What can UK Fundraisers learn from Charity: Water?

This year’s Institute of Fundraising Convention buzzed with energetic and enthusiastic Fundraisers sharing brilliant ideas on audiences, products and channels. Throughout the three days, across numerous sessions and on the #iofnc Twitter feed, one name came up over and over again: charity: water.

Charity: water is a US charity which brings clean water to people in developing nations. Founded 5 years ago in New York by Scott Harrison, their clear fundraising proposition, backed by superb use of digital media, has grabbed UK fundraisers’ attention. I heard Scott Harrison give a plenary session talk at the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Convention in Vancouver in April this year.  He ruffled a few feathers when he said he didn’t see them as a charity; didn’t hang out with fundraisers; and saw his peers as social media and online giants like Facebook, Twitter, Google.

Charity: water offers donors a simple, tangible and emotive fundraising proposition: raise a set amount and fund the drilling of a specific well in a developing country chosen by you. You can bring clean water to that community. Donors give directly, do an event or raise money through an in celebration product, giving up their birthday and asking friends and family to donate to charity: water in lieu of gifts.

What can we learn from charity: water?

For me, there’s 3 things stand out:

1.   They are brilliant at giving donors choice over what their money is used for, and then showing them and their sponsors the tangible impact of their gifts.  Every donor who sets up a fundraising page can check on progress of ‘their’ well at any time, shown via GPS, photo and video content uploaded by the project. They update sponsors as well as fundraisers on the project’s progress, thereby widening their pool of advocates. We’ve known for 15 years that donors want more choice over how their support is used, and to see clear and tangible impact. Charity: water is amongst the best I’ve seen at doing this.

2.   Their use of video as a media, both to demonstrate their need for funds and show the impact of donations is fantastic. They use bold, confident language directly addressing the donor. They also use video content wherever they can – in PR, supporter acquisition, retention and development. They say they find video communicates best, followed by photos, with text last. Their Twitter feed shares a photo of the day rather than text content.

3.   They are not afraid to be honest with their donors when things go wrong.  Every September they webcast the live drilling of a well which has been funded by supporters. It’s one of the centerpieces of their birthday fundraising campaign. One year, the drilling went wrong – they failed to find water, live online in front of thousands of their supporters. Charity: water immediately emailed their entire warm database. They explained what had gone wrong with the drilling, and that they would be going to back to the village with a new piece of equipment to try to find clean water. They webcast the further drilling attempts – which were successful. They had a hugely positive response to the email; a wave of unsolicited gifts; and built their credibility with their donor base. Their openness turned what could have been a PR disaster into stronger relationships with their supporters.

But there’s a couple of other things we should bear in mind. Charity: water make strong play of the fact that 100% of public donor funds go direct to the projects. They ask major donors to fund their organizational overheads (which are fairly low as they don’t directly employ project staff but work through local partners). While getting the maximum proportion of funds to the beneficiary is every charity’s goal, in my opinion the 100% model doesn’t develop donors’ understanding that it does take money to raise money, and money to run organizations professionally.

At APF Scott said Charity: water had raised $62m gross over 5 years. They have around 300,000 individual donors who give or raise an average of $1,000 each. However, their ability to turn these donors into regular supporters to drive future expansion is currently unclear. Will they be able to inspire donors to do in aid of celebration fundraising year on year? Will the fantastic (and staff time intensive) communication path they take donors’ sponsors on reap dividends by sponsors becoming fundraisers? Will major donors continue to pick up the tab for overhead costs, particularly as the database grows?

So what’s the conclusion? I think charity: water’s clarity of messaging, demonstration of impact, openness and use of video are brilliant.  Many UK fundraisers could use elements of these in their work. I think their decision to communicate with fundraisers’ sponsors almost as closely as they do with the fundraisers themselves is fascinating. But I think part of having a mature relationship with our supporters is explaining that charities do need to spend money on IT systems, finance departments and all the other elements of ‘overheads’. Without these functions we can’t be as effective as we need to be to deliver our goals.  And our charities can’t grow and we can’t help our beneficiaries without investing in fundraising.

See what you think: http://bit.ly/Nzkzvh and www.charitywater.org

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