Activism is a Vocation: Trials and Triumphs of a Nonprofit Champion

Activism is a Vocation: Trials and Triumphs of a Nonprofit Champion

August 13, 2020
53 minutes

Jason Russell · Co-founder and Chief Creative Director, Invisible Children |  During his time as Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Invisible Children, Jason pushed through hurdles that most people never even dream of encountering, showing how honesty, transparency, and passion magnify the impact each of us has on the world.


Invisible Children's KONY 2012 viral phenomenon (that little video with over 100 million views) sparked a movement due in large part to Jason's visionary storytelling, but the effects weren't all positive, especially for the Invisible Children team. While their hyperfocus on a singular goal led to incredible outward success, it also resulted in a breakdown of internal care—a topic that Jason has spoken candidly about in the years following the KONY 2012 campaign.

Doing his part to normalize our conversation around mental health isn't all that Jason brings to the table, though. You'll hear him discuss Oprah and Obama, the spectrum of activism, his reaction to renewed racial tensions in America, and bringing activism to new generations through a radical new project, Broomstick Engine.


Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler and welcome to Nonstop Nonprofit. We've got a blockbuster of an episode for you today featuring Jason Russell, formerly of Invisible Children. During his time as Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer at. Jason pushed through hurdles that most people never even dream of encountering. It's interesting, I worked with Jason at IC and I remember witnessing the events you'll hear us discuss as they unfold. My experience with Invisible Children was life-changing and at times both exhilarating and scary. Jason's honesty, transparency and passion are beautiful examples of the impact each of us can have in the world. Invisible Children's Kony 2012 viral phenomenon, you may remember that little video with over 100 million views sparked a movement due in large part due to Jason's storytelling. But the effects weren't all positive, especially for the IC team. Their hyper-focus on a singular goal led to incredible outward success and a breakdown of internal care, a topic that Jason speaks candidly about. Shedding light on mental health isn't all that Jason brings to the conversation. You'll hear him discuss Oprah, Obama, the spectrum of activism, his reaction to renewed racial tensions in America and his new project, Broomstick Engine. Let's dive in!

Justin Wheeler Well, everyone excited to introduce a good friend, someone that I look up to a ton. Jason Russell, the founder of Invisible Children, the Director of one of the most viral videos on the internet, Kony 2012, and founder of Broomstick Engine, which is a creative agency helping nonprofits tell their stories. Jason, thank you so much for being on the Nonstop Nonprofit Podcast today!

Jason Russell Of course. Thanks for thinking of me. And just for the record, co-founder, Bobby Bailey and Laren in there. Just in case. I don't take all the credit.

Justin Wheeler Very nice of you. Very kind. So, Jason, there's so much to talk about today. Honestly, one of the first things I thought about, which we'll eventually get to is, as Covid-19 has played out since March. We work with a lot of nonprofits. We talk about a lot of nonprofits. And one of the things that we've seen and conversation has been pretty rampant in the nonprofit community is just how being at home and the unrest that's happening, it's just caused a lot of people to look inward and also just in dealing with the heaviness of their own issues that they're working on at the organization. And it's brought this question, are people taking care of themselves enough. And so on to talk about that when we get to Kony 2012. But first, before we do that for the people in the very back, the 10 people left on this planet that don't know who Invisible Children is, would you be so kind to just tell us your story, how it got started and what it became?

Jason Russell Yeah, I think it started back in college. I was at USC Film School and I mentioned to a friend that I want to go somewhere international and he's like, where? And I think I just said, like Africa, because I had so much research and kind of a deep desire to understand what's going on. I was introduced to like the civil rights movement and slavery and all of these complex issues in America's history. And I was like shocked. I couldn't believe this even happened. And so that really was heavy on my heart my whole life. And then I just was, he signed us up for this, like, missionary trip to Africa. I didn't really do any research. And it ended up being like a really hard trip because I hated it. I hated the organization I was with, but I loved Kenya, which is where we were. And on the plane on the way back, I remember thinking I will go back to Africa with the camera and whoever will come with me. But I don't want to go with an organization because I wanted to be like, pure. I wanted the documentary to just be what it is. In the news, at the time, the truth was that Sudan was in a genocide. There is over two million people who had been killed. And I couldn't believe the world wasn't talking about it more. An average person didn't know that Sudan was going through that. So that's where we decided to go. Really bootstrapped the trip. Begged for money from friends and family. Got a camera off eBay, went to Sudan. We found that the story is actually in a country below Sudan called Uganda and specifically northern Uganda, where a lot of the Sudanese refugees were crossing the border for safety. We stumbled upon a war that had been going on for 17 years in Uganda, and we didn't find any journalists there. We saw kids sleeping in the streets. They were running for their lives. A rebel army called the Lord's Resistance Army, led by a man named Joseph Kony, had been abducting children using the girls to become sex slaves, using the boys to be brainwashed into child soldiers to even go and kill their own family members. And we were there and we just started to like talk to the kids and make friendships and document. We met with as many experts as we could in the region. And I guess you could say we got back on the plane with all this footage and we really felt responsible to do what we could to make a documentary, even though none of us had done that before. Long story short, we made it. We put ourselves in it to kind of create a bridge between like the Western youth to connect to a young 19, 21, 23-year-old. And that was in 2004. And I feel like the next two years, the DVD of the rough cut of the movie we made went "analog" viral. Like I don't know how many people told me, like, oh, the DVD was sitting on my roommate's like shelf or someone gave it to me. Because we didn't really care that much about the movie being ours. We only cared about people watching it. So, I don't know, you remember this when we did really cool things where the DVD always came with an additional DVD to like hand it off and they then you could log you're like screening party online and it would pop up.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Jason Russell And then we also did something I thought was really cool. We made these posters that said, take it, watch it, return it. And we had DVD on the poster in dormitories. In colleges, you know, and so we just wanted it to be free. We didn't even want people to pay for it, even though sometimes they did. But that's way before YouTube.

