Digital Storytelling, Crowdfunding, And Social Media: How HONY Raised $1,000,000 Online

If you don’t believe social media can be an effective channel for fundraising, this should convince you.

Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York (HONY), has been posting photos of New York City residents on his blog and social media since 2010. He’s developed a large, loyal following by sharing powerful images and stories that reflect his unique point of view on humanity. He’s succeeded in raising awareness about the Millenium Development Goals by sharing portraits and stories from 10 countries faced with poverty, war, and the effects of climate change. And when he put out a book in 2013, it had 30,000 pre-orders thanks in large part to the relationships he’s developed and promotion on his social channels.

Last week, HONY reached new heights with one story of a middle school student that sparked more than 1,000,000 likes on Facebook, 274,000 likes on Instagram, and 2,900 retweets.

But here’s the most impressive number. $1,100,000 (and counting).

That’s how much HONY has helped raise from more than 36,000 people for the Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which has the highest crime rate in New York City. The campaign, launched by Stanton in partnership with the school’s principal, aimed to send students on a tour of Harvard University so that they “know what it feels like to stand on the campus of one of the world’s top schools, and know that they belong.”

Within one hour, it beat the initial campaign goal of $100,000. Within 24 hours, the campaign reached over $350,000 and has now surpassed $1 million, a transformative sum that will vastly expand the breadth of opportunities the Academy can offer its scholars, including a new “Vidal Scholarship Fund” named after the star of the post that started it all.

What your nonprofit can learn from Humans of New York (HONY)

This recent HONY success had all the makings of a great, effective social fundraising campaign: a thriving, highly engaged social community; emotional and relatable stories; and powerful creative that brilliantly brings a ‘human’ face to the cause. Central to its success is HONY’s long-term investment in building and engaging a community with highly emotional content, which then enabled Stanton to activate people at a key moment.

You, too, can build credibility, trust, and emotional capital from your community with an approach that combines great content with timely asks. Here are a few key takeaways:

1. Use storytelling to connect with your audience

HONY’s entire campaign is centered around the stories of those individuals who will be affected by the funds raised. From the first stories about Vidal and his inspiring principal, Ms. Lopez, to those about the teachers from the school, the stories are an intricate part—if not the driver of—the entire campaign’s success. These stories are 100% authentic, and so was the fundraising ask.

With 20+ posts on Facebook in less than a week, and countless tweets and Instagrams, all of the posts incorporate these stories as well as the progress of the campaign. These stories connect HONY’s audience with the individuals that are receiving the direct impact of the donations they’re making and are consistent with what Stanton has been sharing for years.


This is something to keep in mind when your organization has stories to share of beneficiaries, staff, or volunteers. Keep in mind that HONY’s stories are impactful, emotional, short, visual, and engaging. And as you can see, it’s not a fancy video or elaborate share graphic; it’s a clear, simple photo with a real, effective story to bring it to life.

Every organization has these stories at their disposal, so make sure not to keep yours hidden away! Think about a compelling campaign theme or storyline, source the stories from your organization, and then create a content plan for generating and publishing them online on a consistent basis. This can drive early-stage supporters to become involved with your organization months before they’re ready to give.

2. Fundraising on social? Who says it’s not effective?

Stanton used every social channel to promote the campaign. While social media is a channel for distributing stories, campaign updates, and your own organization’s successes, it can also be an important tool for acquiring donors. Now, not every organization has 11 million Facebook followers, but you have to leverage your existing community to reach their extended communities. Those shared and liked posts will appear in the feeds of friends of your supporters, expanding the reach of your content and your potential donor pool.

