The spectacular implosion of Instagram’s No White Saviors

The group — known for canceling missionaries and aid workers for alleged misdeeds — is embroiled in some very ugly scandals of its own.

Illustration of No White Saviors co-founders Kelsey Nielsen and Olivia Alaso
Nicole Rifkin

When Dionna Owens’ husband, D’Juan Owens, was approached by the Instagram account No White Saviors in 2019, she was thrilled for him.

At the time, the No White Saviors Instagram page, which was set up to encourage better practices in mission and development work, had more than 200,000 followers. The account often called out problematic actors it deemed to be “white saviors” (a critical term for white people who depict themselves as liberators or uplifters of non-white people from developing African nations), publicly shaming and harassing them by mobilizing its fans.

No White Saviors had connected with D’Juan after seeing some of the work he’d done in Uganda, a country he traveled to periodically from the Owens’ home in North Carolina. D’Juan, who is Black and describes himself as a racial equality and gender-based violence prevention activist, jumped at the chance to make content with them.

After all, there was no real reason to doubt the project. Although the organization was co-founded by a white woman, the now 32-year-old Kelsey Nielsen, it seemed like she was doing incredible work. At that point in time, Nielsen and her Black Ugandan co-founder, Olivia Alaso, had recently been favorably profiled by the BBC.

“We all developed a relationship, and I started doing some writing for them,” says D’Juan, now 36 and living in North Carolina. He tells Input that the height of his involvement with No White Saviors was during the summer of 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction. He began to do more guest posts and appearances on Instagram Live with the organization, and he’d often do sensitivity checks on the group’s copy, too: “Whenever there was stuff that’s just typically about a Black perspective, [I’d do] a proofing type thing.”

As D’Juan became more involved with No White Saviors’ online campaign and grew closer with Nielsen, often exchanging calls, Dionna didn’t worry too much. She and Nielsen had become friends through Instagram, and she says both Nielsen and D’Juan assured her the relationship was only a working one.

According to Dionna, that wasn’t true. In October 2020, Dionna says she found out that the pair had been in a romantic and sexual relationship. D’Juan denies this. “There were times that I definitely didn’t set boundaries I should have set, and I take accountability for that,” he admits. “I had a relationship that was more than it should have been within the bounds of my commitments.”

Dionna took her allegations to Instagram shortly afterward. “When I started posting, it was about her sleeping with my husband, and calling out that the page was run by a white person,” she says. “But then I started putting things together.”

In the months that followed the discovery, Dionna — who has since divorced her husband of 15 years — began to look into her ex-husband’s finances and the history of his exchanges with No White Saviors. She uncovered a trail of cash gifts and receipts for airline tickets from Uganda, all of which were linked to the No White Saviors email address.

It was money that Nielsen and her team had raised from followers — by requesting donations to their Venmo, PayPal, and Patreon accounts — telling them it was being earmarked to fund charity work and to defend itself from lawsuits from the people it had canceled online. (D’Juan claims that he never received money from No White Saviors for anything but work commitments, something that his ex-wife refutes.)

Dionna OwensDionna Owens

Dionna, who is 35 and Black, felt she was on to something. “She would target these people just so she could cancel them, because that’s where the money comes from,” says Dionna, a wigmaker who lives in North Carolina with the two teenage daughters she has with D’Juan. She is currently battling a defamation case that Nielsen filed against her in November 2020, in which the No White Saviors co-founder is seeking at least $50,000 in damages over the Instagram posts Dionna made about her. “But I’ve never seen the benefits of No White Saviors money going to anything,” Dionna adds.

She wouldn’t discover until much later that those money-making cancellations were often based on falsehoods.

Dionna and other targets of No White Saviors have started to speak out about their experiences over the last few months. Working together, they say they’ve discovered a tangled web of lies, deceit, and even possible fraud. They charge that Nielsen has tricked No White Saviors’ more than 900,000 followers with her false allegations, pocketing thousands of dollars and destroying lives in the process.

It’s a situation that haunts Dionna. “Whenever there would be somebody dead” — such as George Floyd, the Black man murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020 — “they’d start ramping up posts. Somebody would die, and they literally will put their fucking Venmo and PayPal at the bottom of the fucking post. They’d base this shit off of white guilt,” she says. “They were lying and collecting money off the backs of Black people’s trauma. Who does that?”

