I met three incredible young men named Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey almost seven years ago. Just out of college, they had decided to use their newly acquired filmmaking talents to go to the Sudan and document the atrocities of a distant war. What they weren’t expecting was to get there, find the war to be over, and end up uncovering child abuse, abduction, murder, rape and torture in Uganda.
When they returned, Jason was incensed, frustrated and angry, and told me about their plans to use storytelling to save the lives of children who are suffering at the hands of a man known as Joseph Kony. Nearly a decade later, Jason’s dedication, passion, creativity, drive and intentions haven’t wavered. The motives and focus of Invisible Children are exactly the same as they were in 2006: to end the abduction and abuse of children in Uganda. He and his movement of passionate and engaged followers have created what CBS News is calling “the most successful viral campaign ever” through their Kony 2012 campaign.
I have been absolutely amazed by their consistent commitment, conviction and creativity to craft and use the power of a compelling story. How they’ve told the story, and where, has changed thousands of lives in both the U.S. and Uganda. High school and college students have been engaged in social justice. Invisible Children has elevated the power of storytelling and program engagement. They created a movement of people who didn’t just give money they gave their time, they took a stand, camped out, and marched on Washington. Over time, they have changed the lives of the participants in their stories and their campaigns, and also changed the way many other not-for-profits tell their stories.
This week something even bigger happened. The storytellers at Invisible Children inspired the country to have a connected conversation about something of real substance. For the past week, the focus transitioned from the latest “Sh*t People Say” videos, Kim Kardashian’s newest relationship, and Lindsay Lohan’s latest comeback stunt to these children in Uganda. It’s got people everywhere thinking about communities, and people on the other side of the world they have never met. This story has got kids, teachers, parents and peers talking to each other about an issue with substance and groups mobilizing to join the story and change the lives of the abused children in Uganda. The lesson here is not in social media, but in the power of the story and the hope that lies in human good. These three young men decided they needed to do something about a problem, and, almost 10 years later, the world at large is finally hearing the story loud and clear. This week, Invisible Children gave our country something compelling to watch and a call to action.
Imagine if this happened with other issues we have in this world? Imagine if we partnered with the people on the ground in Iran and told their story? Imagine if we told the Palestinian and Israeli story differently?
Countless college classrooms and business publications will undoubtedly analyze Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video, breaking it down to be studied in its parts. The power of social media is undeniable, and while the real fascination here might be the speed, scale, and size of participation, I’d like to suggest this is really about the story and how it has been told. This three-act construct is clear; there’s a villain, a problem, and a hero. And as this well-told story continues to unfold, we are nearing the final chapter. Here are some valuable takeaways from this game-changing story I gathered through recent meetings with Jason, and a chat I had with Scot Chisholm, CEO of StayClassy, the online fundraising platform that powers Invisible Children’s fundraising campaigns:
1. With a compelling story, hearts and minds are moved.
Joseph Kony’s LRA had been waging war against the Ugandan government and raping and plundering the villages of Northern Uganda for many years before Invisible Children arrived, and, despite the UN being deeply involved, the world at large had no idea this war was being waged on these children. Jason, Laren, and Bobby became engaged in the tragedy because they could see themselves in the faces of these Ugandan children living in fear of their lives. As a result they made a personal commitment to the children of Gulu to tell their story.
Flash forward to this week and their promise has come true in the form of their video reaching more than 70 million computer screens and every broadcast media outlet in the country. Social media’s time is definitely now, but it was making the story relatable that drove this level of viral success. I wonder how many people put themselves in Jason’s place as he attempted to explain the story of Jacob and these atrocities to his own son, or how many thought of a friend in need as the story of Jason and Jacob’s friendship unfolded, or how many clicked the “donate” button as Jacob shed tears on their screen.
These creative activists have been on the forefront of developing and discovering what Jason calls 4D story-telling for the past five years. In their unfolding quest to end a war on children in Uganda, they’ve inspired, engaged, and empowered millions of people to become part of a movement of storytellers and social activists who have raised millions of dollars in the process.
2. Without conviction, nothing is ventured and nothing is gained.
Invisible Children’s conviction and commitment to this story and this issue has been unwavering for nearly a decade. This week, it’s landed them in conversations with Piers Morgan, The Today Show and Anderson Cooper. But it hasn’t been an easy ride. They’ve experienced a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs and have been told “no” more times than they’d probably like to remember. They’ve risked their lives in dangerous conditions abroad, sacrificed their personal time in pursuit of the greater good, and they’ve given up a large part of their own lives to save the lives of others.
