5 lessons in marketing from Charity:Water

Lessons in marketing

There’s been a lot of publicity about Charity:Water - both good and bad, but there’s no denying the fact they’re leading the way in nonprofit digital communications.

The New-York based organisation were one of the first nonprofits to post a video on Instagram, they are the sixth most followed nonprofit on Twitter in the world, and they are always at the forefront of online marketing.

Their digital savvy is paying off. Online engagement keeps on increasing, and 70% of their contributions come from online donations and online fundraisers.

While there are many critiques of Charity:Water’s model and of the implementation of the projects they fund, their quick-found success in fundraising from individual donors is almost unprecedented. In 2012 alone the charity raised $33 million for water projects.

There are five lessons we can learn from Charity:Water that raise questions for those working in charity website design:

1) Creating a community gets results

Charity:Water make it cool to give. They make water sexy (even Nicholas Kristof thinks so) and supporting them an aspirational act akin to buying a new pair of designer trainers. At the heart of this is the founder’s belief that people want to give - they just need to be presented with the chance in a compelling way and valued and rewarded for their efforts.

People giving to Charity:Water aren’t just giving money - they are joining a movement, a club full of celebrities and non-celebrities giving up their birthdays, growing beards, and holding parties.

I dare you to watch this video and not want to join Lory and the beautiful successful people featured in it by donating your birthday too.

This is advertising at its finest.

Their birthday campaign doesn’t just create one-time givers, but fundraisers. Those who sign up ask friends and family to donate in lieu of presents, raising an average of $770 per birthday (and $9 million in total).

Social media plays an integral role in creating this community of givers.

‘“We really maintain a platform on about ten social media platforms.  We’re sort of everywhere we need to be, because it’s as simple as a sign-up.”

While we all know its not as simple as a sign-up (unless you have millions of dollars behind you funding the monitoring required) - Charity:Water’s emphasis on social media platforms and responsiveness to emerging platforms sees results.

They were the first charity to have 1 million followers on Twitter and now have nearly 1.4 million followers. They have 248,000 likes on their Facebook page (vast compared to WaterAid in the US which has 28,000 likes). Charity:Water were also one of the first three brands on Instagram and have over 80,000 followers. 70% of their contributions come from online donations and online fundraisers.

This ‘community focus’ extends to their website with a wall of those who have donated their birthdays, linking to tweets in which they’ve mentioned Charity:Water.

Charity Water's wall of supporters

Charity:Water make it cool to give by creating an appealing community to join, and then give multiple ‘access points’ for people to engage with what they’re doing. With big results.

In what ways do your donors feel they are buying into a community? How many ways are there for potential donors to engage with your work? Do you publicly celebrate your donors and fundraisers?

2) Design matters

The second member of Charity:Water’s team was a designer - so its safe to say they recognise the value of design. A glance at their website with beautiful infographics, illustrations, and clean, well implemented branding will confirm this.

“I didn’t know you could fix the world with design until I met Scott, who taught me that charity doesn’t have to be boring and, in fact, it would greatly benefit and distinguish us if we weren’t boring.” says Viktoria Harrison - Scott’s wife and Charity Water’s Creative Director

(Let’s ignore the fact she’s calling all other charities boring - the point is that Charity:Water genuinely place design at the core of what they do.)

Viktoria works with a team of three front-end developers, two graphic designers, a UI designer and a host of volunteers - creating beautiful websites and resources, many of which are available to download. From posters, to photos, and Twitter and Facebook banners, they are spearheading a trend of providing well-designed resources that people want to share, simultaneously promoting the charity and their goals.

From commissioning posters by successful designers featured on design blogs, to illustrating beautiful infographics, design is at the heart of what Charity:Water do:

Charity Water commissioned poster

While the message itself of this poster is important, its the beautiful design and typography that would make you consider paying money for it and putting it on your wall.

Does your charity offer any well-designed, free resources promoting your messages? Could you use any images your beneficiaries have produced?