Justin Wheeler Yeah! I was just going to say. Isn't it crazy that, you know, this started well before the internet was where it was at, in 2012, when you reached perhaps the most people you've ever reached with the story. DVD, Invisible Children started with DVDs, that's so intense. I remember I think it was the second screening of the rough cut when it was Laren and Katie Braidal came to Biola, where I was a sophomore in college at the time, showed this film and it wrecked me. I sat there in this like chapel and it was packed out. The whole, it was probably like 300-400 people. And me and a friend just sat there and we were just totally, totally wrecked. Didn't talk to Laren or Katie that night, but just went back to my dorm room and I just couldn't stop thinking about it. The next day I saw there was a screening, I think it was at Cal Baptist or something like that, about an hour from Biola. And it was Bobby was there doing the screening. And afterwards I went up to him and was like, I saw it last night. I want to get involved. I want to do something. What can I do? And he was like, go to Africa, just go to Uganda. And I was like, okay! Went back to the dorm room and shortly after bought tickets and ended up going to Africa that next summer. Looking back on kind of like the starting of Invisible Children and knowing where it went, did you think you would ever achieve what it has achieved over the last 15 years?

Jason Russell Honestly, no. I mean, we always said we were building a plane as it's flying. And like we always said in the office, you are the hero you've been waiting for, because the more that we dug deep and met with the experts and interviewed anyone we could on this subject, we came to the conclusion that no one is really taking this seriously enough to help end the conflict. And that's not to take away from what the Acholi people, Betty Oyella Bigombe, the peace talks. Like they had been trying for 17 years, which is a really long time for a conflict to go on. But the vibe that we got from the Acholi community was no one's helping us. Like they basically felt hopeless. It was like there's nothing we can do. The government's not taking care of us. I remember them constantly in displacement camps. Saying we're dying like we're actually dying here, so can you tell your government about it? Can you take that video footage back and like, help us? And that compounding testimony of people saying we need help really resonated with us because, you know, we're white privileged, like Christian young men. And so we took that, you know, very responsibly. But we were also participating in, like the white savior complex or white savior syndrome, unconsciously. You know, that term wasn't coined or we weren't aware of it at that time. But from the outside, it definitely looks like that, you know. Inexperienced, young dudes with a camera from San Diego going into a conflict zone. But there is something really unique and special in that we didn't have anyone telling us what to do and we didn't have the expertise that that usually comes with this. And so I think that we were disruptive in that people who were doing the work for many years were saying, like, you don't know what you're doing. And at the same time, we were like, you're right. But we don't have an agenda here except to document and then help through education or micro-lending or we develop all these programs based off of the community's desire for healing, which was education for the children, because they felt like they were losing a generation, and then they said, if you can help end the conflict, that would be better than anything because then we could get back to our lives.

Justin Wheeler At what point did you realize that what you were set out to try to achieve was to end the conflict? Was it from day one coming back, putting that community back together or did it come later?

Jason Russell That's a good question. We for many years thought someone was taking care of it. We just hadn't met them yet. That's how we felt like we were like, we're not the experts. But like someone out there must have the solution or a blueprint. But we went around the world. I mean, we went to the International Criminal Court and interviewed Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first prosecutor for the ICC, and he was our biggest fan. He said, you're doing the right thing. This isn't a country problem. This isn't an Africa problem. This is a human rights issue. A year or a few months after our original trip. So it'd be in 2004 and we opened the movie with this Jan Egeland from the U.N. said Northern Uganda is the most neglected and forgotten humanitarian crisis in the world. And we were like, wow, we have all this footage of the conflict. So it seems really important to make sure as many people know about the story as possible. We didn't know we were actually ending or helping end the war until 2000, I want to say 2010 or 2011, even though we put end a war on our very first poster of the global night commute.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Jason Russell We sat down, Laren, Ben and I and Laren said we're not really, really ending the conflict and that's when we shifted. Laren move to Africa for many years. And he was embedded into the military strategy with the African Union, the LRA, the U.N., the United States military. So at that point, by 2011, when the military was actually sent, which is the first time in American history where something like that had happened, then we felt like we were really making a difference. And that was the intention of creating Kony 2012. There was one intention which was to make Kony famous, but the other intention was to ensure that the military troops stay there, not to kill or bomb or do any of the other things that you would do in a typical war because you can't kill the children. They were kidnaped.

