention that low-quality investors give is passionate and brief. Before long, something else will be trending, attention is diverted and Invisible Children becomes invisible.

The takeaway lessons here can be divided between NGOs and contributors. New NGOs should start small with a focused, achievable goal. They can take advantage of the passionate and brief surges from low-quality investors, but their operative structure must rely on high-quality investors for sustainability. They create accountability by regularly reporting financials and measuring progress.

Contributors, which includes activists and donors, need to be sure that they are contributing in a meaningful way. This means actually doing more than clicking stuff on the internet. Minor donations continue to be an important part of NGO fundraising, so even a $10 contribution multiplied by thousands of people goes a long way. Meaningful activism is difficult to achieve, especially for inexperienced NGOs like Invisible Children. Most people will type something on social media but will never write a letter to their congressional representation. Every activist needs to ask themselves whether or not their action will genuinely contribute to the NGO’s mission.

Raising awareness is only useful insofar as setting the stage for real action. This is a bridge that many new NGOs fail to construct. Millions of people hate Joseph Kony now, and he doesn’t lose a minute of sleep over it. If we truly want to vanquish evils in the world, we have to build NGOs that are sustainable and activists that are meaningful.

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