I have been following CharityWater for years. As a content strategist (and former television producer), I am fascinated by the way in which the organization uses storytelling and specifically high quality videos to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. And raising donations today is no easy task, especially in this day and age. Who hasn’t seen the guilt driven commercials of starving children in Africa or abused dogs and cats in cages, with pleas to help?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell a piece of software or raising money for your non-profit; the goal is the same — to create authentic long-lasting relationships with donors, so that they will continue to open your emails, read your blogs, visit your website and donate to your cause.

The question is whether a banner ad, reading a blog or the simple request of asking people to give money is sufficient to build the foundation for that relationship. Is the act of pulling out a credit card sufficient to bring them back again or to share their experience on Facebook or Twitter?

CharityWater doesn’t think so. They have raised over $150 million dollars over the course of the last 5 years by focusing on creating memorable experiences for their fundraisers, which in turn develops long-lasting relationships with its donors. It understands that every time donors have a positive experience creating a fundraiser or competing in a marathon for their charity, they will share this experience (and content) with their friends and family, which in turn reignites the fundraising cycle.

CharityWater doesn’t believe in traditional marketing. In fact, they don’t spend any money on radio, TV, print or direct mail. They believe in the power of content, specifically, that when people are inspired by content (videos), they will share it. They believe shareable content is much more powerful than a piece of direct mail ever will be and has a higher return on investment.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.44.38 AMPaull Young, who ran its content marketing initiatives for years before leaving to manage strategic partnerships for Instagram, deserves the credit for much of the genius behind CharityWater’s fundraising success. He and CharityWater have in essence reinvented the way a non-profit engages the public; first inspiring people to join its cause through narrative videos, and then distributing these shareable videos through social media. Once people see these powerful stories, they embrace them and make them “their stories”, taking them to the world through their own fundraising efforts. Paull describes the strategy as a three-pronged approach: Inspire-Activate-Experience

Step One: Inspire

CharityWater inspires people through content (videos) which it uses to create an emotional connection to its brand. The videos are then promoted via their social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Youtube and Twitter which drive people back to CharityWater’s website.

Step Two: Activate

Once a prospective participant arrives at CharityWater.org, an online platform embraces the user, which gives them the tools and resources to get involved in multiple ways.

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For example, Jaimee just ran in the Boston marathon and donated the money from her run to CharityWater, using the tools on their website. She has already raised over $3,000 dollars for the organization. She has a page on the website where you can see everyone who has donated, and has also posted her fundraising campaign on her own Facebook page. Jaimee is emotionally connected to raising money for the water crisis, and has become a brand ambassador for CharityWater. As each fundraiser shares their campaign with their respective personal networks, via word of mouth and online, the branding multiplies.

Step Three: Experience

Next CharityWater documents each fundraiser’s experience so that they can see exactly where their money was spent. They call it “social proof”. This ensures that each donor feels aligned with those they are helping. Every person who donates gets a report (with exact GPS coordinates) on the water wells they funded. They see pictures of the wells and of the people they helped.

“People are good, but people are busy. You’ve got to cut through. Inspired people when they’re given a platform will do amazing things”. — Paull Young, then CharityWater Director of Digital Strategy

Based on my evaluation of CharityWater’s fundraising strategy, here are the 8 key components that are critical to its success:

1. Create Compelling Story Driven Content

Use video, images and text to tell inspirational stories to bring your cause to life. CharityWater does a stellar job of producing beautiful films, weaving together gorgeous imagery and detail, and drawing the viewer in. It then combines this powerful story-telling with data to drive its point home. Avoid tearjerker videos designed to manipulate the watcher to simply open a wallet. Remember, the goal is to build relationships with your donors, not to get one-time donations. If you need help producing high quality videos, there are many companies who can help. Vizolution is a firm that can not only produce your content, but can assist outlining a digital strategy to ensure it’s success.

                                                                         CharityWater 2010 Campaign: Clean Water for the Bayaka

2. Acquire Fundraisers Not Donations

Focus on collecting fundraisers, not donations, which means your calls-to-action (CTAs) should be “Create a Fundraiser” or “Get Involved” vs. “Donate”. Aspire to create donors who are advocates and so connected to the impact of their fundraising campaigns, that they want to share them with their friends and family. They want to videotape their fundraisers and take pictures and share them on their social media platforms.