Justin Wheeler Right.

Jason Russell And the majority of his army is made up of kidnaped wives and children. So it was very gnarly. But after the peace talks failed in 2009, we as pacifists were like, I guess this is an exception to our pacifism, because if the dude won't surrender, if he's not interested in peace talks, what else can you do, but use military force? And I mean, I hate war and I hate all that, but. It was like we were forced to make that decision and actually, Bobby let us there, to be honest. He was he was the one who understood what the International Criminal Court was doing. Even though a lot of the Acholi people were saying, get out of our country.

Justin Wheeler Huh? Wow. I mean, knowing the history and being involved with Invisble for a long time, what was like a moment where you were you just stop to think about like what business do I as this like San Diego surfer like, was there a moment where you're just like what? Maybe it was sitting down at the ICC or maybe it was. I'm not sure, I don't remember if you ever sat at any peace talks or not.

Jason Russell We did.

Justin Wheeler But was there ever a time that you just sat and you were like, I never thought I would be in this place. I never thought I'd be in this position. Was there any moment like that that ever kind of struck you?

Jason Russell Honestly, I don't have a clear one coming up. I just was so singularly focused. I mean, you remember the energy around the movies which were in office. We were filled with purpose and passion and a desire to make a change. And so that was all intoxicating. I wasn't, I didn't ever stop and say, like, I can't believe I'm here. It was just, you know, for the most part, I would say like 80% of our work was success, building each of our events and each of our campaigns and our videos in order to fuel the work that we were doing in northern Uganda. So, I mean, I remember a lot of the like high highs and I remember the low lows. One of the lowest was just kind of we had that rescue event which took place all over America.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Jason Russell And then if you weren't rescued, you would go to the next city to help them. And it ended up being a massive caravan all around the country ending in Chicago. We were waiting for Obama, Michelle Obama, the Vice President, Biden and/or Oprah, we wouldn't surrender until one of those four people made a statement.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Jason Russell And the night before, at 4:00am in the morning, I think we slept for an hour in a van. And then we said, let's go back to her studio, surround it in the morning at like 5:00am or 6:00am. She walks out of the studio, says, how can I help? An hour later, we're on her show to millions of people. And that show led to the bill being passed in Congress because the Senator saw it on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Justin Wheeler So when people criticize awareness, not really being important or now for collectivism, whatever you want to call it. I know there was a lot of scrutiny or criticism around a bunch of kids just sleeping in parks, wearing cool swag, making a fuss online. How do you respond to that sort of cynicism? Because obviously you had your extremes, as you've seen at work.

Jason Russell Yeah. I mean, I understand why people complain about collectivism and slacktivism. I totally get that. At the same time, I think that we were very mindful of creating a spectrum of choice of engagement. So if you just want to like and share, that's one. And that's great, by the way. Maybe you have 100 friends and they didn't know about the injustice. And then you can scale up to, you know, a five where you bought the merchandise. You're coming to the events. You're like maybe joining a club in school. And then 10 would be like, I'm going to live in Africa for a year and help with the program. So there's no judgment on whatever engagement you want to participate in. But if people don't think awareness is important, I think that they're wrong. I think it has a lot of value. If you don't know about something, how are you going to do something about it? So I think a lot of that criticism is really trite, like a lot of cynics try to tear down like cynicism masquerades as wisdom. But it's a self-imposed blindness because it's better to be a cynic and not do anything than actually have to participate in a real, tangible way.

Justin Wheeler Right.

Jason Russell That's Stephen Colbert. He said that.

Justin Wheeler I love that. Ok, we'll give him credit for that.

Jason Russell OK. Thank you Colbert.

Justin Wheeler So leading up to Kony 2012, there were obviously many years of traveling the country, the world, spreading awareness, inspiring young people. And, you know, to the point, even before, like if Invisible Children ended in 2011, I would say like what it had accomplished is still pretty, quite significant in terms of of what was happening on the ground in Uganda and elsewhere. In terms of the amount of, I to this day still meet kids, or, they are not kids. They're my age. I meet, young adults who's who say my life was changed by Invisible Children. And I'm sure you hear that all the time as well. So how did Invisable Children have such a wide impact even before the internet was, you know, played an important role in and taking the organization even more viral?

