June 20th, 2011
During my morning ritual of sipping coffee and going over the news, RSS, and social media feeds, I saw a post at The Digital Naturalist. It’s a profile on charity: water, an organization successful at generating buzz, getting people to donate, and then going out and securing clean water for communities in developing countries. It’s a simple concept, with a simple message, and it doesn’t hurt that its founder, Scott Harrison, used to be a promoter in NYC.
Tucker Walsh interviewed Mo Scarpelli, of charity: water, about the non profit’s messaging. For the non profits and NGO’s out there, I think the take-away is that charity: water emphasizes how important communications and social networking are to its mission. For instance, they have leveraged a new communication tool to become, they say, the first non profit with more than one million twitter followers. Tweeting can be much more effective, and is much less expensive, than direct mail–or even email.
I can’t definitively say that charity: water is leading the way, but it’s a good example. The organization has raised millions in a few short years, holds creative and well attended events, has made some excellent partnerships, and helps average people get involved through innovative fundraising models. Additionally, with the help of substantial private donations to cover operating costs, the organization can commit 100 percent of public donations toward direct services (building wells).
Read the charity: water financials for 2009. Like the organization itself, this is a colorful, creative, and fun presentation of some really boring stuff (numbers and statistics).
A couple of quick highlights:
Total Public Support and Revenue for 2009: $8,769,927
Total Support from Individuals: $4,909,593
Organizational Efficiency: 82 percent on Program Services, 12 percent on Development, 6 percent on Management and General
Again, 100 percent of public donations went toward the comprehensive cost of water projects.
I’ve done enough NGO and non profit work (including founding one) to know how important direct-service dollars are, and to know how crippling it is when an organization is unable to invest in itself to make the next step. Many small to mid-size organizations are run by people with years of experience in public health, public administration, or science meaning they are excellent at addressing the mission of their organization, but they might not be so good at communicating that mission. That communication is an investment in the organization, one that will let donors become invested in the organization too.
I think part the charity: water success lies their emphasis of the story of bringing clean water to developing nations. Well done, with simple messaging, these stories provide rich narrative that captivates an audience networked through social media. It doesn’t stop with “give now” button: they let people take on the clean water mission as their own, becoming organizers in their own communities to tell the charity: water story themselves. It feeds back on itself; these organizers become part of the clean water story, building the narrative that inspires the next community.
TDN: Why is visual storytelling important for nonprofits to invest in? Why create permanent staff dedicated to multimedia?
MO: Impact. You have the chance to tell really visceral, straightforward, not to mention beautiful stories. Sometimes, you can’t beat just hearing it straight from the subject’s voice, or seeing the details of our work in a medium that makes you feel like you’re there watching it happen…..NGOs operate on tight budgets and not all of them need full-time media producers. But as a fundraising nonprofit where raising awareness is a big part of your mission, I think it’s definitely worthwhile and even necessary…..our videos are key for another reason: Our fundraisers love to use them.
TDN: Which videos have been most effective? Are there any that you feel failed to get the message across? How did you learn from those?
MO: I think our most effective video to date is the September 2009 campaign — it’s the entire story of charity: water. It’s the perfect mix of serious, informative, and inspiring. And it was produced the way you’d read a novel or see a great film: problem, climax, solution.
TDN: What techniques do you use to hook people who may not otherwise be interested in watching an advocacy video?
MO: We’ve grown into a very cinematic feel for our major videos, and that’s our hook. We want to teach people about the water crisis, but it’s also our job to inspire them to help change it. Beautiful footage is compelling and inspiring…..never, ever trust that people will watch just because the subject is important. You have to make it relate to your audience; you have to make it compelling. You have to employ some of the traditional story methods — showing conflict and resolution — and you have to tell it as honestly as you can while keeping it interesting.
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