Love charity:water? You’re Not Alone

/, You're Not Alone/Love charity:water? You’re Not Alone

“There were no really imaginative, fun, epic charities that I knew of. I thought we could actually build a brand and go after the Nikes and Apples of the world.”

Imaginative. Fun. Epic. Hmmm, when’s the last time you used those words to describe your nonprofit, or anybody else’s? They are charity:water founder Scott Harrison’s words (as quoted in the New York Time). Scott wanted to build a different nonprofit, he started by building a brand.

Charity:water is the story of a young nightclub promoter creating a nonprofit to solve the world’s problems caused by lack of fresh water. Inexperience didn’t hold him back. He’s on a mission and has already attracted $100 million. In 7 years!

Regardless of your size or your mission, there’s a lot to be learned by listening to Scott’s story. And he is happy to tell it. His story is the basis for the growth and fundraising of the organization. Let’s take a closer look at the choices Scott made that led to his success and some suggestions for following in his footsteps.

Formulating the Brand
Scott had a few clear goals in mind when he created charity:water.  Looking at existing organizations he wondered whether nonprofits had “bad taste or just a poverty mentality!”  I think nonprofits, always budget conscious, make the mistake of thinking that branding doesn’t matter to donors.  Or that it is a misuse of money.  Charity:water may be proof that the opposite is true.  

Here’s my take on Scott’s plan to provide clear water to the world.  Each goal contributed to the quick rise to the top:

He wanted to change his life and do something big.He used the skills and connections of a nightclub promoter to become a nonprofit founder.
He identified a need that could be filled.Millions were suffering, sick and dying because they did not have access to clean water.
He wanted to create a charity for people  who didn’t trust charities.He created the 100% Model – every dollar donated goes to water projects.  “We create an experience, a pure way to give.”
He knew the importance of brand and     how lacking it was in the nonprofit world.A second pot of money, from wealthy individuals, supports administration and fundraising – and invests in brand.
He believed that telling his story was important to the success of his mission.He relentlessly tells his story, changing the way people think about charity and about giving.

Your Story is Your Brand
The more I look at charity:water, the more I see the potential for other nonprofits to follow Scott’s lead to develop an epic brand. It often takes an outsider, with a different perspective, to shake things up a bit. There are ideas and lessons here for new organizations and also for older, established ones. So, before you say that’s not the way we do things, consider these 4 lessons from charity:water that you can use for your own success:

1. Scott is the builder of the brand.  He built it by telling his story.  Over and over again he tells the same story whenever he has an audience; starting with his mother getting sick when he was 4 years old and ending with the founding of charity:water. 

What that means for you:  You have a story to tell!  Look at your personal experiences and what called you to do the work you are doing.  This is the basis for your personal story.  You may be self-conscious about talking about yourself but it is your greatest strength, and people do want to hear it! 

2. Take a fresh look at the charity:water site; it’s a selection of stories.  The big bold call to action on the home page isn’t DONATE, it’s: SEE THE STORY.  Why?  Because Scott figured out that you don’t have to ask for money.  You tell a good story and people want to do something about it, so they donate.

What that means for you:  It’s not just the website; Scott looks for opportunities to tell his story and, as a result, he attracts interest, concern and donations.  Where can you tell your story?  Create opportunities and continually invite people to hear your story.  (charity:water flew donors to Ethiopia on a private jet, you may want to consider more conservative options).


box arrow

3.At first glance charity:water looks like the ideal model for fast growth based on small, online donations.  And it is, but there’s another side of the success.  Charity:water is also  the story of a bold leader and the billionaires following him as he digs wells around the world.

Charity:water makes it fun and easy to make an online contribution.  The suggestion to pledge your birthday or start a campaign appeals to donors, from children to movie stars.  When a 15 year old raises $5000 she can see on her own page,, where her money is being used and how many people are getting clean water because of her gift.  She will also see a picture of a sign with her name on it!  Do you think she might do it again?

The million dollar gifts go in a different pot.  Those who make a 3 year pledge of $24,000 or more are often young tech entrepreneurs who want to be in on the next big thing.  They don’t mind funding administration, salaries and marketing, they know how important they are.  They also have the opportunity to fund projects and may travel to a work site where they’ll find a water pump named for them.

What that means for you:  You can explore creative new ways to make giving easy, creative and rewarding (or, in Scott’s words Imaginative, Fun and Epic).  Simplifying the message is a great start.  Then look at who you want to attract and what that demographic might respond to.  Finally, be sure every donor knows how important they are and what their contribution has done.  Share pictures and success stories to keep donors engaged and feeling good about the work.

4. One of the first employees hired at charity:water was a designer, another example of a different approach to running a nonprofit!  Viktoria Harrison (she became Scott’s wife) was hired to create the brand that would become synonymous with clean water.  Most nonprofits start with program and development staff – marketing and design come much later.  Scott turned that around.  He wanted to build a brand from day one.

What that means for you: Take a look at charity:water or watch a video where Scott is speaking. You will see the brand. It is clean, visual and consistent. It pairs with the storytelling to generate successful fundraising. Now, take a look at your brand and consider how it could better serve your mission. Design does matter, it is an important force in decision making including the decision to give money to a cause.

“You want to be part of a growth story.  A lot of charities don’t place any emphasis on brand.  That doesn’t really make any sense.  If Scott hadn’t got a great brand, the charity wouldn’t have grown at this rate.”  
                                  Neil Hutchinson, $2million charity:water donor

According to a study by the American Marketing Association, The State of Nonprofit Marketing: A Report on Priorities, Spending, Measurement, and the Challenges Ahead, a typical nonprofit spends only 2 to 3% of its budget on marketing!  I think that Scott Harrison and many other founders of fast-growth nonprofits would point to that as a primary reason they are more successful than the “old style” nonprofits.  And, remember, this isn’t just about an online presence; it’s also customer service and branding.

A Simple Formula
Scott Harrison didn’t want to be like existing nonprofits, he wanted a better, more transparent model that would appeal to sceptics.  In his words, “We create an experience, a pure way to give.” 

Simplicity and directiveness are at the heart of branding charity:water.  That’s what I love about it!  If you’ve read any of my work you know that I advocate a simple formula for stating your case:

1. There’s a problem! + 2. We can solve it!

Charity:water is a great example; the story couldn’t be more direct.  It’s often tempting to tell more about your work and your methods but that’s not what draws people in.  I suggest you challenge yourself to see how simply you can state your problem and your solution.  It should be as clear as water, crytal clear water.

Yesterday I posted 10 Steps to a Great Story, be sure to subscribe so you get the latest updates in your Inbox!  You’ll also get the FREE ebook: Your Million Dollar Story.

Sightseers on a Mission How a vice-loving club promoter saved himself through charity. And how he’s persuading Silicon Valley’s super rich to do the same.  New York Times, Max Chafkin.  August 11, 2013

You can see and hear Scott’s Story on the charity:water site.

A long presentation by Scott Harrison is available here