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Social Impact: How a Nonprofit Became a Content Phenom

ethiopia_girlEditor’s note: Paull Young recently moved to San Francisco to work on strategic partnerships with the public content team at Instagram. He remains as an advisor to charity: water.

When I first spot him, Paull Young, then Director of Digital for charity: water, is happily lugging a cumbersome, bright yellow fuel can through the halls of Content Marketing World. He is pleased to point out his blisters … and make his purpose known: “This thing carries about 40 pounds of water. Typically, a family in a developing world lives off two a day. In America, we live off 20.”

Young was hauling the container not just here, but everywhere – around his office, on his daily commute in New York, through the streets of Cleveland during CMWorld 2014. And he would continue to lug it until he raised $31,000 for charity: water in honor of his own 31st birthday. His is one among tens of thousands of birthday pledges and other fundraising stunts run by ordinary people and celebrities alike in support of charity: water’s mission.

Hand in hand with its fundamental cause, charity: water also intends to reinvent charity – from the way it engages the public to the way it distributes and tracks every dollar raised. Young elaborates, “We think about brand in ways very few nonprofits do. There are brands of toothpaste peddled with more sophistication than all of the world’s most pressing causes. We want people to love our brand. But we don’t have a traditional marketing budget – we don’t do direct mail. We invest heavily in content and spread that through word-of-mouth marketing and great partnerships.”

How does an organization with fewer than 100 employees become such a fundraising and content-publishing phenom? Young shares the principles behind charity: water’s social-marketing success.

Inspire people through great content that plays on opportunity, not guilt

We’ve all experienced a charity that, in Young’s words, “interrupts our evening with sad puppies, then a plea to pull out our checkbooks. I despise guilt marketing.” In contrast, charity: water frames everything through a lens of opportunity. While charity: water demonstrates just how hard life is for those without clean water, its ultimate emphasis is on how water changes everything. Young describes what happened when he shared a charity: water film with the Rwandan family it featured. It would have been easy to pull at heartstrings by painting the family in the most bleak and pitiful light … a portrayal painful for that family to watch. Instead, the family loved the piece, which showcased their lives after a well arrives in their village.

charity: water itself started with a story. Scott Harrison, a former nightclub promoter and charity: water’s founder, quit his high-flying New York City lifestyle and ended up working in Liberia for two years. When he returned, Young relays, it was impossible to ignore that $16 in New York might buy a single martini. In Liberia, it could feed a family for a week. So, he tried to build something that would inspire his friends to give. Importantly, Young points out, Harrison’s second hire – right after a field project officer – was a designer (now the vice president of creative). “We are a story-driven organization. If you don’t have that kind of leadership commitment to story from day one, it’s certainly harder to plug in.”

Young also credits charity: water’s content strength to a whole-hearted, organization-wide devotion to its creative team. “We are crazy about giving complete control of our creative to our creatives.” If Young were to plot his marketing process, he would start at the top with a big box labeled, “inspiration.” His marketing plan leaves that as a holding place, the details of which he trusts the creative team to fill. He picks up from there. “They own the excellence,” he says; he and his team figure out how to get it to the world.

Young and his team manage corporate sponsorships, PR, and content promotion through word–of-mouth campaigns and limited (often pro-bono) media partnerships, including a successful relationship with Outbrain.

Led by the vice president of creative, who sits on the executive team, the creative team includes a content strategist, copywriter, videographer, and web and visual designers (who also work on the fundraising platform), all supplemented by freelancers when needed. “You can do amazing things with a pretty small team. Great creatives want the freedom to do great work, where their work is really important to the organization. We have that culture. There’s no quick tool to make that happen. Good content is blood, sweat, and tears,” Young says.

To illustrate just how hard the creative team is willing to work, Young points to the 2014 September Campaign. Aiming to bring clean water to 100,000 people in the Sahel region of Africa, charity: water sent a scouting team to Mali and Niger. There, the project manager and content strategist conducted a week-long search for the right angle and stories. A full team – including two videographers, an Instagramer and a handy drone camera – returned for another week, weathering often brutal conditions of armed escorts, hours of pre-dawn travel, dust storms, and 100-plus-degree desert weather.

The result: a beautiful, 6-minute 41-second kick-off film and a compelling campaign that frames water as a women’s issue.

September Campaign 2014 – The Sahel Region from charity: water on Vimeo.

The film contrasts the lives of two women. One who returns every day to draw water from the well in which she and her infant daughter fell – and in which she believed she would die. And another who is radiant with the joy of starting her own business now that her day is not defined by the need for water. In addition to the film, the campaign web page offers three profiles of Saher women and the role of water in their lives. “We lead with the film. We see how women’s lives change. Contrast that with the traditional model of nearly every charity you’ve seen – text-heavy direct marketing that leads to a ‘donate-now’ page. There’s no journey. There’s no inspiration. You can’t be inspired by content without really hard work.” 

Provide a platform for meaningful action

The September Campaign’s content, of course, still calls for action. But in this case, Young emphasizes, “The word ‘donate’ doesn’t appear. The goal is to inspire people to design and run their own fundraisers.”

He explains, “In the past, the call to action would be to pull out a credit card, and quietly sign up for monthly giving. Now, it’s a call to do something really noisy. So, for us, the conversion is huge. It’s not just entering your email to get more content or more pleas through direct mail. It’s a commitment to fundraise. Every single person is running their own content marketing campaign.”

(And commit they do. When I watched the Sahel film, more than 2,500 people had started campaigns.)

charity: water provides everything someone needs to establish his own fundraising page and solicit friends and family for donations. More than 190,000 members have raised over $35 million through this mycharity: water platform.

The campaigns themselves are fodder for additional stories. A bubbly 2-minute film, set to earworm-worthy music, flips through an inventory of past campaigns – from eating 101 sandwiches to swimming naked in San Francisco Bay. charity: water’s pitch: “You can do anything to raise money for clean water.”

A wrenching, yet uplifting 4-minute film follows Samantha Beckwith to Ethiopia, where she witnesses the impact of the wells built in honor of her daughter Rachel whose modest $300 9th birthday campaign became a $1.2 million drive after she was killed in a car accident.

Today, charity: water’s robust archive of stories is 80% about the cause and 20% about the fundraising. Young would like to see that shift, devoting closer to 30 to 40% to showcase the fundraisers and, “the awesome stuff they do.”

Give them a complete experience

Good stories don’t leave you hanging forever. To give each fundraiser similar satisfaction, Young explains, “We close the loop and show every donor exactly where their money goes. If you donate, you will get a report – with precise GPS coordinate – on the wells you funded. You’ll see photos of the wells … and the people you’ve helped.”

Of course, charity: water hopes that the fundraiser’s story doesn’t end there, but spawns a sequel (or a series). That complete experience, from initial inspiration to ultimate impact, Young says, “is a critical part of the relationship that keeps people going.”

People are good, but people are busy. You’ve got to cut through. Inspired people – when they’re given a platform – will do amazing things.

Not saving the world? Don’t worry, you must be helping someone

Young concedes that in contrast to some organizations, charity: water’s stories hold more inherent, emotional power. “We have an advantage; we do the most important work.” But he insists that, “Stories are everywhere. There are stories around every brand – or the brands simply wouldn’t exist. The first question I ask for-profit people: ‘What kind of content did your organization produce recently that inspired you, personally, to share it?’ So often, it’s nothing. That tells you something. The truly great stories are of people whose lives are better because your projects existed this year.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Image courtesy of CCO magazine