Jason Russell I think you probably could answer it yourself, to be honest. I think it was really, really based in the word, community. Which is not enough of a word to encompass what was happening at Invisible Children, the friendships were so intense and an integrated and I've actually like asked a lot of former interns and roadies, like, why did you come and, like, raise money to basically work for 15 hours a day, sleep in the van, eat pizza and burgers. And, you know, it just seems like torture in a way or like really hard. You know, maybe torture is too strong of a word, but like it was just really exhausting. But all of them right now, including Lisa Dougan, the current CEO of Invisible Children, said that was the best time of their whole life. Like there like it was genuinely, I've never felt such purpose and drive and excitement and meaning in my friendships. So it was really this community that, like, if you were in the offices at any point in time, over the 10 years plus, you felt that energy. You felt people on the phone. We were we were so dialed into doing what we were doing, we weren't joking or playing around. We were there to help end this conflict and provide education and everything else. So, yeah, I think it's just a community. I really do built around a strong mission.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, definitely agree with that. I remember when I left Invisble Children I think was like 24-years-old or something like that and someone asked about the experience and I said I peaked at 24. Like there's like no other experience that can ever match this. It's going to be a really hard, you know, rest of my life because it was such a rich experience. And going back to that moment where, you know, Bobby said, go to Uganda and then we actually did. It was one of the first times where I felt the permission to act on something that I truly believed I wanted to be a part of. Like, I could act and I had like authority to do it and without sort of any constraint. And I think that's what Invisible Children gave to so many young people. High school and college students. Was the freedom to respond to their conviction and to be a part of something that really was making a difference.

Jason Russell And we expected so much from the employees on staff, from the interns, like we really, there was a lot of work to do. And so I think that that helped these young individuals rise to the occasion.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Jason Russell In the sense that, like, they might not have the experience anywhere else or be expected to like do the spreadsheets and make these calls and write legislation. Like we had people writing legislation for Congress in our building. And so that's just mind blowing. But like, it's one of those things like, of course, young people are always the ones that changed the world because they have very little to lose in terms of family or mortgage and everything to gain, which is like changing history forever. So that's why all revolutions are really at the heartbeat of the youth, because they're naive. They don't know it's like a snake, like they don't know how much venom they have in them in a positive way. They're just like going after it.

Justin Wheeler Totally. So let's transition a little bit to Kony 2012. What was the rationale for the film? What was the idea of the campaign behind it?

Jason Russell Yeah, I don't know if you have had any of these moments where you just get struck with an idea and it's so strong that, like, your whole body has goose bumps and you know that it's going to work. Like you never laid down even a word or nothing. You just know. That was how this was for me. The troops had been sent in 2011. I actually didn't believe it would ever happen. I was like, Obama is not going to do this. They're not going, this is just I mean, I had zero hope that the military would get involved because America has never participated in an active conflict that doesn't involve them at all. There's zero interest, American interest, even though reddit and other blogs think that there was motivation for oil and other things, they participated and it blew my mind. And then our experts said they won't stay there very long. They might be there six months. So if you want to stay there longer, you have to get America to understand what's at stake here. This is the world's first international criminal indicted for war crimes and all these other crimes. So I was in the hallway, Ben said, I just got off the phone with Michael Poffenberger, Michael Poffenberger had his own nonprofit, but it was closely tied to Invisible Children because it was just about this issue. But it was all Washington, D.C. Michael said, I'm going to these Senators offices. I'm going to Congress. I'm trying to get meetings. But they won't have meetings with me because they don't know who Joseph Kony is. He said if Joseph Kony was famous, then they'd open the door for me. And Ben Kessey he told me that and it struck me and I said, we are going to make Kony famous. And in that moment, I thought of like Andy Warhol, pop culture, like American icons like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Like, you know, let's make pop art out of this warlord, which is like the antithesis of what you should do. A lot of people said you can't make him famous. You have to make an infamous or you have to make him notorious. I said no, because Americans are obsessed with fame. Right. They love fame and who is famous and celebrities. So we were playing off that idea as well as playing off the 2012 run for presidency. So all the propaganda posters and things were Kony 2012 and theyr'e like. Is Kony running for president?  And we're like, no, it's a warlord. Like what? You know, so and then personally, for me, driving home from work pretty much every day at that time, I was pretty pissed at, like the universe, at like this idea that justice is real and freedom is real. And I was just like angry, kind of yelling at the sky. Like, I've been doing this for nine years. I've made like fifteen movies. We've done like seven international campaigns. Like, what is it going to take? Like, I was just so pissed. And the anger was shoved into Kony 2012. I basically arrived at work and I said, if this video doesn't work, I'm quitting. Like I was just so done of the repetition of trying to get something to happen. And I would just say, like, I know that Bobby, Laren and I and the team felt that every day mattered because we knew that every day that went by, more children are being kidnaped or they weren't coming home. So Kony 2012 was just kind of my last push to say, universe, you better show up and it better work. And it worked beyond all our imaginations. For better and worse.

Justin Wheeler So when you uploaded the video and press play on YouTube, what would you have considered success before knowing where it could actually get to? Like what? What were you hoping for?

Jason Russell Yeah, I'm trying to think, I was pretty pissed because they made a Kony 2012 pamphlet and in it were the goals. And I believe the goal in the pamphlet was 500,000 views for the year, of 2012. I was like 500,000 views. I said, can we at least try for 3,000,000 or like 5,000,000. I was like, let's just have a more audacious goal. But it was printed and I didn't get to approve it. So it is what it is. Yeah. And so we were actually at Creative Arts Agency, CAA.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, CAA.

