What You Can Learn About Crowdfunding From Humans of New York (HONY)

Tricia Mirchandani
Tricia Mirchandani

humans of new york image

Over a million people liked his photo on Facebook, taken as he stood on a street in Brooklyn with his lips pursed together but a smile in his eyes. He praised the principal of his school as the most influential person in his life. He wasn’t looking to raise money. He answered a few questions, allowed the man to take his photo, and went on his way.

Three days later, Vidal became the face of Humans of New York’s (HONY) most recent crowdfunding campaign. The campaign met its original goal of $100,000 within an hour and went on to raise more than $1 million.

This is not the first time that Humans of New York has run a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign. Founder Brandon Stanton has rallied people together to help a videographer adopt a boy from Ethiopia.

He sent another little boy with a love of horses to a dude ranch. And he turned a controversy with DKNY into a fundraising opportunity for the YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

Humans of New York has been a stunning example of community engagement through social media and a demonstration of the power of storytelling since its launch in 2010. And now, it is also a model for crowdfunding.

A number of factors have led to the success of each of HONY’s campaigns—a thriving social media presence, regular media coverage, and a variety of speaking engagement to name a few—factors that not all nonprofits or fundraisers enjoy.

Still, we can learn from Stanton’s approach and his ability to move his audience from engaged to giving with little more than a photo and a quote.

Humans of New York tells us a story (with pictures)

HONY’s online presence is, essentially, a stream of bite-sized stories with well-shot photos. Stanton gives us a face and a quick, engaging story born of a quick interview conducted on the streets of New York.

And we, curious about humans and hungry for the elements that connect us, can’t look away. As a nonprofit, you may feel that you are very different from a photographer who stops strangers on the street. But you, too, create uniquely human moments that can inspire and engage. Your work aims to help people or change the world for those around you. Your work has an impact. Bring those stories forward.

Humans of New York balances his asks with stories

Stanton does not set out with his camera every day with the goal of raising funds or supporting a cause. His business undoubtedly varies greatly from yours and he can more easily achieve a balance—mixing asks for support into his posts in a way that never seems excessive.


But as you think about your story alongside your editorial calendar and communication schedules, see if you can achieve a better balance. You may not be able to decrease the number of asks but you can increase the number of stories and narratives you weave in between. It may require some additional upfront work to prepare the stories to be filtered into your feed but the engagement generated by your narrative will be worth it.

HONY seizes (and is perpetually ready for) opportunity

Not long after Vidal’s photo appeared on Humans of New York, the post had more than a million Likes on Facebook. So Stanton dove in, meeting with the principal Vidal mentioned in their quick interview and creating his campaign to send the kids of Mott Hall Bridges Academy to visit Harvard.

Stanton stays plugged into his community and he pays attention to what engages them. And when he finds the thing that hits, he pushes it forward. If you can keep the pulse of your donors and pay attention to what grabs their attention, you have a far better chance of converting their interest and passion into dollars.

You already know that storytelling is key to connecting with your donors and you’ve dug into how to do it brilliantly. Now you have some inspiration and an example to study. So keep at it. Work at refining your story and experimenting with the many ways to tell it until you uncover the methods, tone, and style that connect with your donors, engages them and inspires them to give.

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