Humans of New York: the pow­er of sto­ry­telling for social fundraising

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 crowd funding.

Written by
Laura Croudace
June 23, 2016
'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.'

I was always fascinated by entrepreneurs and how they managed to find funding for their latest invention; I often pondered on why social media wasn’t being used to get things off the ground. Then a game changer was born – online crowd funding. In the last few years we’ve seen a boom in crowd funding platforms: Kickstarter; IndieGoGo and many others have sprung up, seemingly over night.

As a fundraiser, I can’t help but be fascinated by storytelling. When I look at my life, I think that all the things I love most centre around storytelling: a great documentary on Netflix such as Capital C, the books I read and the social media and blogs I absorb such as Humans of New York, a photoblog by photographer Brandon Stanton, which tells the raw, honest, beautiful, painful stories of people Brandon meets on the streets of New York). 

Last year I auditioned for and won a speaker's place at SOFII's I Wish I'd Thought Of That (IWITOT) event with mentoring by Aline Reed. I chose Humans of New York (HoNY) as the idea I wish I'd thought of. Why speak about a photoblog I hear you ask? 

Well, early last year Brandon photographed a young boy called Vidal. After hearing about the difficult neighbourhood Vidal was growing up in and how his teacher, Ms Lopez, was counteracting the impact of the neighbourhood with amazing teaching, inspiring life lessons and a positive school environment, Brandon wanted to help. 

Ms Lopez explained to HONY, 'This is a neighborhood that doesn't necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, we set our expectations very high.'

Brandon decided to meet Ms Lopez and they set out to raise $100,000 via Brandon’s HoNY community on IndieGoGo. Why? They wanted to inspire the children of Vidal’s school and show them what hard work could do with the idea of sending kids to Harvard for one week’s summer camp each year, for three years. 

In less than one hour, Brandon had reached his target of $100,000. 

He reached his target so quickly simply because he has spent years building an online community who feel fully engaged with the stories he shares everyday. 

Brandon continued to fundraise over the next six days telling the stories of teachers, Vidal’s mother, support workers in the school, Vidal’s fellow pupils, former students and other parents. 

Featuring one story from many different angles and exposing the different facets that make up one person’s story is a powerful way to fundraise online via crowd funding.

The funds raised have established the Vidal Scholarship Fund for graduates of Mott Hall Bridges Academy. And the first recipient? Vidal!

I donated to this campaign for one reason – I knew how Vidal felt to be written off and, like the rest of the HoNY community who donated, I wanted to give him a chance. 

Seven days later Brandon had raised $1,418,334 on IndieGoGo - 1,418 per cent more than he set out to raise. 

When I shared my excitement with friends and colleagues, I was told it was a one-off and he wouldn’t be able to do it again. 

Eight months later whilst on holiday in Pakistan Brandon was photographing people and telling their stories on HoNY.

Fatima runs The Bonded Labour Liberation Front, an organisation which seeks to eradicate modern day slavery in South Asia. It is estimated that well over one million people in modern Pakistan are subject to bonded labour  -  the most widespread (yet least known) form of slavery in the world. The majority of these men, women, and children end up at brick kilns.

Whilst in Pakistan he met a woman called Fatima who had spent her entire life trying to end brick-kiln bonded labour. Brandon knew he had to help and decided to again raise $100,000. In less than one hour he’d reached his target. 

Brandon told the different parts of Fatima’s story through the many people connected to her: the children she had rescued from the kiln, the parents and former workers. 

Eight days later Brandon’s community had raised $2,344,491 to help Fatima. 

Brandon launched another fundraiser more recently, since I made my presentation, this time with a slight difference.

Stanton used his viral fundraising prowess to help paediatric cancer patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He generated interest for the cause through more than 50 Facebook posts, telling the stories of children who are battling or have beaten cancer and sending every dispatch to 17.6 million Facebook users and 5.3 million Instagram followers.

A few weeks ago Brandon primed his community before telling a single story. He told them that he hoped to raise $1,000,000 for a New York children’s cancer hospital and that he needed their help. He gave each donation level the name that nurses use to describe cancer to children. Gremlin Smashers, Goblin Thumpers and Ogre Crushers are the baddies that have to be removed and they add a fun and tangible element to the campaign.

Over the next two weeks Brandon went on to tell the stories of the doctors who’ve dedicated their lives to the hospital, the researchers, the parents, the nurses and the brave children who are fighting the disease. is Indiegogo’s dedicated home for all personal cause and charitable fundraising campaigns. It does not charge its parent site’s standard platform fees, so more of the funds raised through the campaign will go to the good cause.

Due to the powerful stories told from so many different angles Brandon and his community raised $3,854,886 in less than two weeks. 

As a fundraiser and someone who loves storytelling, crowd fundraising is my newest obsession, favourite tool and passion. In the last two years I’ve built my own communities online and started five crowd-fundraising campaigns outside my day job. I love watching people come together and put energy into something they are passionate about. 

Instead of ‘recruiting’ donors through various acquisition tools and trying to make them feel a part of your community – invest in building an online community that inspires and involves people (especially younger people) and then fundraise together. 

Please get in touch if you want to talk about crowd fundraising, I would love to hear from you. 

Laura won the audience vote for the best fundraising idea presented at IWITOT London 2015.

About the author: Laura Croudace

A donor since childhood, Laura Croudace has worked in fundraising at the Vegan Society, the PDSA and Remarkable Partnerships. She is fascinated by emotions, stories and everything in between such as colour theory and philanthropic psychology. She now works as Partnerships and Engagement Manager at The Resource Alliance.

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