Progress without Profit: Humans of New York: A success story

In 2016, Instagram’s hold on me was irrevocably damaged when it removed its chronological timeline. Instead of the usual orderly assortment, a post from seconds ago would sit above a post three days old. Although a seemingly small, insignificant change, I hated it. This kickstarted my declining desire to be on the app.

However, despite my issues with Instagram, one account stopped me from deleting it completely: Humans of New York. 

According to founder Brandon Stanton, “Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants.” This morphed into a blog and social media presence that coupled photographs of the person with an interview. People are quoted talking about a variety of themes in their lives, such as loss, addiction, love, family and aspirations. Each person and each story is unique and utterly riveting.

I’ve found that Humans of New York’s evolution as a vehicle for fundraising offers a fascinating case study for nonprofits. Analyzing Humans of New York’s success can help nonprofits learn how to secure funds. 

Humans of New York began to pair philanthropy with stories in 2012, after the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy. Through documenting residents and volunteers impacted by the Hurricane, Stanton raised over $300,000 for hurricane relief. Since then, Humans of New York has raised money in even greater amounts for a variety of causes, including for Rohingya refugees, childhood cancer and education. 

In 2019, Humans of New York profiled a woman named Stephanie Johnson, who told stories of her time as a burlesque dancer, known as Tanqueray, in New York during the 1960s and ’70s. At the time, Johnson had an outpouring of support and love for her story. A year later, Stanton returned to her story with a new 32-part series in an effort to raise money for medical expenses brought on by her failing health. He started a GoFundMe campaign, which raised $2.5 million in a week. The astonishing pace of funding is not an isolated incident; Stanton often creates GoFundMe accounts for people he profiles or partners with nonprofits to raise funds, regularly raising millions of dollars.

The account can attribute part of its success to its active and engaged community. A scroll through Instagram shows the account has 11.6 million followers, with posts consistently receiving hundreds of thousands of likes and thousands of comments. I’ve found stories so compelling I’ve posted them to my Instagram story, sharing them with others. 

But how does Humans of New York attract and maintain such an engaged community? Aside from vibrant and meaningful stories, the account also benefits from its personable presence on social media, the regularity of its posts and speaking engagements. 

Social media often feels impersonal to me; at best, it can be a place to connect with others, but at worst, an impetus for feelings of inadequacy, FOMO and divisiveness. Humans of New York represents the good parts of social media, reminding us of the humanness of those around us and compelling us to act. Similarly, nonprofits can try to incorporate feelings of interconnectedness and remind us of the good of humanity as part of their funding campaigns. 

Pairing any asks for donations with powerful stories moves and motivates people. Additionally, Humans of New York does not ask for donations for every story, which prevents donation fatigue. While nonprofits rely on a regular stream of donations and cannot replicate this strategy exactly, they should understand the effectiveness of a story-driven campaign, rather than simply continually asking for money. 

When stories revolve around difficult experiences, nonprofits must provide a platform for the person to tell their story without a sense of voyeurism or exploitation of the pain or suffering they’ve experienced. This can be a fine line to walk, but allowing a person to tell their story in their own words avoids these pitfalls. 

One fault of Humans of New York is that while it tells incredible stories, it often only raises money for individual people and doesn’t address structural issues. While donations from the Humans of New York community change people’s lives individually, they do not fix underlying issues that put the specific individuals in their situation in the first place. Thus, by utilizing Humans of New York’s techniques, nonprofits can change things in a way Humans of New York does not and cultivate change at both an individual and structural level. 

Counter to its supposed purpose, spending hours on social media usually makes me feel more alone. Humans of New York, on the other hand, lessens my feelings of isolation by giving a face and story to the usual anonymity of billions of people walking the streets. I’ve laughed and cried while browsing the account, sometimes even feeling inspired to donate. Stories are a powerful tool for connection and action. By strengthening the connection between people across the world, nonprofits can increase fundraising success and drive social change. 

Sophie Roppe is a senior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice in her column, “Progress Without Profit.”