World and Nation

Backlash aside, charities see lessons in a web video

It has galvanized young Americans, inspired a flood of donations and stirred a backlash from critics. But for some in the nonprofit world, the reaction to the unprecedented success of an advocacy video about the murderous African warlord Joseph Kony can be summed up in a word: envy.

“People are tantalized by the potential it suggests,” said Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA. Over the past week, the campaign has been a hot topic among nonprofit leaders, she said.

“Over years, we’ve reached this scale,” she said. “But not on a single issue or a single action or playing a single video.”

The video, produced by a California nonprofit group, Invisible Children, rocketed across the Internet after it was posted on March 5, attracting a global audience of tens of millions in days.

Its success also attracted a backlash from humanitarian aid officials, who said it overly simplified a complex issue, and from people in Uganda and other countries affected by Kony’s brutal rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, who resented the video’s presentation of young white Americans banding together to save Africans.

But amid the criticism, many have been taking notes.

Early on, the video spread most rapidly among people under 25, a fact that struck Marc DuBois, executive director of the British office of Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, as a watershed.

He said that Invisible Children demonstrated the potential of youthful idealism to raise not just awareness of a cause, but also money for it.

“We kind of aim at the upwardly mobile, the class that reads literature, that travels internationally,” he said, speaking in an unofficial capacity about his nonprofit colleagues.

“Kids aren’t going to make a $10,000 donation like a major donor, but they’re going to do it in small bits. And they will contribute. And their parents will.”

The campaign took in hundreds of thousands of dollars on its first day alone.

“The lessons that nonprofit organizations can take from this are that savvy media and marketing matter,” said Dan Pallotta, the president of Advertising for Humanity, a for-profit company that works on charitable causes. He said that resistance to “anything that smacks of being commercial” had kept established organizations from spending more to promote their message.

The coordination of the video, called “Kony 2012,” with a social media campaign focused on enlisting celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and the pop star Justin Bieber, provided another avenue to reach young people and another lesson for more established groups, experts in social media said. Invisible Children also showed a rare willingness to engage with people on social media, including when the talk turned critical.