5 lessons from 5 years leading digital at a nonprofit

It’s not easy getting people to part with their money to help strangers half a world away, but inspiring benevolence is a great first step. Here’s how charity: water did just that.

I’ve spent every waking moment of the past five years working with a brilliant team to inspire people to make a difference for people they’ve never met.

In that time the fundraising website I’ve been responsible for, mycharitywater.org, has raised more than $37 million—with 100 percent of that directly funding clean drinking water for people in need around the world.

As I reflect on my last day in the office, here are the five biggest things I’ve learned:

1. Inspire —activate — experience.

It took me a few years to learn that the strategic link between all of our most effective marketing efforts was a very simple model:


Our best marketing led with content focused on inspiration. We continually asked ourselves what we could create that would leave our supporters inspired. We gave our (extremely strong) creative team freedom to focus on inspiration above all else.


Truly inspired people do amazing things if they’re given a platform. I’ve always found this best represented in our “Ready. Set. Go” fundraising video, which is made up of real people inspired to do amazing things:


Once the inspired people have been activated, the final step is to give them a great experience. We do that by showing them their impact.

Early on, this meant proving every project with photos and GPS posted online. We’ve always innovated here though, whether that has meant giving a Drilling Rig a Twitter account, or most recently producing a series of videos from Ethiopia called “The Journey.”

Not only does focusing on their experience build our relationship with them as donors, but if done right it allows us to inspire them and begin the process anew.

2. Opportunity, not guilt.

At charity: water in addition to our Values we have a booklet of “isms” — little stories about “how we do things around here” that we take all new hires through.

The most popular ism? “Opportunity, not Guilt.”

In a traditional media world of one-to-many communication, a tear-jerking commercial is an effective way to prompt you pull out your checkbook, but nobody is going to share a sad dog commercial with their friends and family on Facebook.

In a model in which inspiration is key, and a media environment where sharing wins, “Opportunity not Guilt” is crucial to our content strategy.

3. People are good, but people are lazy.

I started saying this about a year into my tenure at charity: water after seeing tremendous examples of people doing amazing things for others when inspired by generosity, but also after realizing just how hard it is to cut through to activate people.

Years later I was leading a workshop for a handful of major nonprofits in Melbourne when an attendee from Save the Children shared this very similar quote from their founder Eglantine Jebb nearly 100 years ago:

“We have to devise means of making known the facts in such a way as to touch the imagination of the world. The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative and very busy.”

People have always been busy. People have always been generous. Brilliant content and hard work are required to cut through.

An example of how we apply this is in encouraging our legion of fundraisers to use personal email above all else to get their friends to give. Social media is great for sharing content, but it’s really hard work to get someone to stop what they’re doing and pull a credit card out of their pocket. Hence a direct personal email can be the difference maker for a fundraiser as it removes the plausible deniability of seeing a post in social media.

4. Give — raise — influence.

The majority of charity marketing uses a direct-marketing model acquiring monthly givers. The goal is to convert a user into a direct donation and, ideally, a monthly subscription. At charity: water, we focus on acquiring fundraisers because doing so is much more valuable.

Though our average donation size online is similar to most charities I have benchmarked, our average fundraising campaign is worth many times more. Even more important, every fundraising campaign brings in, on average, 13 new donors.

We focus on building a relationship with supporters over time (by inspiring them and giving them a great experience) and, throughout the course of that relationship, on maximizing their lifetime value for the cause through giving, fundraising and influencing others to join us.

So for example, personally I’ve been able to raise over $100,000 for charity: water since 2008, but I’ve never been able to give anything like that amount. Just as important, I’ve brought dozens of my friends to the cause.

5. Make the fundraiser the hero.

An oft-repeated catchphrase of mine, “Make the fundraiser the hero,” speaks to our efforts to give a great experience to our supporters and to make them look great to the donors they inspire.

The true power of peer-to-peer fundraising is that word-of-mouth marketing involves connecting with the people you influence most in the world. Think about it: If you were to fundraise for a cause you believe in, who are the 10 people you’d ask to give?

I guarantee you’re thinking of your closest friends, family and co-workers—in short, the people you influence most in the world.

If you look like a hero in front of those people, not only do you look and feel great (and hence want to maintain a relationship over time), but also your friends will see you as a hero and, in turn, aspire to the heroism you’ve shown.

Paull Young led digital for charity: water from 2010 to 2015 and remains an advisor to the cause. A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.


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