For Charity Water, Progress Begins and Ends with Content

photo: charity water India

Photo: Jeremy Snell

The first thing you notice about Charity: Water’s web presence is how rich it is compared to the average non-profit. The bold blocks of color, exuberant photography and interactive elements are a far cry from the infomercial approach most are familiar with.

As much as Charity: Water is trying to combat a crisis that deprives nearly a billion people access to clean water, it’s simultaneously trying to invert an old trope in non-profit storytelling: that guilt and suffering are what inspire people to give.

It starts with a content strategy built on “the release,” as CEO Scott Harrison puts it, that clean water brings to both the people who need it and the donors who help provide it.


Design First

“We knew that in order to re-invent charity, first, everything we made had to look amazing,” says Harrison.

Founded nine years ago, Charity: Water entered a scene largely defined by street teams accosting pedestrians and websites that looked more 1996 than 2006. “So much of what I saw coming out of the non-profit world at the time looked kind of cheesy,” says Harrison. “Where was the Nike or Apple of charity?”

That statement might seem paradoxical, since Nike and Apple are two of the most lucrative brands in the world, but then again very little about Charity: Water betrays how lean its marketing team is.

That’s because great design was part of the plan from day one. The second ever employee at Charity: Water was a creative director (who also happens to be Harrison’s wife). Since then, there hasn’t exactly been the kind of team expansion you might think necessary to prop up such a strong brand. They still operate in DIY startup mode –even as Harrison considers ways to further invest in marketing. “Essentially, we’ve always operated with a marketing budget of zero.”

Evidently, you don’t need a million bucks for your brand to look like it.


The Power of Positive Thinking

Charity: Water signature’s platform is the Birthday Project, which empowers users to turn their birthdays into online fundraisers to help build wells in water-challenged communities.  The idea that a day for self-indulgence should instead be a day for social good was pretty radical at the time the Birthday Project really started to take off (full disclosure: Outbrain has donated media to Birthday Project campaigns in the past).

Harrison, by his own admission, is no stranger to self-indulgence. Part of Charity: Water’s appeal as a story is his own transformation from a guy who partied for a living as a downtown New York promoter, to someone who has helped change the discourse on how we give — starting with a fresh approach to engaging donors.

In the old model, the relationship between donor and charity was largely transactional, one way traffic. Once money changes hands, the connection was lost.

Charity: Water sought to change that — and content would be its greatest ally.


Integrated Storytelling

Charity: Water has a blog, but it’s far from the only place you can find content on their site. Nearly every page features a video, information, illustrations, photos or some combination of all the above (which can’t be too bad for SEO). And front and center are the people who make the water projects possible.


It doesn’t hurt that some of the featured donors are celebrities, but, especially in the early going, Charity: Water had to rely on that kind of brand alignment to spread awareness of the water crisis as quickly as it has. They couldn’t afford to be shy, not when so much was at stake for so many people.

Hence, Charity: Water is bolder than even most for-profit businesses in signaling what exactly it wants a site visitor to do: start a campaign to help fund a water project.

For every page on the site, at least one, sometimes three calls to “Start a Campaign,” “Pledge Now,” or some other variation appears. And it works. Audiences convert. In a previous content marketing push promoting a World Water Day initiative, Charity: Water inspired roughly 800 birthday pledges in a week — and that was just from Outbrain’s donated media.

Ordinarily, that would be the end of the story, but Charity: Water takes great pains to share progress with donors in an interactive way.

“We’re fully transparent with our donors,” says Harrison. “One-hundred percent of their contributions go directly to funding a well, and we take pride in showing it to them once it’s built.”

Here again, content plays a pivotal role in continuing the dialogue. On its site, Charity: Water has a gallery of completed projects, detailing everything from exact coordinates for the wells, to the names of the local partners who helped push the project over the finish line.

To date, Charity: Water has funded over 16,000 water projects in 24 countries, but with hundreds of millions of people still without access to clean water, Harrison has learned to appreciate both the progress so far and the daunting task ahead.

“I remember one of my favorite quotes that says, ‘Do not be afraid of work that never ends,’ and there is a little of that [sense] when you’re doing work you believe is important and redemptive…that it’s never done. And that’s OK.”

See how Charity: Water uses content to inspire people.

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