3) Story is key

Not only do Charity:Water have a story section on their website brimming with clearly articulated and well-written stories with key messages (like this one - clean water made Helen feel beautiful) but stories are integrated into everything they do. Their stories are about fundraisers, beneficiaries, the founder, and the organisation, as well as a variety of other things. 

“I truly believe that people are looking for stories that really mean something—stories that are redemptive, inspiring, and bigger than an individual.”

With the emergence of transmedia and new technologies, its easy to forget the importance of story - but psychologists emphasise that storytelling ‘leapfrogs the technology and brings us right to the core of the experience.

See Crispin’s post on how telling your charity’s story can strengthen engagement with your website for tips on how to apply this.

“This year, 36 people in Rwanda will get clean water because a boy named Lory turned six in New York.”, say Charity:Water.

Can you create a compelling story from your organisation in 20 words?

4) Video has impact

Charity:Water make hundreds of videos (to date 233, to be precise.) Valentine’s Day messages for their supporters, features of communities they’ve helped provide water for, birthdays given up, and celebrities talking about their work have all featured.

The most talked-about of these is perhaps‘Rachel Beckwith’s Mom Vists Ethiopia’ video, which even made it into Vimeo’s Staff Picks, and has had over half a million views.

(This interview with the videographer explains the story behind it, and some of the reasons behind its success)

Every September the charity launch a new campaign video, which everyone at the company - from accountants to web developers - is charged with sharing with their personal networks. This strategy results in thousands of views on the launch day.

While Charity:Water invests money into video production, there are cheap and easy ways for smaller charities to jump on the band wagon and enlist this engaging tool. Check out our recent post on Vine and why its great for charities.

It’s important to remember that every charity starts somewhere and the important thing is concept rather than slick production - compare this Valentine’s day film Charity:Water made in 2010, with their film from this year.

How can your charity incorporate video into what you're doing? What stories are best told by video?


Video, story, innovation, design & community-building - 5 marketing lessons from @charitywater

5) Innovation is crucial

All of these strengths raises questions about Charity:Water’s overall spend on communications and marketing, compared to their spend on water. So how do they justify this?

Simple. They have two separate bank accounts.

You will notice that most charities have to go out of their way to report on what percentage of donations goes directly to the beneficiaries -  meaning that everything else (staff wages, rent, equipment, and yes, you guessed it, communications & marketing) is squeezed to the max.

Not so for charity:water, who last year had $11 million to fund operating costs, with no donor constraints or need to tie their spend directly to those benefitting in other countries. In that same year they raised $22 million which went directly to water projects.

This means they can say things such as ‘Every penny you raise goes to providing water’ with a clean conscience, while other charities are squeezing their communications departments in order to have figures of around 75%.

While its refreshing to be confronted with a charity who seem to have a limitless supply of cash to throw at their marketing and communications, earning them titles such as ‘one of the coolest charities on the planet’, some argue that its not really a fair playing field for other charities trying to raise money for the same issues from the same group of people, but without millionaire supporters behind them.

But then, perhaps we should stop competing with each other for the same market share, and start looking for other solutions?

New markets of givers are emerging, and Charity:Water’s innovative approach is targeting a new social-media savvy MTV obsessed demographic and people who may not otherwise have ever considered giving to charity.

It’s time to go back to the drawing board to think of new ways of raising funds for good causes, and equalling out the wealth and opportunity disparity that we seem to have got ourselves in.

Charity Water Facebook Download

Despite the criticisms levelled at charity water, they are turning leftover wealth into water for some of the world’s poorest communities, and they’re challenging charity marketing norms in the process.

Their success shows us the importance of creating communities, focusing on design, utilising video, emphasising story, and innovating. 

Which of these are areas of strength or weakness in your organisation? What marketing strategies do you use? We'd love to hear your thoughts by commenting below.

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29 October 2013
Mary Mitchell