Maybe you’ve glimpsed the #1 New York Times best-selling book in a store window somewhere. Maybe you’re one of the 8 million people who follow the page on social media. Or maybe you’re one of the loyal npENGAGE readers who caught our post last fall.

But chances are, by now, you’ve heard the buzz about Brandon Stanton and the internet phenomenon that is Humans of New York.

In January of this year, one of HONY’s photographic encounters blossomed into something bigger. Much bigger. A chance meeting on a street corner in one of the nation’s roughest neighborhoods introduced the world to Vidal, a 13-year-old student with an unexpectedly profound appreciation for his visionary school principal, Ms. Nadia Lopez—a woman who has made it her personal mission to show the students of Mott Hall Bridges Academy that, despite their turbulent circumstances and tough histories, they matter.Humans of New York

Touched by the story, Brandon mobilized his passionate base of supporters in a fundraiser for Vidal, Ms. Lopez, and Mott Hall Bridges academy. Set with the original goal of raising $100,000 over 2.5 weeks, the campaign surpassed that dollar mark within hours. At the time this post was published, over $1,188,583 have been donated.

Once we’d wiped away the happy tears and allowed our heartstrings to recover from all the tugging, we couldn’t help but wonder: how can we replicate that astounding result in our work?

If a photographer with no training or background in fundraising best practices can do it, why can’t we?

We won’t deny that a following of 8 million+ combined with international attention from the likes of the New York Times played a big part in HONY’s success here. But at the same time, this campaign tapped into so many of the “universal truths” of fundraising that the lessons of its triumph are comprehensive enough to apply to any fundraising work. Let’s dive into four of the highlights:

When an opportunity for impact presents itself, seize it.

HONY acted nimbly to capitalize on the heartfelt reactions of its supporters. Brandon quickly put the campaign together based on a story that he and others responded to. Sure, the pieces weren’t all in place at the outset and there were undoubtedly some undotted i’s and uncrossed t’s, but Brandon seized on a moment of resonance to ensure the campaign would have the greatest impact possible.

People connect through stories.

Think about it: HONY didn’t set out on the streets in search of a worthy cause to donate to. This incredible outcome snowballed from the simple, inspiring words of a young boy. As the campaign moved, HONY continued to reveal new facets of the Mott Hall Bridges Academy story by progressively posting interviews with other students, teachers, and administrators. Each additional story opened another avenue for supporters to personally connect to the campaign’s purpose. And best of all—Brandon shared the stories in the interviewees own words. What better way to make supporters really feel like they’re giving directly to a cause?

Clear outcomes inspire giving.

The fundraiser began with a plainly spelled out mission: raise $100,000 to fund three years of trips to Harvard for the incoming 6th grade class. Potential supporters didn’t have to wonder whether their funds would be used for academics or athletics or some other nebulous category. They could clearly visualize those students setting foot on the Harvard campus, and they knew their dollars were necessary to get the kids there. Each additional stretch goal fit this same mold: a tangible program with a clear associated cost.

Humans of New York

 

Supporters are motivated by success.

Brandon smartly chose to host the fundraiser on a crowdfunding platform so that donors could track the campaign and sense the immediate impact of their gift. As the campaign began to rapidly exceed its original goals, HONY worked with the school to build additional stretch goals to keep the momentum going. The palpable excitement of the campaign’s progress kept supporters coming back—many people donated two, three, or more times over the course of the campaign.

Vidal and Ellen HONY

 

Sure, we may not all have the incredible exposure and support that HONY had going into this campaign. But at its heart, much of HONY’s success was due to these fundamental aspects that are true of all successful fundraising efforts. If we keep these four key concepts in mind as we shape our campaigns, we can all improve our fundraising and achieve amazing impact. Just remember: seize the moment, let the stories of need and impact shine, spell out clear outcomes, and allow supporters to share in the success of your campaigns.

[All photos courtesy of Humans of New York]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Duff, Senior Marketing Associate at Blackbaud, is passionate about empowering social innovators to change the world. She manages editorial production and content marketing for the company’s thought leadership initiatives. Erin joined Blackbaud after serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA at an antipoverty nonprofit in Austin, TX. When she’s not wading through inspiring research and writing, she teaches an adult ESL class and brushes up on Titanic trivia.

Get nonprofit articles, best practice advice, fundraising ideas and invaluable industry reports and webinars delivered for free!