Every November, I do something fairly foolhardy. I sleep out on the streets, on a cardboard box in a hand-me-down sleeping bag. I’m hardly a glutton for punishment. My normal preference is 500 thread-count sheets, feather-free pillows for my allergies, and a king-sized plush mattress.
I do this one yearly act of discomfort to raise money to fund beds and holistic services for the silent epidemic of homeless youth in Atlanta and the organization that serves them, Covenant House Georgia. I call it a silent epidemic because a homeless teen – certainly the ones I’ve met – looks like any other teen. They may not be wearing the latest Jordans, but they have smartphones, backpacks, and the typical impish teen smile.
What sets these kids apart are years of abuse and neglect. The kids who end up at Covenant House have been shuffled from one foster care home to the next. Even if they stayed in their own home, chances are their parents had others things on their mind that interfered with parenting – addiction, extreme poverty, or mental illness. Some kids may have been born into seemingly loving families, but that love expired when they came out as gay or trans. Atlanta is a hub for these kids who stream in from Detroit, New Orleans, Houston, and the entire Southeast.
The yearly Executive Sleep Out, which takes place in cities across the country, follows a fundraising practice not dissimilar to a walk or a race. You set up a fundraising page and implore all your friends, family and co-workers to give – usually via email.
These efforts are successful to an extent, but in a day and age where the average American spends close to an hour each day on Facebook and Instagram, our Covenant House Georgia chapter decided to kick it up a notch. How’d we do it? Well, frankly, we came up with one relatively simple, good idea and built on that, year after year.
What follows are the three stages of that one good idea along with our results:
Three years ago, we held a brainstorm/ideation session with board members like Ben Deutsch of Coca-Cola and filmmaker David Lewis. Together with the staff, we hatched an idea that really resonated. What if we encouraged all participants in the sleep out to take pictures with the youth and they then shared those photos with their social media communities? Cardboard boxes figure prominently into our sleep out since they are our mattresses for the night, so we decided to include them in our concept. Each sleeper would hold a piece of cardboard that read, “1 Night,” next to a homeless teen who would write the total number of nights they had slept on the streets. It was humbling and emotional to see the kids write the total number of nights they slept outside. The least number was 54. The most? 1553. Our initial concept was simple: Take photos with the kids, share on social media.
Build on a Good Idea:
The first year, using the signs proved successful in building awareness of the Executive Sleep Out, but not so successful at raising funds. We had a few donations due to social shares the night of the event. The next year, we increased the number of executives who slept out from 51 to 82 and added a new element, which was thanking our donors. In addition to photos with the youth, we created cardboard signs that read, “Thank You,” and we took photos of as many of the sleepers as possible in their sleeping bags. We again encouraged shares on their social media channels and saw an even bigger response in interest in the sleep out. They now use our approach at all the Covenant House chapters across the country.
Take Your Idea to a New Level:
We knew we had success on our hands in recruiting because, by the third year of using the signs, we had increased the number of sleepers by nearly 20%. So many would-be sleepers reached out to various board members, having seen their social shares. We heard again and again, “I’d like to do that, too!” More sleepers mean more money for Covenant House, but we realized we needed to elevate the concept in a way that would earn more donation dollars, not just recruit sleepers. So this year, we planned photo shoots where we invited both sleepers and youth to take pictures, still contrasting the one night the sleepers spend outside to the many nights spent on the street by the teens with the cardboard signs. The kids at Covenant House loved the photo shoots and referred to themselves as supermodels. All in all, nearly 40 sleepers participated, and we encouraged them to share their photos with the kids on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
How’d we do? While we did not do exact tracking of how many donations came from Facebook, we saw well over 200 social shares on various platforms by executives with robust digital communities. We also increased the total number of sleepers to 113! The total number of dollars raised saw a whopping 50 % increase. At the end of the day, Covenant House Georgia raised over $730,000 dollars, far exceeding their $600,000 goal.
What did we learn? Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. We didn’t throw a bucket of ice over our head. We didn’t ask our sleepers to do canned social media shares. We didn’t try to set a Guinness World Record. All we did was build on a good idea and keep repeating it on social media.
We also committed to our one good idea year over year, not complicating it, but adding to its impactful simplicity. And we slept outside and were cold for a night, but with a net result of $750K raised to support homeless teens, it was well worth it.