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New video responds to 'Kony 2012' backlash

"Kony 2012" has been viewed more than 112 million times in just over a week, making it the most viral YouTube video ever. But it hasn't been all good news for the film's maker, Invisible Children. The CEO of the activist group has released a new video defending its spending practices and strategies after coming under attack.

Ben Keesey, Invisible Children's CEO, released an 8-minute video yesterday not only to thank those who have supported the organization, but also to respond to critics.

Keesey looks directly at the camera while he admits those who have only discovered Invisible Children through the "Kony 2012" video might think it's "a slick, fly-by-night, slacktivist thing," but, he says, "It's not at all."

Invisible Children released "Kony 2012," one of about 300 videos uploaded to its popular YouTube channel, as a way to raise awareness about Uganda's Joseph Kony, head of Lord's Resistance Army, who is accused of atrocities against that nation's children. It did so using a father/son narrative starring another Invisible Children co-hort, Jason Russell, who is responsible for making the "compelling movies and films" that Keesey says is a primary driver behind the group's business model.

Keesey, who co-founded the group in 2005, says he wants to be "as transparent as possible." He lays out the group's main initiatives: media (making movies), advocacy (asking international donors who support their cause to spread the word), and long-term development programs (creating an infrastructure on-the-ground in Uganda and the countries around it on "the frontlines of the conflict"  infused with local leadership). 

In fact, he says, "It's connected to a really deep, thoughtful, very intentional and strategic campaign. Many still disagree. Technolog's Suzanne Choney identified some critics who take issue with Invisible Children's methods.

In answer to criticism about its finances, Keesey again lays it out in the interest of being "fully transparent, from top to bottom." 

The majority of the money coming into Invisible Children, he says, goes toward "program expenses" — more than 80 percent every year since 2007. These could include on-the-frontlines work (including school renovations, scholarships and supporting sustainable living) and mobilizing the international community, as well as the massive awareness campaign currently in progress.

According to its 2011 financial report -- which is available online at the Invisible Children site, along with other financial statements, 990s and annual reports — program expenses added up to $7.1 million. Revenue, including $4.6 million in general donations and $3 million in grants, was $13.7 million. The overhead costs to run the organization received a $330,000 boost with a grant in 2011 that went toward building a better data system and making it more efficient.

The major sticking point for some critics has been that the organization's filmmaking, along with its travel and transportation expenses, make up a large part of these program expenses. One blast, from The Daily What, puts it this way:

"The rest go to line the pockets of the three people in charge of the organization, to pay for their travel expenses (over $1 million in the last year alone) and to fund their filmmaking business (also over a million) — which is quite an effective way to make more money, as clearly illustrated by the fact that so many can’t seem to stop forwarding their well-engineered emotional blackmail to everyone they’ve ever known."

But Keesey's whoa-wait-a-minute explanation in the video says it's not just management flying around the world, staying in nice hotels. That money, he said, goes toward the 3,000 free screenings a year the group organizes in high schools and colleges around the world. Gas, vans, roadies, bringing survivors from Uganda over to speak — those all add up, Keesey says. (Film costs only accounted for about $357,000 in documented expenses.)

The Daily What points us to the group's two-star rating at Charity Navigator, but what it doesn't expand on is that overall, Invisible Children has a three (out of four) star rating, with four stars in its financial rating. If you don't want to go through all of Invisible Children's financials on its own site, Charity Navigator is a good way to see the 2011 summary, including how salaries figure into the mix, and with each of the top three execs making $80,000 to $90,000, it's on par with the salaries of other non-profit execs.

Another big line item expense are production costs, which Keesey explains as all the goods sold on the online store: things like T-shirts, DVDs and jewelry. 

But the biggest line item expense for the fiscal year ending in June 2011 was for direct services, which would seem to align with Keesey's explanation of most of the money going toward programs: $2.8 million. 

Keesey challenges critics who say Invisible Children isn't transparent, isn't audited annually (there is a note from independent auditors at the beginning of the 2011 report) or has a lack of financial integrity. Watch the video and go check out the site for yourself and see if what he says measures up. 

The argument will likely rage for a while, though the key to this may not be how the money is spent, but what donors think their money is going toward. It's about bringing awareness via media and advocacy, says Keesey.

In other words, even though the organization says it's working on a "long term development" plan for Uganda, people who want to give money to provide immediate relief for African children should probably look to another non-profit that focuses on just that.

Check out Technolog on Facebook, and on Twitter, follow Athima Chansanchai, who is also trying to keep her head above water in the Google+ stream.