Jason Russell Yeah. And we had a screening there. Kristen Bell was hosting. She had been a part of the movement for a long time. And she got Jason Bateman to come and our staff was there and we were ready to screen it. And we did. And then I came out and Noelle, who was the one who uploaded the video, said, Jason, it's been up for a few hours and it has 60,000 views. And I was like, oh, that's pretty good. And then a few hours later, it was that like 200,000 views or something. I was like, oh, that's pretty good for the first day. Within 24 hours we were at the office and it had hit the million-dollar... 1,000,000 views and we were freaking out. I think there's video of that. I actually tried to ask people to go get some alcohol so we could celebrate and no one in the office would come with me.

Justin Wheeler Really? Why?

Jason Russell Yeah, because they're too busy. They're like, we don't have time to drink. I go, we just got 1,000,000 views in 24 hours. So I went by myself, actually, Alex Collins came with me. I made him.

Justin Wheeler You made him, haha.

Jason Russell And I got a wheelbarrow and I put a bunch of alcohol, in that liquor store across the street, and I came back and everyone's like, this is inappropriate. You can't be celebrating. We're so busy. I go, we have to celebrate. So we pop champagne. And I said 1,000,000 views! And that's the only time we celebrated Kony 2012.

Justin Wheeler That's the only time?

Jason Russell Mmhmm.

Justin Wheeler So at what point did you start getting calls from, basically, because I remember watching it from the office at this time. I was at Liberty In North Korea, but I remember I had it up on a different screen and I kept on refreshing it because Kira and I actually attended the premiere at CAA. And I remember talking about bout some of that. And then the next day we just kept on refreshing it. Like I thought, oh, my gosh, this is crazy. And then I started seeing you on basically every news outlet over the next couple of days. Everyone wanted to interview you. I remember Jon Stewart did something on it. So what was that like? Being called by basically every major media outlet and flying around the country back and forth. What was that, what was those days like post the first 1,000,000 views?

Jason Russell Yeah, I mean, I'll preface it with saying that I'm a 3 on the Enneagram. So 3s, for those that don't know, are obsessed with achievement, success, personal identity. Like we want to be the best at what we do. It's really important to us and our biggest fear is failure. So that was really feeding my ego. But also it was just a dream come true because, you know, almost 10 years of trying to get this story out to the world and you're refreshing it and it's at one point 1,000,000 views and then an hour later it's at 2,000,000. And you're like... and then at one point every hour was another million people watching it and just growing and growing and growing. So if anyone ever wanted to interview me for the most part, like 99% of the time, I would go to the interview. I didn't care how small it was. I didn't care what I just thought. If they want to know about the war, I'll go there and share my story. And, you know, I'm not an expert, but I've been there for a long time. So going on, all of those things were so exciting. I mean, it was literally 6:00am or 7:00am in L.A.. Back to back to back to back to back. Red-eye to New York. No sleeping. On the Today show at 5:00 a.m.. and then another six to eight to ten interviews in New York. So it was like People magazine, New York Times, like we landed on that plane and The New York Times was on, it was on the cover above the fold. The story and the amount of text messages and things I was getting was like insane. So that's I think when the mania started to develop, because I think I had three to four days of excitement of like, oh, my gosh, we've reached our goal. And then by the third or fourth day, I got online for the first time and started seeing the backlash and started seeing the personal attacks on me. And I'm like, what is everyone mad at? Like, what did we do wrong? And over the years and even to this day, if someone has an issue with my work or me personally, I try to reach out to them. We have a Zoom call or talk on the phone. I try to humanize it. Even if haters on the internet come at me, I'm like, I can read it like you want to meet up and almost 100% of the time it diffuses it. And they're like, you're you're a cool guy. No worries. Sorry for being mean. I obviously couldn't do that with 121 million people. So I didn't know what to do. I didn't really even know what was wrong. But I couldn't sleep for ten days because, I'm bipolar too. So the ramping up of the mania is escalated without sleep, you know, and there's so many voices in my head. It was just like so exciting. And also I was so scared of, again, doing something wrong. And so, yeah, it was a 10 day journey. Yeah. Leading to my breakdown.

Justin Wheeler And, you know, I was reading something where if you would have had a heart attack instead of sort of the breakdown that you did have, it would have been perceived differently. Some somebody may even go as far as, say, you'd call you a hero for like managing the stress, taking on the stress and, you know, having a heart attack over it, which, you know, I mean, the mental breakdown isn't really much different. It's just the culmination of so many different things. But it's come a long way. You know, 2012, it was much different than it is today in terms of the taboo nature of mental health. But I think this is one of the important things I want to talk about, because I feel like this is something that so many nonprofit professionals deal with but don't get access to or get help with. Because you're working on such an important issue. It's not like you're trying to sell a computer or shoes or anything like that. Right. You're you're working on a cause that is so important in many cases might be life or death. And so you take on that burden and that weught. How much of that do you feel like was also a part of of the breakdown? Or was a lot of it just the media and the trolls and the haters? Do you think it was a lot of different things that compounded that led to that moment?

