The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Going Viral: A Small Nonprofit Gets National Attention

Estella's Brilliant Bus

How does a small nonprofit go viral and capture attention on the national stage? I set out to learn the answer from a Network for Good customer that has achieved the biggest exposure opportunity any business, organization, or individual could hope for: a commercial spot during the Super Bowl.

Estella’s Brilliant Bus was featured in Microsoft’s Super Bowl ad this year. And the Super Bowl was just one appearance from the past 18 months: Estella has appeared on Dr. Oz and Oprah and was named a CNN Hero of the Year.

I talked with the organization’s founder and sole staff member, Estella Pyfrom, to understand the story behind the exposure. Going in, I thought I might find a replicable strategy around networking, PR, and elevator pitches, but after talking with Estella, I realized what I should have been expecting all along: It starts with mastering your nonprofit basics.

Find your special sauce.

Estella started with an idea, a bus, and her life savings. As she started researching how to make her organization operational, she found that she wasn’t the only one delivering technology or education to underserved communities—but her delivery mechanism was completely unique. Estella’s Brilliant Bus was the only self-sufficient mobile technology teaching facility in the world! It’s important for your staff, constituents, donors, and volunteers to understand what’s unique about what you do. To be noticed, your work must be noticeable.

Tell your story to others.

At first, Estella was suspicious of the media. Local and national networks approached her several times after people in her community starting talking about Estella’s Brilliant Bus, but she turned them away. It wasn’t until she turned to some resources at a local college that things changed. Estella’s contact at the college told a friend about Estella’s work, who told her husband, who happened to be a producer for CNN. The producer got in touch with Estella right away. With the promise that she could review the story before its broadcast, Estella agreed to some media exposure. After the CNN spot, Estella was booked for more media appearances, and the passion and excitement around Estella’s Brilliant Bus grew. Small nonprofits like Estella’s can be hesitant to relinquish control over something that feels so personal out of fear of judgment or providing misinformation. But when we arm our supporters with the right to tell the story, that’s when “viral” happens.

Be a business.

When I asked Estella about the keys to success, her immediate answer was that planning has made all the difference. The past two to three years have been about refining the model for delivering technology in a mobile facility to children in underprivileged areas. She knows where the bus will drive each day and how many kids they’ll serve, and she has backup engagements if a school or community has a last-minute cancellation. Delivering unique services with flawless execution has ensured that Estella’s Brilliant Bus maintains its positive reputation. The message is clear: Over-deliver your mission’s promise.

Continue to do good work.

Going Viral Quote

Estella never stops moving or gets caught up in her own success. When we discussed how she feels about all the attention, Estella quickly responded, “I haven’t had a chance to be nervous or realize how big this has become. I’m too focused on achieving the vision I have for this business.” Her actions are true to her words: When presented with the 5,000 Points of Light award, she refused to fly cross-country to accept the award and drove her bus instead. Along the way, she stopped in cities to provide services to children. To date, Estella has served more than 61,000 children. She has no plans to slow down until Estella’s Brilliant Bus is a movement that puts a bus in every major U.S. city, and then worldwide. It’s a good reminder that landing big media attention is not the goal—it’s a means to touch more people and expand your reach.

So, the next time your executive director asks you how to land that big media attention, reply:

  • We need to find what’s unique about our organization and let our work, communication, and story revolve around that concept. Let’s make sure everyone understands why we’re different.

  • After that, let’s encourage and empower everyone we know to tell our story far and wide.

  • Let’s focus on every part of our process to deliver programs. Are our programs easy to understand? Where are the risks? Let’s spend time making ourselves a well-organized and program-focused delivery machine. We owe it to our constituents and those telling our story to be the best we can be.

  • Finally, remember that big media attention isn’t the goal. It’s an opportunity to get more volunteers, donors, and supporters, and the by-product is awareness about our organization.

Build Stronger Relationships with Your Donors

Learn More

Share your thoughts!

Join the conversation to offer your insight and experience. Have a question? We’d love to hear it!

About This Blog

Linda Lombardi

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

Read More

Want to raise more money and learn how to market your cause with bigger impact? You’re in the right place! The Nonprofit Marketing Blog is managed by our team of experts here at Network for Good. We’re here to bring you the best in nonprofit marketing trends, fundraising techniques, technology developments, and amazing nonprofit examples.

Have a question or topic you’d like to see us cover? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Want to be a better nonprofit marketer and fundraiser? Get alerts for free tips, key content, and other training opportunities.

Subscribe