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How Social Media, Consumer Engagement, and Smart Marketing Raise Millions in Funding for charity: water

My campaign:

Each day, nearly 1 billion people live without one of life’s basic necessities … clean running water. Charity: water has successfully raised millions of dollars to change that. Here’s how.

The other day I became aware of charity: water—a non-profit whose founder, Scott Harrison, is one of the most impactful speakers I’ve ever heard. Beyond being a master storyteller, he’s a brilliant promotions expert and brand marketeer. The story of how his charity achieves fundraising success is not only fascinating, but also offers well over a dozen lessons that may help your own marketing efforts.

About charity: water

Astonishing as it seems in this day and age, millions—make that nearly 1 billion people worldwide—live without clean running water. According to stats from charity: water, diseases from unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation kill more people, each year, than all forms of violence, including war.

charity: water is on a mission to change that. And, this New York-based non-profit, established in 2006, has been quite successful in doing just that, with over 13,600 completed water projects in 22 countries to their credit. Along the way, they’ve garnered a lot of press and accolades for their fresh approach to fundraising.

Many sources, including their own website, point to three factors that distinguish charity: water from other fundraising charities, and that have made them so notable:

But I think there are many additional reasons why they are so successful, and it all comes down to smart marketing:

Consumer Engagement

charity: water doesn’t ask you to send money. They ask you to join with them in raising funds, and have created a website that compels you to action through heart-wrenching stories and happy images of people they’ve helped. Rather than guilt you into sending money, they make you feel good about joining in their cause.

Through words, animations, videos, and still images, they tell a powerful story of why “water changes everything,” what they’re doing to bring clean water to the world, how thousands of supporters have contributed to their group effort, and what you can do to join in.

Having said that, they are far from alone in employing feel-good campaigns to actively engage followers and contributors. But, that’s where the similarities end.

Water changes everything 3-minute video from charity: water

Charity: water is a master at conveying their complex story in simple, compelling language. Here’s just one example, a 3.5 minute animated video on “Why Water.”

Providing the Tools to Act

Perhaps their most brilliant move, my opinion, is that they designed a website that provides easy-to-use tools so anyone can create and publish a custom charity: water fundraising campaign.

Using their tools, individuals, families, professional organizations, hobby groups … anyone, can create a campaign, and you don’t have to know a lick about programming or website building to do it. They provide a wealth of attention-getting images, call-to-action buttons, text suggestions, a donations tracking tool, and more. And in so doing, they make it easy to move you beyond the inspiration stage into actually taking action.

Inspirational Ideas, Including “Birthday Campaigns”

Exactly what do you put on your custom campaign donations page?

It’s up to you, but charity: water posts dozens of inspiring campaigns from their many contributors to get your creative juices flowing. From head shaving for dollars, to growing a moustache, setting up a lemonade stand, doing wheelies, or leaping from a plane, there are plenty of quirky ideas to be found on their pages.

Ideas for Building Custom Campaign

But, one of their most simple and effective ideas is the “Birthday Campaign,” whereby you ask your friends, family, colleagues, and connections to donate to your campaign in lieu of buying a present for your birthday, or holiday, wedding, or other gift-giving event. What a wonderful tradition to start in any family or organization. And who really needs another present, anyway?

Apparently Harrison did this for his own 32nd birthday in 2006, and raised $59,000. That story prompted a seven-year old boy to create a birthday campaign of his own, resulting in raising another $22,000. And the rest is history.

According to Harrison, who was quoted in a 2011 FastCompany article by Gregory Ferenstein: “The average person who gives up a birthday raises about $1,040 from an average of 13 people… And, 13 new people now know about the work, and are brought in by you.” It’s easy to see how this type of campaign model can build awareness for the charity and grow donations exponentially. And, given the increased popularity of social media in the years since Harrison was first quoted, I wonder if those figures aren’t substantially higher today.

The Celebrity Factor

charity: water shares birthday stories and videos of campaign contributors, both people you’ve never heard of, as well as movie and TV celebrities, music groups, and sports stars. And, I’d be willing to bet that for many, the celebrity factor may be enough of an allure to jump on the charitable-giving bandwagon.

The Facebook Connection

Masters of simplicity, charity: water makes it one-click simple to make a birthday pledge, and immediately announce your intentions via your Facebook page. No need to create the actual campaign page till you are ready. Then, when your birthday approaches, they send a note to remind you to create and promote the campaign. Neat.

Exceptional Simplicity

They’ve made their campaign-building tools so intuitive, it takes perhaps 10 minutes, tops, to build a custom page. For example, my campaign, shown at the top of this post, was created in about 7 minutes flat. They even offer slightly different templates for individual vs. team campaigns.

Email Templates

Got your website done? Next, they provide even more templates and suggested wording to make it easy to spread your message through your email circles. Here’s a sample of one of their templates.

Email templates make it easy to spread your campaign message

Email templates make it easy to spread your campaign message

About two weeks after you establish your custom campaign, they send you a follow-up note congratulating you on having established the campaign, and adding ideas for ways to keep the momentum going.

Two weeks into the campaign, a follow up email from charity: water

Two weeks into the campaign, a follow up email from charity: water

Finite Campaign Periods

Each campaign is limited to a 90-day period, to ensure that you keep up your own focus and level of enthusiasm, as well as that that of your supporters.

About Their 100% Model

Charity:water is not just about raising funds for water projects. They’re also attempting to change the face of how philanthropy should work. I believe they were the first to distinguish their model by announcing that 100% of public donations would go directly to building water projects.

Sounds far fetched; impossible, in fact. But, office space, payroll, and even credit card fees for public campaign donations are covered by a separate bank account from private funding sources. It’s a fundamental shift in how charities are run—giving donors faith that every bit of their contribution is being spent in the way they intended.