Jason Russell Yeah, it was really just this like feeling of, there is a lot of lies out there. I'll say "fake news." And it really started with a 19 year old guy in Canada who wrote this blog called Visible Children. And he was just like bashing us. And I called him before an interview and I said, thank you so much for your response. I'm reading what you're putting out. We take the criticism seriously. But honestly, like, if you want to come see the work we're doing in Africa. I would be able to find the resources for you to do that. And then after you see the work and the programs we have going, then if you feel like it's good, maybe you could write about it. And if you still have concerns, write about it. So he immediately after the call, went on his blog and said Jason Russell just called me and tried to bribe me. How dare he use people's money to get me on a plane?

Justin Wheeler Ugh, WOW!

Jason Russell So it was just a lot of deception. And the girl from Uganda. She's like, my parents know that Joseph Kony is dead and he's been dead for years. And this is all a scam. That had like 5,000,000 views of just her in her bedroom. So all this misinformation was confusing the masses. Is this a scam? Is this the Illuminati? Is this the U.S. government trying to overtake Africa and the oil there. So, I could not come up against those lies because it's like anything you say after that. They're like, oh, he's just a liar. They kind of made up their mind. So that was probably the biggest concern. And the sadness that led to me trying to figure out what was possible. And, yeah, I kind of forgot your question.

Justin Wheeler No, it was fine. So the million dollar question, if you could go back to 2011 or moments before uploading the video to YouTube, would you change it? Or do you believe that everything that transpired after Kony 2012 was important? And not to say, not necessarily necessary, but it all had meaning and purpose, and it's led to where Invisible Children is at today and what it has accomplished.

Jason Russell Yeah, I believe in what Oprah says is that everything in your life is preparing you for the opportunity that is to come. So I, I actually don't put a lot of weight to that question because it is in the past. It can't be changed. And so what I try to practice is the idea of being here now and being in the present. It's the only thing we have control over. And so in all honesty, I know that my breakdown hurt so many people. It hurt my personal family. It hurt Invisible Children. It hurt the activists, the five million people or however many was kind of a part of the movement. I disappointed a lot of people. I disappointed myself. To this day, I don't believe I had control in the breakdown happening. I feel like the breakdown happened to me. But I can't tell you how many people come up to me and say, I had that happen to me or I had that happen to my spouse or my child. And so it's kind of, if my public TMZ meltdown allowed other people to speak about their shadow, trauma or mental health, then I mean, I got to go to the first White House mental health forum in United States history with Bradley Cooper and like Lady Gaga's mom. So it's pretty cool that Obama was taking this mental health crisis really seriously. And I think it's only actually escalated with number 45 and with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter and all these issues, I think that mental health is maybe the most important thing, because if you don't have mental health, you actually can't be a contributing member of society or your family. And so I think that stigma is starting to go away. A lot of young people are talking about their challenges. I think there's like dozens of ways to get help and get healthy and monitor it. And so I don't have regrets because... I regret hurting people. I regret having to let go of Invisible Children and leaving it because it was like my firstborn child. But it taught me a lot.

Justin Wheeler I remember seeing the TMZ clip and thinking the opposite of how you felt. You hurt people. I remember watching that and was like, man, like we as the IC community hurt Jason, we didn't do enough, right. Because you had committed your life to this, to stopping this war. And you were you were all in. And I remember having it feeling so I never looked at it as you letting us down or Invisible Children down. I was looking at it in the as the opposite. Never have lost any respect for you because you have always believed, anything you set your mind to, anything that you become passionate about, you move the needle on. And I think that's one of the gifts, one of the many gifts that you have. And it's why it's so fun to continue to follow you and your work because you know how to truly move the needle. So I'm excited to see what's to come.

Jason Russell Thank you for saying that. It means a lot.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. So couple more questions. I thought that asking can we can we can wrap this up for organizations, and maybe I should've told you this in the beginning but I'm sure you assumed, mostly our listeners or nonprofit people. People working in the nonprofit space, leadership and so forth. I remember like following 2012, like in '13, '14, everyone's trying to dissect Kony 2012. Everyone was trying to recreate the viral success that it had that it had brought on. And I imagine a lot of people probably reach out to you for consulting and asked you to help them with their campaigns. What what was that like and what sort of advice do you tell people when they said, hey, we were trying to go viral? Yeah, that was that was like 2013, 2014, 2015. That was like the thing that nonprofits are trying to do. How do you respond to that?