The beginning

According to her biography on the now-inactive No White Saviors website, Nielsen is a “white savior in recovery” with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Temple University in Philadelphia. After several years of volunteering and working in Uganda in the 2010s, Nielsen co-founded No White Saviors with Alaso in June 2018.

“I have been part of the problem. If you looked at my Instagram six, seven years ago, everything we criticize, pretty much, you would see,” Nielsen told the BBC in her 2019 interview. “My goal is to always keep my fellow white people accountable, and that includes me.”

Although No White Saviors touted itself online as a Ugandan-led team, the group almost exclusively looked at African issues through an American lens. The page had a humble beginning: It mostly reposted memes and infographics about cultural appropriation and white saviorism, peppered with guest posts from other activist influencers in the pan-African space. It also featured meandering open letters to problematic volunteers — often celebrities like white actor Gerard Butler or white British TV presenter Stacey Dooley — in its captions.

But everything changed when No White Saviors went after Renee Bach.

The group launched its campaign against Bach via a Medium post published in September 2018. The post alleged that Bach — a white American missionary associated with the deaths of more than 100 Ugandan children — had practiced self-taught medical treatments on minors in her care and suggested that Bach was responsible for an unknown amount of wrongful deaths due to this negligence. (A lawyer for Bach declined to comment for this piece.)

The accusations were amplified across No White Saviors’ Instagram and Twitter accounts and eventually reached the press, creating a media frenzy in the summer of 2019. The No White Saviors team’s posts, and on occasion Nielsen, were heavily quoted in coverage of the case.

However, things weren’t what they seemed. A 2020 New Yorker article by Ariel Levy reexamined the case and presented it in a new light, suggesting that Nielsen might have fabricated — or at least misrepresented — what occurred in Uganda partly out of jealousy over Bach’s success and insider status in Ugandan missionary circles. In response, the No White Saviors team wrote a furious open letter and began raising funds to take legal action against Bach, who spoke for the New Yorker piece, on behalf of the families of the deceased Ugandan children.

The situation created a profound shift in the size and tone of No White Saviors’ social media presence. The Bach case helped take the account’s following from more than 50,000 at the end of 2018 to more than 200,000 followers by the end of summer 2019. By summer 2020, after No White Saviors had launched a publicity campaign against the New Yorker to have Levy’s article removed from its website, its following had surged to more than 600,000.

It sparked the beginning of a string of targeted cancellations, often aimed at other women, which critics charge were designed to drive traffic toward the No White Saviors page and bring in contributions in the process.

The targets

One of No White Saviors’ many targets was Paige, a yoga teacher and development worker from New York State in her 40s who has lived in Kenya for the last 14 years. In 2007, Paige set up a charity to train Kenyan yoga teachers and bring more employment opportunities to the region. In the process, her organization attracted funding from Comic Relief, UNICEF, and other major donors and gained a level of renown in the nonprofit space.

In March 2021, No White Saviors published an exposé of Paige via Medium, based on “allegations” that were not attributed directly to any sources. The article accused her of having sexual and romantic relationships with Kenyan minors, embezzling funds from her charity, drugging her Kenyan guard (owing, according to No White Saviors, to her own, unsubstantiated substance abuse problems), and threatening suicide when challenged over her actions.

The piece was promoted on the No White Saviors Instagram account, which had almost 850,000 followers at the time, and the damage to Paige’s reputation was almost instantaneous.

“It was dangerous for people to support me, and it had a ripple effect.”

“I had police coming to my house to try and take away my daughter,” recounts Paige, who asked Input to withhold her last name and other identifying details in order to protect her family. At the time this was happening, Paige’s parents were visiting her in Kenya, and they were able to take Paige’s daughter back to safety in the U.S.

Paige, meanwhile, was left to pick up the pieces in Kenya. “I spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to manage this [legally], and I had to completely cut myself out of my organization while they did internal investigations and forensic accounting,” she says. “They shut off my email.”

At the height of the controversy, the No White Saviors account targeted co-founders, donors, volunteers, and anyone else involved with Paige’s organization, tagging them in posts and encouraging followers to go after them and hold them “accountable” by sharing posts and tagging sponsors. “That’s when things got really isolating for me, because anyone who stood up for me would be attacked,” she says. “It was dangerous for people to support me, and it had a ripple effect.”

