4 Lessons Fundraisers can Learn from Humans of NY

Photographer Brandon Stanton, the man behind the pulsating blog and #1 New York Times bestselling book, Humans of New York, raised more than $1.4M in just a little over...

Photographer Brandon Stanton, the man behind the pulsating blog and #1 New York Times bestselling book, Humans of New York, raised more than $1.4M in just a little over two weeks. It is no small fundraising feat given that the donations ranged from only $5 to $100; in fact, there is nothing small about the reach of this fundraiser – which received 51,473 individual donations, got featured on The Ellen Show, and led to an invitation from the White House to meet the President of the United States just a few weeks ago.

How did he do it?  He followed a story, retold it, and effectively engaged with his social media audience.

During one of his countless urban expeditions – where he captures glimpses into the lives of strangers in the streets of New York, Stanton came across Vidal Chastanet, a 13-year-old from the Brooklyn housing project of Brownsville.

WIB“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?” “My principal, Ms. Lopez.” “How has she influenced you?” “When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

This is one of the typical questions in Stanton’s roster to start up a conversation with his subjects. Like many others before him, Chastanet was featured on the Humans of New York Facebook page (a.k.a. HONY); but, apparently, he was not entirely like the others. “I ask people all the time about the most influential person in their life, and he was the first person who ever told me his Principal,” Stanton wrote in an email. Wanting to dig deeper, he decided to meet Nadia Lopez, Chastanet’s Principal at Mott Hill Bridges Academy.

Impressed by meeting Ms. Lopez, Stanton began sitting in on staff meetings; and learning about the school’s challenges first-hand, he wanted to get involved in the solution. Principal Lopez wants to arrange for her students to visit Harvard – for them to stand on the campus of one of the world’s top schools, and know that they belong. Since many of Mott Hill Bridges’ students have never left New York, she thinks the experience will broaden their horizons and expand their idea of their own potential.

Here are 4 social media fundraising tips we can draw from HONY and the inspiring Principal and teachers of Mott Hill Bridges:

  1. Don’t just stop at “putting a face to the cause”, follow and re-tell the story in a way to reach a wider audience

When NGOs follow the human story, they can tell it better and connect more effectively to the human nature of giving.

Stanton didn’t stop at the photo of Chastanet or the sound bite of Ms. Lopez’ inspiring methods of encouraging youth to aspire for greater achievements – he wanted to understand the issues they are faced with, and he followed the story.

Writing a human interest story is nothing new to fundraising campaigns of NGOs; but they should not stop at simply finding a ‘poster child’ to be the face for their causes, or writing up case studies to attach to their narrative reports for the donors.

Instead, NGOs can dig deeper into their beneficiaries’ stories and offer the public a more complete picture of what it means to be addressing malnutrition in a community, or the challenges of fighting human trafficking, or the impact of the lack of access to electricity, clean water, and reproductive services.

Further, to reach wider audiences, NGOs can push the envelope and find creative ways to present the stories they want to tell – here on links are numerous examples of effective use of blogs, animation, or info-graphs.

  1. Set tangible “returns on investment”

Many development issues require systemic change such as enacting or enforcing a new law; however, whenever possible, fundraisers for NGOs can highlight a concrete value for money proposal.

Stanton’s fundraising campaign asked for support for something very tangible: “Let’s Send Kids to Harvard.”  Thus, one of the factors that contributed to the success of the fundraiser is not only that it had a concrete goal of raising $100,000 for the students of the Academy, but, more importantly, that is was clear what these funds will be for.

It’s nothing so extraordinarily new. We’ve seen it on many individual giving campaigns for raising money: “$10 / month will buy 1,200 school children a pair of shoes”, or “1 pack of diapers = 1 vaccine for a child in Africa”, or “$25 = 1 solar lamp for a village woman”. However,  the NGOs tackling social justice issues through behavior change instead of provision of materials and supplies, can take a page from HONY’s Facebook fundraising success – they can use social media to raise funds for individual activities, instead of for an entire programme or their 4-year plan.

  1. Never underestimate the power of ‘quick wins’, and build on them

On top of setting clear fundraising targets, NGOs can break down their strategy plans and set smaller, more achievable monetary goals for each part.

Within the first 24 hours of the fundraising campaign, HONY had raised $300,000 – enough money to make the Harvard visit for the Mott Bridges for 10 years.

Building on this success, Stanton, Ms. Lopez and her team of inspired / inspiring teachers proposed a 2nd concrete and short-term target of raising $40,000 per class in order to provide summer programmes for the students. In less than a week, they again met their target, raising the additional $400,000 for ten years’ worth of summer programmes.

Planning a series of fundraisers with smaller financial targets may be helpful since they can be more manageable amounts to reach. Further, working towards quick wins may help in embarking on diversification of sources (and platforms), while building on, and creating synergies between multiple fundraising successes.

  1. Offer content not just a cause

Vying for the public’s attention on various social media, NGOs can provide content of specific value to a large section of the populace, in order to compete with the millions of information available online.

The HONY Facebook Page has over 12 million followers (in comparison, UNICEF has about 4 million); evolving from a photography blog, it offers new and interesting content every day: beautiful portrait photos accompanied by quotes and snippets that, some say, present a softer side to people living in NY. It is this HONY blog and presence on various social media that served as the platform for the successful fundraising collaboration of Stanton and Ms. Lopez.

Stanton’s base of followers were engaged enough to translate Facebook ‘Likes’ into ‘Shares’, and ‘Shares’ into more ‘Likes’, and ultimately to the action of donating. This is the key challenge for fundraisers: how do you use social media to drive the general public (not just your friends, family and fans) to take the social media ‘actions’ you want?

Development professionals and NGO fundraisers believe that the worthiness of their causes will draw followers to their social media pages; and they exert all effort to make the case that their cause is the worthiest. Taking a lesson from HONY, however, NGOs can improve on offering interesting content on their social media pages and various web platforms. Social media can be used for fundraising indeed, but first and foremost, it must offer content in order to gain traction with the general public and acquire enough followers to make any subsequent campaigns reach a big enough pool; so that even if only 5 people in a hundred of your base donates, it amounts to a sizeable sum.

Given that donor agencies are progressively reducing or restricting their funds, the public becomes an increasingly important audience and funding avenue, therefore investing time and energy in building a meaningful connection can bring significant returns.


Want to know more about Vidal and Ms. Lopez’s story on HONY?




Want to know more about this runaway success in fundraising?



Cookee Belen

Having nearly 15 years of advocacy experience in 4 continents, Cookee is driven by translating development buzz words into real change for those with the least freedoms. She holds an MBA from the University of Geneva with a focus on international organizations management, and is a trainer and change facilitator. She drives innovative collaborations and results-oriented projects on gender, youth, and public health issues – working to build government & NGO capacities on human rights issues, strategy planning, project implementation and M&E.
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