Overspending and decline in funding force Invisible Children to announce 2015 closure

Invisible Children co-founders Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell.

The advocacy organization that made warlord Joseph Kony famous in 2012 announced it is winding down its operations. The San Diego-based Invisible Children will wrap up its U.S. work by the end of 2015 and transfer its programmatic work to partner organizations in central Africa. The group said the decision followed a drop in donations following the wild success of the Kony 2012 video.

Invisible Children is seeking to raise $150,000 to keeps its doors open through the end of 2015, according to its statement announcing the decision to close. The money will fund a small team in the United States and Africa. Media campaigns will stop so the group can “prioritize [their]political advocacy and central Africa programs.” The leadership affirmed a commitment to see an end to the Lords Resistance Army (LRA).

“We’re firing ourselves, but we’re not quitting. Because we won’t stop until every captive man, woman and child is out of the LRA,” said the group.

Various statements from the group characterize the end as inevitable. With a focus on the LRA and its leader Joseph Kony, Invisible Children saw that dissolving the of the group would be a way to put itself out of business. Two years after declaring that the end of Kony was near, the leader continues to hide in central Africa. Various reports and information puts the group in the region where South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo converge. Programs on the ground supported by Invisible Children communicate to LRA members that it is safe to leave the group. Some of the 19 Ugandan LRA members who defected in December 2013 mentioned the fliers distributed by Invisible Children and its partners as influencing their decision to leave.

Student activists campaign against Joseph Kony and the LRA. (Credit: Sawyer Pangborn/Flickr)

Student activists campaign against Joseph Kony and the LRA. (Credit: Sawyer Pangborn/Flickr)

Despite the successes, not enough money came in for Invisible Children to meet its goal of seeing through the end of Kony and the LRA. The organization grew quickly after is founding in 2004. Young filmmakers Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell stumbled upon the story of Ugandan children who were homeless because of the LRA. Invisible Children: Rough Cut shared the stories of the children and motivated the three men to form an organization dedicated to ending the atrocities committed by the LRA. The organization grew thanks to its compelling videos and college campus-targeted campaigns that turned supporters into traveling activists-cum-evangelists for Invisible children.

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The drop in funding for Invisible children was sharp. It brought in roughly $7 million per year from 2007 to 2010. That rose to $13.8 million in 2011 and went even higher in 2012, to $26.5 million, after its Kony 2012 video became the most viral video of all time by reaching 100 million views quicker than even Justin Beiber. The increased income allowed Invisible Children to roughly double in size from spending $8 million in 2010 to $16 million in 2012.

The initial success of the campaign was followed by a severe backlash. Critics accused Invisible Children of placing too much emphasis on a now-marginalized group, over-simplifying a very complex story, promoting military-based solutions to the LRA and more. Others were quick to seize on the fact that large portions of the Invisible Children budget was spent on advocacy, rather than on-the-ground programs. They said the group was misleading donors who thought money was going directly to help people affected by the LRA.IC funding

Invisible Children did not hide the way it worked. It sought to refute the claims that its campaign tricked donors, but the damage by the budgetary misconception and the criticisms of the Kony 2012 campaign was done. By 2013, Invisible children raised only $4.9 million, its lowest amount since 2006. The budget for the year was $15.5 million. The incredibly fast rise and fall of fundraising at a time when Invisible Children continued to grow forced the group to announce its draw-down.

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“Over the last two years, it has become increasingly difficult to fund raise to the level necessary in order to sustain the current breadth of all of our programmatic work, both stateside and in Africa,” said Noelle West, communications director at Invisible Children, in an interview with the Washington Post. “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.”

Earlier in the year, Invisible Children CEO Ben Keesey admitted that the money raised by Kony 2012 was mostly spent in the two years following the video’s release. As many as 300 people were working for Invisible Children at its peak. An NPR story in June warned that the money was drying up.

“Whether or not this organization is going to survive, I’m not sure,” said Ken Berger, president of the watchdog group Charity Navigator, at the time. “If that trend continues, they’d be wiped out in a year.”

Co-founder Jason Russell also told NPR in the story that he saw the latest chapter of Invisible Children coming to a close at the end of this year. His comment proved to be right. The full-time staff of 22 people will be reduced to five this month, said the group. Cuts will include the executive team and the remaining staff will work remotely with a special focus on lobbying in Washington, D.C. In central Africa, the number of staff supported by Invisible Children is expected to decline from 100 today to between 25 and 30, said Keesey to BuzzFeed. Despite the closing and the challenges to end the LRA that remain, the Invisible Children team remains optimistic.

“We know that the momentum we all have created can still be a powerful force, with or without the walls of a building. We believe in the integrity of this movement and that your commitment will endure with or without a trending hashtag,” said the group’s statement to its supporters.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • David

    Why do I dislike the Invisible Children organization so much? Why have I hoped for their dissolution for years now? Maybe I just can’t figure out what it was they were supposed to be doing…