Her organization was unable to fundraise for several months while it was investigated, and as a result, it had to scale down; 20 local staff members lost their positions, and a community center was shuttered. Although all of Nielsen’s accusations against Paige were proven false after a thorough, independent financial audit of her organization and, Paige says, a criminal investigation by Kenya’s Child Protection unit, she still worries about the digital footprint the allegations have left behind — and how it might impact her future.

Another alleged victim is Dr. Kiona, a now 32-year-old Korean-American Instagram influencer and academic with nearly 100,000 followers on her @doctorkiona account. Before her cancellation, Kiona had gotten into a pay dispute with a then-colleague and friend over a photo shoot they worked on together in Ghana. When the ex-colleague, who didn’t sign a contract, delivered substandard work, Kiona didn’t pay him — and in response, she says, he repeatedly threatened to have her arrested.

Out of fear, she involved the local police force, who called the former colleague to the station to give him a warning. In September 2021, shortly after this incident occurred, the No White Saviors account accused her of “using white tears” to get the former colleague, who is Black, “arrested” in order to avoid paying him.

On Instagram, No White Saviors published “all these things that I didn’t do,” says Kiona, who does not disclose her full name online in order to protect her academic career. “They were asking people to harass LifeStraw, the company I worked for, and were seeking more information from people I know.”

As a result of No White Saviors’ campaign against her, Kiona says she lost her contract with LifeStraw and suffered severe emotional distress. “When you get canceled, you just don’t know what to do,” she says. “It’s like a trauma. Your brain gets cloudy. It’s awful.”

Dr. KionaDr. Kiona

Although Kiona in October 2021 publicly released receipts to prove her innocence in the case, she says few people believed her, something she attributes to the level of trust placed in No White Saviors at the time. To make matters worse, she realized that No White Saviors was profiting from its callouts. “A couple of days after the posts about me were released, they [advertised] new merchandise,” she says. (In its online shop, No White Saviors sells T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “Accountability Is Sexy” and “Decolonise Ya Mind,” for $28 each.)

“Then it occurred to me that this was all to build their algorithm up, because they’d been complaining a few days before [on Instagram] that their posts weren’t getting picked up or seen,” she says.

She’s not the only one who feels this way. “Their followers definitely went up after my cancellation,” says Paige. (In the month after it made unfounded claims about Paige on Instagram, No White Saviors’ following increased by about 20,000, and the organization encouraged followers to donate to its PayPal and Venmo accounts “to show some love and thank us for the education we provide on our platform.”)

“If the amount of followers means revenue, or more Patreon subscribers,” Paige says, “it suddenly becomes an interesting dynamic.”

The money trail

When Kiona posted proof of her innocence online, it started a domino effect. Paige wrote to Kiona after seeing her posts, and a friend of Kiona’s directed them toward Dionna Owens’ Instagram page.

Once in contact, the group began to swap its evidence of No White Saviors’ wrongdoings — and as someone who had worked in the charity sector for quite some time, Paige knew something was extremely wrong. “There are certain things you have to do as a nonprofit when it comes to your finances. You have to file a form called the 990, which has to be public-facing and published on Charity Navigator. These things should be Googleable,” she says.

Paige could see that money was flowing into No White Saviors’ GoFundMe, PayPal, Venmo, and Patreon accounts, but couldn’t find out where it was going from there, or who was responsible for handling the cash. “It got too confusing, legally. My lawyers couldn’t figure out who or where or where to sue,” Paige says. She’d been told there was no entity to take legal action against. “Sue No White Saviors? It doesn’t exist.”

“This smells really, really fishy.”

Together, the women started to follow the money trail that No White Saviors had left behind, but the further along they got, the less things made sense. “They raised $80,000 for a library in Uganda, and I don’t know if you’ve seen the library, but it is a bookshelf,” Kiona continues. A video of the library, published on YouTube by an unaffiliated vlogger in March of this year, shows an admittedly luxurious space sparsely populated with books, attached to a large café and events room.

“Are you kidding me? I could build a freaking computer lab with that,” adds Kiona. “They’re making $4,000 a month on Patreon, and [then there’s] the library money, and that doesn’t even include their PayPal or Venmo. We don’t even know how much money these guys have, and we don’t know where it’s going.”

