Take Your Horse to the Old Town Road:
What the Evolution of the #1 Song in the World Can Teach You about Management and Fundraising

If you have a teen or preteen in your life, or you listen to pop radio, or you live on planet Earth, you probably have heard the song Old Town Road by Lil Nas X, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. This. Song. Is. Everywhere. And not just everywhere in North America. People around the world are listening, dancing, creating online memes, and more. It’s a phenomenon. As of this writing, Old Town Road is enjoying its 11th consecutive week at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The New York Times recently created a brief (around 6 minute) video chronicling the rise of this song, which seemingly came out of nowhere, from a recording artist nobody anyone had ever heard of. Even if you don’t know or like this earworm of a song, learning how the song came to be, became a viral sensation, and bounced back from what could have been the end of its run is a fascinating story.

What on earth does all of this have to do with management and fundraising?

There are some key elements to this song’s unprecedented, global success, as described in the New York Times video:

  • While it seems like Lil Nas X came out of nowhere, he was working on his music full time, consistently publishing songs online. Consistency is key.
  • Lil Nas X also was familiar with all of the online platforms where people listen to music, search for music, and create memes. At one point, he did his own search on Reddit for one of Old Town Road’s lyrics, knowing it would help others find the song. He leveraged online platforms, and he knew how his audience uses those platforms. 
  • He didn’t create this song in a fancy recording studio. He recorded it in his bedroom closet. He didn’t wait for ideal conditions to create something great – he prioritized just doing the work, and doing it well.
  • His song started to go viral when it caught the attention of online influencers. Some of that was pure luck, but if he hadn’t been creating content consistently, and if he hadn’t been active on online platforms, the song wouldn’t have grown in the way that it did.
  • The song appeared on the Billboard Country chart, and then it was removed from that chart for not being “country enough.” Many people would have just thrown in the towel. Not Lil Nas X. His fans kept clamoring for the song and creating online memes, and he asked his fans to encourage country music star Billy Ray Cyrus to record a version of the song with him. It worked! After Billy Ray Cyrus recorded a new version, the song became an even bigger sensation and landed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, with a much bigger audience than the Billboard County Chart draws. After hitting a huge bump in the road, he didn’t give up. He pivoted, and the payoff was HUGE.

Consistency is key, and pivoting can yield huge results. 

In fundraising, consistency is key. Keep cultivating your potential donors and engaging your current donors. Get to know the online platforms that your ideal audience and potential donors use, and/or the places where your ideal donors gather, work, live, and play. Luck helps, but without consistent effort, luck won’t get you where you need to go. In fundraising, and in nonprofit management in general, don’t give up. Think about how you can pivot. The payoff might be bigger than you ever expected.

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