Here are a few more factors contributing to the success of HONY’s social media fundraising campaign:

  • The campaign has a defined, short timeline, creating urgency to give. The campaign launched on January 22nd and has an end date of February 5th. That’s just 15 days to fundraise, which may sound short, but it’s a great tactic to avoid donor fatigue and overkill from sharing stories related to the campaign.
  • Not every single post has a donation ask. But each post has a story tied to it or a campaign update of how much has been raised thus far. While making the ask several times through the campaign is important, don’t always make it about the donation.
  • The donation ask is simple. “If you’d like to contribute, you can do so here: “http://bit.ly/1JmIB8u” is at the bottom of a handful of the posts, linking to a simple campaign page that allows for easy giving. After donors complete the donation, they can share that they gave, showing proof of their support and amplifying their impact.
  • Every single post has a photo. Staying consistent with HONY’s style of storytelling, as well as knowing that posts with photos get shared and liked more than those without, Brandon has shared beautiful, emotional images with each story. It’s also effective across all social platforms, including Twitter and Instagram.
  • The goal and progress is shared by all. Because Stanton set clear goals, his community knew what they were collectively working toward and literally saw their $10 or $25 adding up to something big. Creating a community is one thing. Making them feel part of the impact and progress of the campaign is another.

3. Balance asks with stories of impact

While Stanton incorporated multiple asks into the campaign’s social posts, there were just as many campaign updates. It’s important to make it easy for your community to take the action you’re intending them to take (in this case, donate), but you also want to keep them informed of your progress, as well as show or share the impact of their support.

There was an assembly on Monday where Ms. Lopez explained the fundraiser to the entire student body. Most of the students had already heard bits and pieces about what’s been going on, but Ms. Lopez projected the blog onto a screen and walked through the entire story. She began with Vidal’s original post and ended with the final tally raised thus far. ($707,000 at the time. $875,000 now!) • • • “The scholars of MHBA are inspiring the entire world,” Ms. Lopez said. “People have written me letters from New Zealand, England, and South Africa, telling me that they care about you.” An especially great part of the assembly was when Ms. Lopez scrolled through the posts featuring teachers, and the students let out a giant cheer when each teacher’s name was announced: “Even Ms. Powell told her story!” (Cheers) “And Ms. Stangl!” (Cheers) “And Mr. Turner!” (Cheers) Vidal also got a huge cheer when his story was shown. But the biggest cheer of all was reserved for the end, when Ms. Lopez announced: “As a result of this fundraiser, the entire school will be going to visit Harvard. We’re all going to Harvard!” The kids went nuts. ————————————————-So far our campaign has provided the funds for ten years of Harvard trips and ten years of summer programs for Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school in the under-served neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn. All funds raised over $700,000 are being used to establish a scholarship fund available to graduates of MHBA. The scholarship fund is named The Vidal Fund, after the young man who inspired the entire story. If you’d like to contribute, please check out the Indiegogo link in bio section.

Een foto die is geplaatst door Humans of New York (@humansofny) op

This campaign highlights why organizations should not be shy to make the “Donate” ask on social media. But make sure that’s not all you’re saying on your posts. Find a balance that works for your campaign and timeline, but make sure to make it a priority. If this is a challenge for your organization, this may be an opportunity to think about how you can better track and test your fundraising efforts, playing with frequency, channel, and mixture of asks.

4. Motivate your community around a specific ask

The beauty of this campaign is that it’s focused on a tangible outcome. This makes storytelling and showing the impact of the fundraising efforts much more effective.

If your organization wants to experiment with a similar social fundraising campaign, think about a specific part of a program that you can center your stories and images around, rather than making general asks.

If you’re feeling ambitious, your organization can develop an entire fundraising campaign—as Stanton has done—out of a particularly successful social post. You know you’re starting with something that resonated!

Leveraging the emotional content your organization has at its disposal, and sharing it consistently and appropriately, will connect your community to your purpose, even when you’re not fundraising. While this campaign is unique, any organization can learn from the amazing success of storytelling. Apply any (or all) of these learnings to your next social fundraising campaign, and you’re bound to expand, connect with, and mobilize your community.

Image has been taken from the Humans Of New York website.