How Charity Water’s Content is Rewriting NGO Communications
Updated: Aug 21
Manhattan-based NGO, Charity: Water, launched in 2006 fully focused on using digital channels to reach out to donors. Breaking away from more traditional not-for-profit communications, the organisation engages with supporters through digital content: video, copy, graphics and photography.
It’s compelling stuff, not to mention accessible to a wide audience, and donors seem to be responding to it.
This young, 70-person charity is setting new standards in terms of fundraising and awareness raising online, and without the budgets of the bigger NGOs. Its tactics are certainly working — the organisation brings in a yearly income of around $36 million for safe water projects around the world. With so much content marketing and social media activity going on the charity can’t always track whether donations are a direct result of its digital actions, but looking at its annual income, you’d imagine there’s a connection between that, and the quality of the content.
Of course a deep understanding of its supporter base helps the team give people something that they’ll find interesting. Use of social media is also another key. In fact Charity: Water was one of the first brands on Instagram and the first charity to use Twitter.
It’s the job of Charity: Water’s content strategist, Tyler Riewer, to explore ways of digitally communicating the NGO’s messaging and establishing a dialogue with supporters and influencers to, ultimately, generate funds and inform.
We’ll hear from Tyler in a moment — first, a little bit of background.
The source of Charity: Water
Charity: Water was set up by Scott Harrison, who in 2004 ditched his hedonistic lifestyle as a New York nightclub promoter in favour of a year’s volunteering with Mercy Ships in Africa. While acting as the organisation’s photojournalist, Scott was shaken by what he witnessed.
He saw people of all ages suffering with life-threatening illnesses created by a simple cause: drinking and bathing in dirty water. Ironically, 40 feet below ground, underneath these communities, was the clean water that people desperately needed, but they rarely had the means to literally tap into it.
After returning to the USA, Scott founded Charity: Water to “bring clean drinking water to every person on the planet”. With around 800 million people living without safe water around the world today, the task for Scott’s organisation and other international NGOs is enormous.
Yet, it seems going digital is helping the NGO deliver its important mission.
Introducing the Content Guru…
Tyler joined Charity: Water in 2013 after nine years in advertising, “telling stories on behalf of brands”. He kindly talked to us recently about his role as content strategist, about storytelling through content, about “hustling” to hit deadlines, and what is inspiring him at the moment.
Red Ruby Copywriting: What’s the main goal for Charity: Water’s content? Tyler Riewer: My main objective is to make the impact of our work real. I want to directly connect our supporters with the results of their fundraising or donations. We aim to inspire people with stories about our beneficiaries, our partners and our incredible supporters.
RRC: What’s the most shared piece of content so far? TR: Several years ago an incredible little girl named Rachel started a fundraising campaign but died tragically in a car accident before she finished. People heard about her campaign and started donating in her honour — and it just blew up. She ended up raising more than $1.2 million and bringing clean water to 37,770 people. A year or so later, Charity: Water took Rachel’s mom and grandparents to the field to meet the people she helped, and we made this video — one of our most popular to date.
I think it’s been shared because it’s such a beautiful story. We all know a little girl with a huge heart like Rachel, so it’s emotional and compelling. And even though it’s a tragic story, it’s full of hope and joy. We all want to leave that kind of legacy.
RRC: Since Charity: Water does so much online, do your copywriters need different skills compared to traditional charity writers? TR: I think it’s a matter of awareness: not just knowing your audience, but knowing how people are going to engage with your content. You’re creating an experience, and you have to think that through: How does one piece build into another? What does it look like on a mobile? How does the reader interact with what they’re reading?
RRC: How did you make the latest appeal film?
TR: We put together our most recent video for World Water Day. We had built a campaign around the idea that hundreds of millions of people lack access to clean water. We wanted to leverage World Water Day to make that number known, to empower people to share and to educate a new audience.
We hadn’t intended to make a video but we changed our minds when our copywriter shared a script, which she’d written for another project. Then we realised it could be a great addition to our campaign. It was so poetic, moody and powerful — all of us could instantly see what the video might look like. And it felt very shareable. So we hustled to make it happen.
We reached out to Jeremy Snell (a photographer and videographer we’ve worked with many times in the past) who lives in Hawaii. We knew he’d already have the kind of footage we were imagining. Then our videographer found a song and started editing. We recorded the voiceover in-house. The whole thing came together very quickly!
We got a little lucky, but the result was incredible. The video reached more than 100,000 people. It was a huge success.
RRC: Do you ask supporters to contribute their own content for you to share?
TR: Our supporter experience team is in touch with almost all of our campaigners, trying to help make them as successful as possible. But yes, we definitely reach out for additional photos or videos when someone does something we want to share with the world.
RRC: What’s your advice to other smaller NGOs that want to create good content but have restrictions on budget and resources?
TR: Before you create anything, think about where your audience is and what they’re going to find valuable or inspiring.
RRC: What kind of content do they share? When is the least burdensome time to receive an email? How do they feel about direct mail?
TR: All of those things will shape the type of stories you tell and how you tell them. Work smarter, not harder, as they say.
RRC: As a former ad-man, do you think the commercial sector can take lessons on content from Charity: Water?
TR: I think we should be taking lessons from each other. I love seeing brands telling human stories because they often do it better than we do. It’s nice to have someone raising that bar.
RRC: What’s your personal favourite content out there at the moment?
TR: Well, while we’re on the brands-telling-human-stories subject, I love this video from Google Glass. It feels so personal, real and touching. And I like that I’m trying to figure out what’s happening the whole time. It keeps me involved. An old favourite is this curious video from Radiolab and NPR. Also worth a mention are these mesmerizing animated gifs in How I Got to See an Upside Down Iceberg.
Finally, here are two more pieces of content — one by Charity: Water, another by a YouTube supporter:
This truly moving story, with its striking photography, highlights the devastation that living without clean water can lead to: https://medium.com/charity-water/the-last-walk-for-water-979160375b4a
Hugely popular YouTuber, PewDiePie, raised $450,000 by encouraging people to watch his video:
I’d like to say HUGE thanks to Tyler for taking the time to answer our questions.