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Archibald Project co-founder blends media and missions in Uganda

By Carolyn Willis
University of Nebraska-Lincoln 

Photo courtesy of The Archibald Project

Whitney Runyon, co-founder and editor at The Archibald Project, takes a moment to share a photo with a child in Uganda earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of The Archibald Project)

Whitney Runyon is anything but a typical editor. The co-founder of the media missions nonprofit The Archibald Project lives in Uganda, miles from the nearest AP Stylebook and yards from dire poverty.

“Living in poverty affects everything in your life, more than just the way you work. It makes us desire justice and truth to prevail,” Runyon, 30, said.

This desire distinguishes the mission of The Archibald Project from that of other media organizations. Rather than using media to share news and collect advertising revenue, The Archibald Project produces photographs, videos and blog posts to educate and inspire people on orphan care.

While Runyon admits that living and working in Uganda is difficult, she said the hard work is worth it because the world’s 132 million orphaned and abandoned children are worth it. She endures the crowing roosters, singing insects and slow Internet speeds because she understands that the stories she shares can jolt people into action.

During a Feb. 24 FaceTime interview, Runyon and her husband Nick Runyon, 31, sat in their round Ugandan cottage and discussed how The Archibald Project’s mission statement and Runyon’s personal desires guide the curation of content on its website, blog and social media platforms.

Runyon said that content on a nonprofit website is fundamentally different from that of an online news publication. “We want to cover stories that we are passionate about,” Nick Runyon said. “The quality and the depth of the story matters more than how many clicks it gets.”

At times, this means presenting material that is difficult to digest. One adoption story follows the Stewarts, a family whose previous nine trips to Haiti had yet to result in processed papers or welcome home signs for their son Kelly.

These trips always ended with Kelly being taken back to the orphanage, according to The Archibald Project. Runyon said she posts these stories because though they are hard, they are the truth.

She said she hopes that The Archibald Project can help rally individuals around all types of orphan care.

“We use our media to educate people on things they do not know about,” Runyon said.

This includes writing about the messy realities of stubborn governments and denied visas. Kelly’s story did not end with the first video. In September 2013, the Stewart family arrived home from the orphanage for the thirteenth time. This time, Kelly was on the flight. According to The Archibald Project, the newly reunited family was welcomed home by the roar of an enormous crowd.

Telling stories such as Kelly’s was not Runyon’s first job after college.

The University of Texas- Austin theater and dance major was developing a successful career as a wedding photographer after graduation, but she itched to care for those without parents in tangible ways.

Her journey to founding and editing for The Archibald Project began in 2011, when Runyon felt called to document a client’s adoption of a Bulgarian child named Archie. The adoptive family has chosen not to share Archie’s previous surname.

“It was one of the clearest moments. I felt the Lord say, ‘You’re supposed to go to Bulgaria and photograph Archie’s adoption,’” Runyon said.

Nick Runyon’s aviation job provided cheap airfare and Runyon’s passion for photography made the trip feasible. Upon returning to the United States, Runyon released photos of Archie’s homecoming on her personal Facebook page. A Texas family saw the post and felt stirred to adopt an HIV-positive Ukrainian orphan.

Runyon documented this adoption as well. This time, she posted the photos on a public Facebook page she named after Archie, The Archibald Project. The page accumulated 500 followers overnight. “People just kept sharing it,” Runyon said. “People were emailing us saying, ‘Hey, can you come photograph our adoption?’”

Runyon moved to Uganda in January 2015 to avoid flying between America and Africa every few weeks. The move made sense for the work she anticipated.

The structure of Runyon’s workday varies depending on her current project. Some days are spent snapping photos in the field. On others, she spends time on her computer answering emails, blogging and making connections via social media with adoptive families and other orphan care related nonprofits.

She said she also spends time editing photos and incorporating them into her blog posts. Runyon fashions the orphan care stories to suit various platforms and audiences. The blog contains long-form posts and guest posts from individuals who mirror the heart of The Archibald Project.

Millennials and time-crunched individuals may be more likely to keep up with the nonprofit through Instagram, Facebook and Vimeo. “Instagram is where our main audience is, but we’re trying to give more love to Facebook,” Runyon said.

While Runyon said she is not concerned with specific analytics or impressions on social media, she understands that she has a responsibility to use those platforms to their greatest potential. “We want to run The Archibald Project like a business,” Runyon said. “We want it to succeed and do well.”

Like many for-profit corporations, The Archibald Project’s Instagram account often features giveaways that attract traffic. In February 2015, users were invited to share one of the nonprofit’s Instagrams with the hashtag #TheArchibaldProjectGiveaway for a chance to win a tank top or a necklace. Giveaways such as these allow individuals to discover the nonprofit, increasing the number of people who could donate.

The Archibald Project is funded by donations. The Runyons ask for donations to fund their living expenses through an online fund called Support The Runyon’s.

Runyon was quick to admit that running the website brings far more challenges than overseeing the social media accounts. She said that her lack of coding knowledge has led to many Google searches and YouTube tutorials. “There are so many things I want to do, but I just don’t have the knowledge,” Runyon said.

Despite the lack of technological support, Runyon is optimistic. For her, hurdles like creating and curating the website are simply chances to grow as an editor. When asked to share advice for college students who are considering becoming involved with media missions work, Runyon laughed and shared the challenging realities of her job.

She said that daily life in Uganda is hard. Runyon witnesses things that make no sense to her. The “why” question is ever-present and she said she would drive herself crazy trying to understand the answers to it.

On The Archibald Project’s blog, Runyon said that orphan care is not glamorous or romantic but hard, messy and exhausting. With the dawn of each day, she said she must decide that editing and sharing orphan care stories is worth the toil.

“I hope that we can look back on our time in Uganda and say we gave it our all,” by drawing on inspiration from God, Runyon said. “And that is enough to keep going.”

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