Jason Russell Yeah. I mean, honestly, I think that one day I could do a Masterclass about it in terms of like all the things that it took to make that happen. One of the things that I always try to remind people is we had spent nine years traveling, we traveled, we did over eight years of screenings and met with five million people face to face. So they feel a personal connection, not just to Invisible Children or the movies or the merchandise or the work, but to actual roadies and interns that they bonded with and became close with. I mean, very, very close friendships that lasts till today. And so, like that kind of authentic relationship cannot be replicated. It literally takes the hard work of years of building that. And then obviously, like targeting 20 of the most famous people in the world. And twelve senators and congressmen helped it go viral because you wanted to take action. So you tweet out at all these famous people and they're getting the thousands or millions of tweets back at them. So they respond. And that's what helped to light the kindling on fire, like the kindling was already there that we threw the match at it. I think it's really also important to remember that it's genuinely about the story. So people like forget... How do I make my video go viral? I go, well, do you have a really compelling story? And you're like, no. And I'm like, OK, well, you've got to find that first because people are moved by, you know, the story itself. And an interesting study by M.I.T., I think was two or three years. They interviewed only events that had hyper success. So they interviewed the Red Bull jump from space, the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Avatar, the movie. Passion of the Christ and Kony 2012 was one of the things they studied. And they gave us a whole presentation afterwards. One of the main takeaways was that all of these things had one thing in common, and it is that the whole team was focused on one goal. So like Mars landing like those kinds of things. And when you have a team that wakes up every day and they had just one goal, that leads to hyper success. So our goal was to make Kony famous. And we were going to do anything and everything we could think of to do that. And we had so many things planned, too, that we never did because we made him famous too quickly. But I think that that that's the real key is and I work with a lot of clients, and it's actually difficult to get the team, even if it's a small team, to agree on one thing they want to accomplish.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. And I imagine to you, which is the kind of the last few minutes I wanted to spend talking, is where you're at today, what you're doing now. I imagine as you work with your clients and nonprofits... what we see a lot at least is, you know, people look at video as a medium to drive revenue, to drive donations. And obviously, Kony 2012 wasn't about that. But that happened by money. The money came in. So how do you go about keeping hyper laser focus on one thing? When you also have a fundraising teams like Paul, we still have to, like, hit this goal. We still have to raise this money. Is that ever a point of conflict in your guys', creative process?

Jason Russell So is the question about like how do you create compelling content and still drive revenue?

Justin Wheeler Or do you worry about the revenue and do you just create compelling content and let the revenue take care of itself?

Jason Russell We always worried about revenue. You remember, you know, like most of our time at Invisible Children was like, are we going to be able to pay the staff? Are we going to be able to pay the rent? Like, I feel like we were, at the best of times, we had three months in the bank.

Justin Wheeler Right.

Jason Russell Because our ideology and our approach was we don't care how much money it takes. We don't care.... we are going to do this and end the war. And we are unashamed of spending money on making movies because that is the porthole to the change of heart and the change of mind. You've got to make people laugh. Then you've got to make them cry. And then they will join your team if it's authentic. Like with charity: water, we made that movie for them four or five years ago. They started at 800 monthly recurring donors. I believe they're at over 50,000, resulting in close to $18M a year, coming in year after year after year. From one movie that costs them this much money, this much money. And so I always try to tell our clients that we're onboarding like we're not going to necessarily replicate charity: water. But even if you gave us this much money, you're definitely going to get a lot more on the return on investment. The best thing you can ever do as a nonprofit leader is spend as much money as possible on your story, because once your story is told in a powerful 20m, 30m video, you can use it for a decade and get money. So to me, that's like a revenue is always a challenge, unless you're like a billionaire foundation. Right. But like most nonprofits are freaking out going, how do we get another funding? How do we get make this program happen? Yeah, but it's also like, I feel like a lot of nonprofits live in the rich dad, poor dad mentality. And I really dislike it, you know, because I work with them and they go, well, we only have this much money because we're a nonprofit. So we're poor and we have to ask everything for free and I'm just like, does that have to be the nonprofit mentality!?

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Jason Russell You know, like I just...

Justin Wheeler Welcome to our lives, selling to nonprofits!

Jason Russell Yeah. It's the shift. It's like the Dan Pallotta shift.

Justin Wheeler Totally.

Jason Russell Like people who are awake, wide awake in this industry are following his and others lead.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Jason Russell And like these issues are lifesaving. They need the experts and money and resources to make it more important than paper towels because we spend more money on advertising paper towels than we do on some of the most important issues facing humanity.

Justin Wheeler Totally. And that's that's I was kind of getting it as well. I mean, because Kony 2012 and correct me if I'm wrong, maybe it wasn't a fundraising campaign, right? It was, the mission was make him famous. And you still raised millions of dollars as a result. And so I guess...

Jason Russell $26M!

Justin Wheeler $26M! Did you say $26M?

Jason Russell Yeah.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, within that year or how much...

Jason Russell It was like within a month, I think.

Justin Wheeler Wow!