Of course, establishing a separate bank account to cover operational expenses is really just an ingenious play on words so they can truthfully make their “100%” claim. But, it’s clever, nontheless, and more fully explained on the 100% model page of their website, should you care to learn more.

Incidentally, their water program doesn’t end with just raising funds for the pumps, wells, filtration systems, and education on sanitation practices for the local villagers. They are additionally and separately raising funds for on-going equipment upkeep, so your donation’s effect can keep on working.

Tracking, Reporting, and Transparency

All contributions are tracked on the donations page you create, so you can see exactly how much has been raised, how many people are going to be helped, and where the contributions came from.

For companies, or groups, I think that aspect, alone, makes it a great idea for team building.

After the 90-day campaign window, your funds are pooled with other campaigns and sent to charity: water’s on-the-ground local partners in the community where your water project will be implemented. Then, over the next 21 months—the amount of time they say is needed to fully implement a new water program—progress is tracked and updated via website photos and GPS coordinates, so you can see exactly what impact your campaign has made.

Double Your Contribution: 100% Fund Matching

The organization has partnered with many corporations for funding, including Keurig Green Mountain (Keurig), the single-brew coffee company, which quite generously is matching funds with the goal of helping 1 million people receive clean running water by the year 2020.

charity: water is 1 of 4 water-related organizations, (2 American based, and 2 international), to whom Keurig has pledged 11 million dollars in funding. For more details, see Keurig’s March 19, 2014 press release.  And, way to go Keurig!

Timely IT Support

Incidentally, I found that if, at any time, you run into a question about creating or updating your campaign, and can’t find the answer in their online FAQs, there are exceptionally helpful support staff that respond to email inquiries in under 24 hours.

Unique and Consistent Branding

A few of the staffers, with the organization's trademark gasoline can

A few of the staffers, with the organization’s trademark gasoline can

From their memorable name, to the way they use it—putting it in lower case letters, punctuated with a colon, charity: water makes it easy to distinguish their organization from all others.

They’ve also adopted the 5-gallon, yellow, “jerry can” as a brand icon. Why a gasoline can? According to their branding standards guide, “… for one billion people on the planet, it represents water. It weighs 40 pounds when full, and people all over the world walk up to three hours each day carrying it….”

The organization uses this distinctive icon in ads; as well as stages red-carpet walks at fundraising events, where contributors are challenged to carry the full jug of water down the runway so they can experience for themselves the hardships that women and children across the globe must endure on a daily basis. The yellow can makes an appearance in their online campaigns, in photos of villagers being helped, and even in every photo of staffers’ pictured on their website.

More Marketing Tips

charity: water leaves very few marketing techniques untapped. They:

  • Offer speakers to talk to your group.
  • Raise marketing funds through everything from online sales of branded gift items to holding a charity ball.
  • Maintain a friendly and informative Facebook page–where they share their community’s stories, as well as engage readers with tips on ways to make campaigns a success.
  • Create content on their blog site, as well as post their videos on Vimeo and Twitter.
  • Provide downloadable photos, posters, twitter backgrounds, and even web banner ads to add to your personal blog or website. (And, their message is powerful: “4,100 children will die today from water related diseases. Help.”)
  • Lastly, their founder is an exceptional storyteller, who regularly speaks before groups, is interviewed by magazines, and takes to Twitter with his own messages. Their PR machine is well oiled … to date they’ve appeared in over 750 media outlets. To hear Harrison’s powerful story, watch this 37-minute presentation, courtesy of It’s what hooked me on charity: water to start with. But first, two caveats. While Harrison’s mom’s mysterious disease and miraculous recovery seem a giant stretch in logic, it’s a minor detail. Graphics from this recorded presentation are also not much to look at. But, Harrison’s story is so compelling, gripping, and powerful, I think you’ll find your time watching well spent.

Take Away Messages

There is much to admire about this organization’s marketing, from their brilliant use of social media to spread their message, to creating the web tools that allow their audience to easily become active participants in raising the funds. They’ve mastered the art of simplicity, sharing their mission in easily-digestable stories and visually stunning videos and images, and making it just as simple for supporters to create their own campaigns, share their message, and even get IT support, if needed.

charity: water uses  virtually every tool in a marketer’s toolbox to maximize their impact … using distinctive and consistent branding, partnering with celebrities as well as corporate sponsors, putting on creative events, selling branded items, creating PR opportunities, and the list goes on. Whether promoting a charity, venture capital startup, a product, or service, perhaps one or more of the strategies listed here may spark an idea that can be applied to your own marketing campaign.

Incidentally, donations through my campaign page are, of course, welcome, and can be made at through December 31st, 2014. Or, perhaps you’ll be inspired to start a campaign of your own. In the meantime, here are a few additional related articles you may find interesting.

More about charity: water

Related water charity information:


All images and video via charity: water. And thank you to Eric Holtzclaw whose article, “The Most Powerful Way to End a Presentation,” updated August 26, 2014, first made me aware of Scott Harrison and charity: water.

 About the author

Suzy Kedzierski is a freelance writer, marketing communications specialist, and founder of Marketing Communication Ink, LLC, with no affiliation to charity: water other than admiring Harrison’s storytelling skills and marketing campaigns. 


One comment on “How Social Media, Consumer Engagement, and Smart Marketing Raise Millions in Funding for charity: water

  1. Suzy Kedzierski
    January 14, 2015

    BTW – A big THANK YOU to everyone who supported my charity: water campaign and/or the MCA-I NJ campaign which I helped organize. In total, we raised over $450 to help those in need. Perhaps you’ll think about organizing your own campaign, or maybe you have already and have your own story to share? Love to hear from you!

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This entry was posted on November 16, 2014 by in Business, Marketing and tagged , , , , .
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