Every person is in essence running his or her own content marketing campaign. As an example, on average, every fundraising campaign that CharityWater brings in, nets 13 new donors.

3. Create an Experience for Your Donors

Focus on creating experiences for your donors throughout the course of your relationship so that they feel a personal connection to your brand. In addition to fundraising, they can send an eCard, donate their voice (where your cause sends out tweets in their feeds), create a Team that represents your non-profit and competes in running, biking or other competitions to raise money. Ideally, they can create web pages on your site so that others can see how much money they have raised, how many lives they have touched, how they’ve competed etc.

Make them a hero (see below). This gives people an intimate connection to their efforts. “Social proof” is particularly powerful when celebrities are setting the example. Create a birthday section of your website so that people can donate their birthdays (asking for donations instead of presents) and see who else has a birthday on the same day as you (especially celebrities). Inspire them and create a journey for your donors. The more positive the experience, the more involved they will be and emotionally connected they will feel to your brand and the cause.

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4. Close the Loop

Employ numbers throughout your website so that people feel like they are aligned with thousands of others in helping your cause.

“We’re solving the water crisis together with 59,643 fundraisers just like you. Join us and fundraise for clean water”

Show your donors where every dollar goes — close the loop and show your donor how their fundraising money was used. Send them a report, a video, or a slideshare — whatever is needed, so that they feel a part of the process and appreciated.

5. Make the Fundraiser the Hero

Make your fundraisers look great. Give them an amazing experience that they can brag about to their friends and family, who may soon become new fundraisers as well. The same principle applies to competition pages. If someone has created “Team Cindy” and is running in a marathon and raising money for your cause, we want the donors to see the pictures and donations as they come in.

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6. Let Your Creative Talent Utilize Their Expertise

The Internet is exploding with content. If you want to produce high quality videos, hire a creative team and give them the space and the time needed to do their jobs. You don’t need a large team — just a couple of people, with some decent equipment and you’ll be good to go. Your content should be your highest priority and your energy and passion should drive this goal.

7. Focus on Great (but simple) Design — Create an “epic brand”

People don’t often appreciate the value of beautiful simple design. If you are going to pursue a content strategy or unique brand, design is of the utmost importance. Establish clear brand guidelines for your company, a tone of voice and personality, so that you maintain consistency for all content produced. One of the best early hires you can make is a seasoned skilled graphic designer or design firm. Scott Harrison, founder of CharityWater, quotes Nick Christoph, “toothpaste is peddled with more sophistication than all of the world’s life saving causes”. Scott thought CharityWater could change that and focused much of his efforts on creating an “epic brand” with outstanding design elements.

8. Identify an Evangelist for Your Brand

People relate to people. Choose one person to become the “face of your brand”. Ideally, if you can find a celebrity willing to not only lend his or her name, but get involved, all the better. Matt Damon was one of the co-founders of CharityWater in 2009. Once you have identified your brand evangelist, you can then create content using this name and the brand, sharing it on social networks, via the press etc. No celebrity? No problem. Just choose someone who has a good personal story to share and can be intimately involved in the cause and the work. Now, produce videos, blogs and images with this person, to tell the story and share, book speaking events and promote.

How can you apply this to your organization?

As always, the first step is deciding you want to pursue a new fundraising strategy, or at least agree that you want to build upon your existing donor relationships using storytelling and experiential strategies. From there, working with a digital content firm like Vizolution can help outline a strategy to get you started. Begin with a couple of inspirational videos to nurture your existing donor relationships and interest a new audience in your cause. Many think resources are an issue, but more often than not, the resources exist, but just need re-allocation. Begin with one campaign and work from there.

The world is in desperate need of more organizations with the strategic vision of CharityWater and people like Paull Young and Scott Harrison. Let’s learn from them. They have paved the way.  If you have enjoyed this article, please share it with others, so that they can learn from it as well. Thanks!

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