By Pamela Muldoon published January 20, 2015

How One Nonprofit Raised $150 Million Going Outside Tradition


For five years, Paull Young led the content marketing initiatives for the nonprofit organization charity: water as its director of digital. While Paull left the organization a few weeks ago to lead strategic partnership initiatives at Instagram, he was an integral part of expanding charity: water’s awareness and fundraising philosophy: Inspiration. Activation. Experience.

Under Paull’s leadership, the organization used the social web of experiential storytelling, community, and person-to-person sharing to raise over $150 million, mostly online, in five years. The money is used to build wells to provide clean water to some of the more than 800 million people who do not have access to something many of us take for granted every day.

In this interview before his departure from charity: water, Paull openly shares how the internal culture at the charity is key to the inspiring content it creates and how any brand, profit or nonprofit, can make a big impact by allowing creativity to be nurtured and shared.

What’s new, what’s now, what’s next

What’s new:

Perhaps it’s what charity: water does not do that is so “new.” It doesn’t spend money on traditional advertising or marketing – no radio, TV, print, or direct mail. It understands that when individuals are inspired by content, they will share it. That is much more powerful and builds a longer-lasting relationship than a letter in the mail ever could. Content that inspires people brings a return over and over and over.

What’s now:

The culture at charity: water is more like the culture at an internet start-up than at a traditional nonprofit. It has a content strategist, videographer, and in-house designers on the team. They take the content creation process seriously and have the ROI to prove that it works.

Paull believes three key components create great content:

1. Hire great talent. Invest in great people because great content comes from talented people.

2. Give creative talent the time and freedom to do creative work. It’s a process. Allow ideas and creativity to ruminate and grow.

3. Make the creative work important. From the top down there must be a culture of caring about the content.

What’s next:

Guilt-driven fundraising needs to stop. This approach may get you to pull out your credit card and donate in the moment, but you aren’t likely to share content that makes you feel sad or guilty. Opportunity, not guilt, is how charity: water approaches its fundraising process.

In a world united socially on the web, fundraising can be much more powerful. Leading with storytelling and focusing on the relationship can reap stronger long-term rewards than just asking for money can.

Nonprofits need to invest more time to creatively help donors see how their fundraising helps make change. Break down and show how the money individuals raise is used. When you connect people with the change their donation made, they will be more invested in the cause. Once they engage, they will maximize their giving, maximize their fundraising efforts, and share it with others to bring more people into the cause. Inspired people will do amazing things.

Blast the buzzword

Paull’s buzzword: Approvals

To create great content, you need to give freedom to your creative team.

Any time you have an approval process with a dozen different people involved, the chances of that content being authentically good are very, very slim.

In the hot seat

Here’s a recap of Paull’s hot-seat Q&A:

Q1: What innovation in the last five years has made your life as a content marketer better?

Hardware available today has enabled charity: water to create amazing content at less expense than in the past.

Some of the most amazing videos have been shot on a Sony 5D camera or on a drone with a GoPro. This, along with committed and talented people, is an amazing combination.

Q2: What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given?

“Do it wrong quickly.” Paull learned this from Mike Moran, his mentor at the first U.S. agency where he worked. Create quickly and measure quickly. If he would test 150 ideas and get a third wrong, he would still end up with 100 great ideas.

Q3: What book have you read that still stays with you today?

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky. This great book shares how we are sociologically and psychologically a community of niches. The social web is a moving motion of connectivity, but it is human to human. It’s a great book on how people come together on the social web.

Listen to Pamela’s full interview with Paull Young here:

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Cover image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Pamela Muldoon

Pamela Muldoon is the Podcast Network Director for the CMI Podcast Network. In her role with CMI, she assists the podcast hosts with the development, production, distribution and promotion of their shows. Pamela is a veteran podcaster who can be heard on the CMI Podcast Network with her latest show "Content Marketing NEXT". To date, she has interviewed over 200 business and marketing professionals as part of her podcast formats. She is also a professional VoiceOver talent specializing in commercial, narration, eLearning, and promo projects. Learn more at or Follow her on Twitter @pamelamuldoon.

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  • chrismarklee

    You know who raised a great deal of money online was the 2012 Obama Campaign. I model my marketing on it. I am proactive on building relationships and contacting them for doing their Income Taxes. I target specifically my local customer base.

    Owner CEL Financial Services

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