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 Mr. 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 Médecins Sans Frontières, 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.
“Most nonprofits literally duck when this happens,” said Lucy Bernholz, a visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. “That’s the worst thing you can do — set a conversation alight and then leave the room.”
She compared a video posted on Tuesday in which Ben Keesey, the chief executive of Invisible Children, responded to criticism leveled at his group to one from Nancy G. Brinker, the head of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which sought to stanch a flood of criticism last month after it announced that it was pulling money from Planned Parenthood.
“It was as if she had not listened — it never mentions the issues that people were upset about,” Ms. Bernholz said. “With Kony, it addresses the criticisms one by one.”
Not everyone will be convinced, she said, but responding to criticism builds trust and support among a more media-savvy generation.
Experts emphasized that social media alone would not create the next Kony video, which benefited from a large and diverse network built by Invisible Children over years of conferences, campus visits and digital outreach — in other words, old-fashioned community organizing.
Supporters of the “Kony 2012” video created scores of recorded responses that they posted to the original in a kind of digital chain letter. The online video measurement company Visible Measure calculates that the main video and those reacting to it exceeded 100 million views in six days, a record. The second-fastest-spreading Web video, of the singer Susan Boyle, took nine days to do so.
“Those kids are just like me,” said one young supporter, Marcelo Jaimes-Lukes, 14, of Brooklyn. “As teenagers we’re often told, ‘You can’t do this; you’re too young.’ But this film really captures that you really can make change.”
Or, as Mr. DuBois described the reaction to the video by his 16-year-old niece: “She really thinks they’re cool — and that’s a message to us. That kind of thinking is out there.”