The group of women began to realize that the money was being funneled to the U.S. They could see that the GoFundMe used to raise funds for the library and café was in Nielsen’s name, and they knew that Venmo required payment recipients to be in the U.S. But Kusimama Africa, the parent company listed on No White Saviors’ Instagram, was only registered as a nonprofit in Uganda. After doing some more digging, the group found a company called Kusimama Africa LLC — registered in October 2020, two years after No White Saviors was launched — in Nielsen’s home state of Pennsylvania, but the company was certainly not a charity.

From there, things became murky. As Kusimama Africa is an LLC, its assets are protected from public scrutiny, and its owner — hidden behind a registered agent — would not be liable for any debts or lawsuits related to the company. A second organization, Kusimama Africa Inc., had been set up as a charity in Delaware in 2021 — again hidden behind a registered agent — and that organization was delinquent on its taxes.

Both organizations can be traced back to the same registered agent, LegalCorp Solutions. When approached for comment by Input, LegalCorp Solutions confirmed Kusimama Africa was its client, but refused to release information on its owners or tax delinquency. “We are not allowed to release this information (part of the reason they pay us) unless through a court-issued Subpoena,” a staff member wrote.

These obfuscatory financial practices — while perfectly legal — suggest the two U.S.-based organizations have arisen from self-motivated interests, according to Matt Horwitz, founder of LLC University, a leading authority on LLC education made up of lawyers, researchers, and educators who regularly monitor legislative rules around LLCs. “This smells really, really fishy,” Horwitz says. “It certainly smells like they are related.”

Unless you’re accustomed to hiding things, who the heck would do this?”

Horwitz tells Input that LLCs and corporations in Delaware and Philadelphia are not required to list members or owners publicly and that although LLCs and corporations aren’t built for people to commit crimes, bad actors can certainly use them to break the law. “It’s like a kitchen knife or something,” he says. “It can be used to cook dinner, or it can be used to do harm.”

Horwitz says that setups like this, when used to skirt financial rules, can often act as protection for those involved. “If they’re already breaking the law, do you think they care about properly documenting who the members are? No,” he says. “It’s unfortunate. They can get away with a lot of stuff sometimes unless they’re sued — but then, who has money, and can you prove the damages? We’re dealing with multiple jurisdictions here, too. It’s complicated. The only way to get to the heart of the matter is to go through the courts.”

Nielsen’s targets are convinced that she’s behind the company. “It has to be her [in Pennsylvania], because who else would it be?” asks Kiona. She thinks the setup is an indicator of Nielsen’s suspect motives: “With an LLC, there’s no transparency of funds. You can do whatever you want with the money and disappear. They’re not paying taxes on this — where is [the money] going?”

It's something that weighs on the mind of Dionna Owens, too. “No one can find out who owns this company because it’s hiding behind a registered agent,” she says. “Unless you’re accustomed to hiding things, who the heck would do this?”

The implosion

The group of victims still hasn’t found an entity to take legal action against, and doing so would cost a large amount of money, according to Kiona. But it has experienced a vindication of sorts recently, as Alaso turned on her co-founder Nielsen, and No White Saviors imploded before its audiences’ eyes.

On April 21, Nielsen’s No White Saviors co-founder, Olivia Alaso, released an official statement via Instagram. She claimed that Nielsen had been sending money to an unknown account in the U.S. without approval from her team, something Alaso says she noticed last October.

Alaso claimed that when she confronted Nielsen, it resulted in a campaign of harassment, threats, and gaslighting, which culminated with Alaso being locked out of the No White Saviors Instagram account. She urged her followers to send donations to a GoFundMe opened by friends on April 20, so she could “legally protect herself”; that fundraising effort collected more than $10,000.

Alaso’s efforts were further rewarded on April 22, when Nielsen issued her formal resignation from No White Saviors — although Alaso later claimed in a separate Instagram update that Nielsen was refusing to hand over No White Saviors’ bank accounts. (Input approached Alaso for comment several times, but she declined to speak, citing a lack of time and concern about disrupting the legal process.)