Perhaps the greatest reward is witnessed by the growth of Jacob through his friendship with Jason. In their first video, Jacob cries as he tells Jason he would rather die than continue to live in the conditions he is currently forced to live under. Jason made a promise to Jacob that day that he has risked nearly everything to bring to fruition. That promise saved, and changed, a life. Today, Jacob is a happy 21-year-old studying law in Kampala, Uganda.
3. Purpose-driven passion is infectious.
The team at Invisible Children set out seven years ago to give a voice to thousands of children who didn’t have one. They released their first video and quickly began touring college campuses and launching unique guerilla campaigns that targeted the youth in this country. Each year, they have made a commitment to build upon the last, with storytelling always at their core.
They are on the front lines of social justice and they are creating new ways to raise awareness and affect change. Their focus on the issue and the way in which they have conducted themselves has created a powerful Millenial-lead movement. Their model of multi-dimensional storytelling allows people to engage in the issue through a connected campaign of digital media, social events, film, and a tiered approach to giving and advocacy that has inspired a tidal wave of engagement.
Scot Chisholm explained the impact this has had directly on their fundraising efforts: “We have found that people connect to a cause based on a combination of factors, and campaigns like Kony 2012 that effectively harness both the emotions stirred by the problem you’re addressing and your organization’s own passion to do the work have the greatest chance of success.”
4. There is no substitute for commitment and fortitude.
When the founding team from Invisible Children returned to the U.S. from their first trip to Uganda, they made a short documentary of their discovery and their commitment to end the war. Today the mission is the same as it was back then. For years, they’ve toured the country visiting hundreds of school campuses, packing gyms, sharing their story with anyone who would listen, inviting people of all ages to engage and connect with the plight of the children in Uganda through their story. They gave out their DVD, raised money and awareness, and invited the kids on campus to hold parties to share the documentary, becoming part of the story and the solution.
They have been committed to this movement for more than seven years. The Invisible Children team have rolled up their sleeves, shown commitment over time and changed lives both here and in Uganda. They have highlighted an area of the world and its atrocities so history will not look back and say, “Why was this ignored?” or “Why didn’t people get involved?”
“It may have appeared this way, but this campaign did not happen overnight. Invisible Children has been steadily building awareness around this cause for years. Without their prior efforts, and the following they’ve been able to build, it’s unlikely that they would have been able to produce such a dramatic viral effect with Kony 2012,” Scot shared.
5. Make it compelling and easy for others to get involved.
Invisible Children meticulously examined their audiences and thought through the different ways that those audiences would be compelled to get involved. Then, they made it easy on them to participate. Have $30 to spare? Buy a Kony 2012 kit. Have more? Pledge a monthly donation. Broke college student without a dollar to your name? Send a tweet to Angelina Jolie or offer your time to hang posters on April 20th.
“For campaigns that aim to empower supporters to take a direct action, it’s vital for the organization to gain an understanding of what motivates their target audience,” says Chisholm. “Each new campaign will shed new light on the behaviors of the organization’s audience; the successful organizations, like Invisible Children, learn from what they see, and continue to optimize their messaging for each subsequent campaign. Invisible Children is also good at creating clear calls-to-action so that their supporters understand what they can do next to help advance the mission. It is also critical to convey how a single person’s contribution, whether large or small, can help move the needle. The power in numbers concept is something that Invisible Children has practically written the book on.”
6. The road to good intentions is now full of people who are involved and active.
Far too often, great intentions are met with unfounded backlash and the truth diluted by false accusations. But whether you’re a foreign policy expert, a member of the media, a professor, or an average Joe trying to critique these guys, guess what? They changed the conversation this week. And they have also changed lives. They have impacted communities in Uganda and the U.S., as well as many new social justice-focused organizations and NGOs doing amazing work all over the world.
Today, you have to ask yourself which side of history you want to be on: for the kids, or not. And if you want to be a critic, have the courage to share your own positive contributions to a cause for good. Why don’t we put an end to negative hearsay, stop with the gossip, and focus on the facts: there are children’s lives at stake here.