Jason Russell It was pretty immediate. And that's what's so interesting. We did have a call to action to like be a monthly recurring donor. But honestly, our team was not focused on the money at all. We were really focused on making him famous. But of course, as a nonprofit, you always ask for money. So it was a part of the call to action.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, and so the last question on this topic is, what are the products you're working on today? What are you up to in? Maybe it's changed quite a bit since March, but what is Jason up to today?

Jason Russell Well, I have a bunch of client projects which are exciting, and I've had a passion, and you know this because you and Funraise helped fund the podcast, but the idea is for A Little Radical, which is our children's book, to really break it open and create compelling, inspiring curriculum for young minds to understand what activism is and understand how to speak out and be brave and boycott and all of those things. Because activism, even that term, honestly, I wasn't even aware of in high school. Truly, I was just like, oh, you mean like the civil rights people? Like, I didn't understand that activism was an actual vocation. And now that it feels like mainstream, it's very inspiring. But I do think, and I've been thinking about this a lot, that especially right now, if we white people don't have the courage to talk to our friends about the fact that this is not a black problem, this is a white power problem, and we have to do some serious shifting and changing over the next years for equality to be achieved. And so I have tried to deconstruct my white savior complex, and I keep people around me to keep me in check. But my hope is that I and my creatives that we work with around the world could somehow be additive to this crucial moment in time. We have less than three months to the election. A lot of people are talking about a civil war. It could be possible. But truly, I see the moderate white in America, these are not Trump, Fox people and they're not necessarily liberal Biden, they're just in the middle. And I'm sure you've had people tell you this, too. Justin, I want to do something. I feel like I should do something. What should I do? And yet they're paralyzed and doing anything because they're so fearful that if they posed a black square with #BlackLivesMatter the next morning, they're gonna wake up. What are you doing? Take the hashtag off. You're ruining it. And so white fragility is so real that if attacked once and we won't participate in again. We have to get tougher and understand that we as white people, are the problem! We've been the problem for400+ years and we're just waking up to that idea. And we've got to acknowledge that. And we ourselves aren't being attacked individually. We, the collective white power, have to change and change is really hard for people. And this is going to be a really long journey. But I'm here for that. You know, it took me so long, it's embarrassing to understand why you don't ask a person of color what you need to do to change. I literally couldn't understand that. For so long I'm like, but you have to tell us what to do otherwise we're gonna do it wrong. And they're like, do your homework. Figure it out. Talk amonst yourselves. If you're doing something wrong, we'll let you know. Don't be offended. Take the criticism. Shift it and let's keep going. And so now I'm like, ugh! It took me a long time and it took me that long. It's going to take a lot of people in this country to get it.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, I think I think that's like the first step for us white people is to not be... we take it so personal.

Jason Russell Yeah. We think why are you attacking me and they're like, we're talking about the bigger picture.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. And it's like, "I'm not I'm not racist! What are you talking about?"

Jason Russell Yeah and "I have black friends."

Justin Wheeler And it's, you know, this has been the biggest learning in this moment for me as I've looked inward as well and have seen just, you know, my own blindspots to this. And it's embarrassing. But if we don't address it, it's it's never going to change. Right. And so I'm very excited to see what you do continue to do on that on that front. I know I've had you here much longer than I told you I would.

Jason Russell It's fine.

Justin Wheeler It's been a fun conversation. Thank you so much, Jason, for being a part of it and for sharing your story with us. Very excited to get this out, but thank you so much for your time and tell Danica and the kiddos, hello for us.

Jason Russell Thanks, Justin. I just talked to Danica and she's like, "I love following their family on Instagram." She's like 'the twins are growing up!".

Justin Wheeler They've gotten big.

Jason Russell Are they four?

Justin Wheeler Yeah, they're four years old. Turning five here pretty soon and then we've added a fifth. We got a dog, which I don't know why we decided to do that, but we did. And it's another baby.

Jason Russell Yeah. You got a zoo over there.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, exactly.

Jason Russell Well, I do want to recommend before we go a podcast that really changed my mind and informed me so much. I might even listen to it again. It's called Seeing White and it's like brilliant and illuminating. And again, I'm embarrassed at how much I've learned in the past three months. Like, I thought I knew things and I have learned a huge amount. And so I just feel kind of grateful. And honestly, in the past couple of weeks, my mind has shifted around 2020 in that I think history will look back and consider it one of the greatest years of all time. And not to make it a silver lining and I know people have died and I know people don't have jobs and it's just a crisis. But like, again, it really wasn't working for a lot of people. And so now we're going to rebuild a new system. And I think that nonprofits should be at the heart beat of that, because what's exciting is you won't be able to find a business that doesn't give back from here on out like you will be void. And younger generations will say, what are you doing for the planet? What are you doing for the people? And so I just love that Funraise is really at the heart beat of that change and empowering people to go after the problems in the world that are most needed, most severe.

Justin Wheeler Well, thank you. I mean, that was our inspiration. We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. That is definitely, definitely one of our goals. But yeah, again, thanks, Jason, so much for joining.

Jason Russell Thanks, Justin.

Justin Wheeler Peace!

Jason Russell Appreciate it.

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