Alaso’s claims, however, are contested. Daudi Mutalya Balye, a Black Ugandan entrepreneur and pan-Africanist who has been a supporter of No White Saviors since 2018, tells Input that it was Nielsen who raised the alarm about finances. This happened, he says, after Nielsen found out that the Ugandan visa she’d been waiting on for three years had only just been filed for in April — despite No White Saviors accounts allegedly showing that $10,000 had been spent on the process.

“Another case is the library that they spent $150,000 dollars on, but the premises are being rented,” Balye says. “Naturally, you have to ask what’s going on. This is a public organization spending people’s hard-earned money.” (Input submitted a request for the release of Kusimama Africa’s annual returns — which NGOs are required to file in Uganda each year — to Uganda’s NGO Bureau on May 17. Despite repeated reassurances that the request is being “handled,” at the time of publication, the documents have not been released.)

On May 5, in the wake of the allegations made against her, Nielsen made since-deleted posts on her private Instagram account, in which she claimed No White Saviors’ financial records were at risk of being tampered with and destroyed, accused No White Saviors board member Chinonye Egbulem of being a plant sent by the U.S. government to destroy the No White Saviors movement, and told followers she was being framed for the wrongdoings of Ugandan members of her team. (Egbulem declined to comment for this article.)

“I’ve heard some wild accusations. Both [sides] can’t be right.”

Her efforts were not enough to quell the rage of other actors in the Instagram activism space. Several other accounts responded to Alaso’s call for support by circulating footage and screenshots of Nielsen engaging in purportedly troubling behavior, in order to drive attention to the situation and drum up support. One such account, @odunifehistory, has released slideshows of Nielsen allegedly harassing and abusing her colleagues, urging them to cooperate with her unless they want to “go to jail for life or worse.”

Many people, including Alaso, have also circulated undated footage they claim shows Nielsen assaulting former friends and colleagues in a Ugandan nightclub. Nielsen has since confirmed via her Instagram account that she’s fled the country and returned to the U.S. to avoid criminal charges, although she has not stated what those charges are. (Nielsen declined to speak to Input for this article.)

When the allegations first came out, D’Juan Owens says he tried to intervene to help protect the legitimacy of the No White Saviors platform. He says he spoke to both Alaso and Nielsen, but stopped when things became too volatile.

“I’ve heard some wild accusations. There’s been a side that has said to me that somebody was stealing thousands of dollars, that someone’s been involved in murders. Both of them can’t be right,” says D’Juan, who declines to reveal specific allegations. “I don’t believe that either of them are as criminal as they’ve told me the other one is in regards to money. I personally don’t believe that anyone was stealing thousands of dollars.”

D’Juan, who no longer works with No White Saviors, also worries that the current fallout is giving ammunition to people who have previously been targeted by the organization, in an effort to discredit allegations made against them. “People who have been called out [and] people who benefit from [the things] the organization combats will add fire to the flames. They will connect with other people who’ll jump on it solely to discredit the work,” he warns. “The only thing I care about is the legitimacy of the platform not being in question and the work that was done not being lost.”

“I’ll never be the same. I used to be a giver and donate money to people, but now I feel I can’t trust anybody.”

Paige, on the other hand, sees the whole situation as ironic. “I’m finding it pathologically hypocritical that, as [Nielsen’s] story is starting to unfold, she’s being accused of the exact things she accused me of,” she says. “That’s why I think it’s worth speaking up, because maybe she is a problem to society.”

It is yet to be determined whether Nielsen is a problem to society — but it’s undeniable that she’s had a profound impact on those she targeted. “I’ll never be the same,” says Dionna Owens. “I used to be a giver and donate money to people, but now I feel I can’t trust anybody.”

Followers of the No White Saviors account, however, still seem happy to part with their cash. Alaso posted a triumphant statement to Instagram on May 24, thanking followers for their support, and claiming their donations — to new No White Saviors PayPal and Venmo accounts set up without Nielsen — had been crucial to keeping No White Saviors running and to covering “various legal aspects.”

Despite everything she’s been through, Dionna Owens says she has no ill will toward the organization and still believes in the messages and work that No White Saviors was set up to deliver years ago.

Dionna hopes the remaining members will succeed in taking back the No White Saviors account. “I want the team to somehow rise from the ashes in this and regain the trust of the people,” she says. “That’s all I care about.”