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Five lessons every nonprofit can learn from Charity: Water

Charity: Water is one of my favorite charities. Since 2006, they’ve brought clean, safe water to more than seven million people. They’ve funded more than 24,000 water projects in developing countries, transforming communities worldwide. But I’m also a huge fan of how they communicate and tell their story to supporters and donors. It’s a huge part of their success. Nonprofits of all sizes can learn a lot from what Charity: Water does well.

1. Provide a short, clear explanation of who you are and what you do

Many nonprofits struggle to express who they are and what they do in a short, simple sentence. Charity: Water doesn’t. Here’s their mission statement:

Charity: Water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

That statement is 18 words long, and every word matters. There’s no jargon, no marketing language, and no boastful adjectives. Through clear, natural language, we learn what Charity: Water is, what they do, and whom they help. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better, more succinct “elevator pitch.” And when you consider the complexity of what they do – international projects that involve complicated logistics, labor, and technology – their elevator pitch is even more impressive.

2. Give visitors a clear action to take

Every effective website has a job to do. Maybe you’re trying to build a subscriber list for your new podcast. Or bring in donations for a nonprofit that helps provide food to families in need. Or sell your hand-crafted sky-blue North Carolina Tar Heel socks. Websites can offer many different things, but they should all provide a clear focus on the most important action visitors should take before they leave.

Charity: Water’s primary call-to-action is to ask visitors to support their work through donations. It’s nearly impossible to miss.

A screen capture of the Charity: Water home page call-to-action

That big, bold, blue button jumps off the page, next to the photo of the beautiful young girl. Paired with the headline, “Resolve to change lives all year long,” it asks visitors to “Give Monthly.” The button doesn’t have to compete with a lot of visual clutter or rambling text. It stands out after only 24 words of explanation.

You can also make a one-time donation (the button for that us up in the top-right corner), but Charity: Water clearly values recurring donations to support their work, so they’ve made “monthly” option is the easiest, most obvious way to get involved and support them.

Naturally, the site has plenty of interior pages where visitors can learn more about the organization, its mission, their funding, and the results of its work, but they don’t try to pack all that in on the home page. They keep it blissfully clean and focused.

3. Create and use great photos

Charity: Water wisely understood from the start that it wouldn’t be enough to tell people about the problem of water in developing countries or to boast about how it had done great things to improve the water supply in villages and towns on the other side of the world. They needed to show it.

And it wasn’t enough just to find photos of pumps and machinery – they needed people. Ultimately their work is about people; it’s about helping improve the lives of countless mothers, fathers, and children in the communities where they do their work.

 

If you browse Charity: Water, you don’t see photos of sick, dying people, suffering from the impact of infected, unsafe drinking water (although that’s happening every day in areas they focus on). Instead, most often, you see the “after” photos – pictures of people whose lives have been transformed by the help Charity: Water provided. Their photos aren’t meant to guilt visitors into giving; they provide inspiration and a vision of possible successes to inspire donations.

Almost every organization I’ve worked with admires good photography, but very few have good photos that reflect the work they do or the impact of their work or their product. Often, organizations fall back on uninspired photos captured on iPhone cameras or stock art that vaguely matches what they care about. Good, professional photography isn’t cheap. But the cost of relying on bad, uninspired photos can be hard to calculate. If you can’t afford the help of professionals, consider these tips on getting better nonprofit photos yourself:

4. Stories, not “web content”

Charity: Water tells stories proving that donations lead to tangible, lasting, and meaningful results. As founder Scott Harrison explained in an interview, their message is about “opportunity, not guilt.” They use storytelling that shows a problem, how Charity: Water helped solve it, and why your support can create another story of success.

Charity: Water takes time to create rich narratives about both recipients and donors. It’s a lot more than self-promotional video or “web copy” designed to trigger SEO buzzwords. Here’s a great example of their storytelling:

 

But it’s not just about video. Their written storytelling is engaging and compelling as well. Consider the start of this story about how clean water changed one woman’s life:

Every day Helen Apio used to say to herself, “How should I use this water today? Should I water my garden so we can grow food? Should I wash my children’s uniforms? Should I use it to cook? Drink?” With two children, one husband and only ten gallons of water, Helen always put herself last.

But not anymore.

Through Apio’s personal story, they illustrate how clean water can improve not only health, but also self-esteem, confidence, and optimism for the future.

Consider how Tyler Riewer, brand content lead for Charity: Water, explains their approach with storytelling and their emphasis on “hope, not guilt”:

 

Storytelling allows supporters to understand Charity: Water’s work on a more personal, human level.  What might be a technical, boring explanation of their work to provide clean water supplies is instead a moving, compelling argument to support their work.

5. Give supporters reasons to trust you

A common problem for many nonprofits is that would-be donors worry that their money may be wasted or misused. Charity: Water counters this by communicating key ideas to boost credibility and trust in their work.

First, they dedicate an extensive part of their website dedicated to their completed projects. You can browse a map that shows all the places where they’ve done work, and drill down to learn details about exactly where each project was and how many people it helped. Second, they make their financials public. Interested supporters can look at their books and see where all the money goes.

Part of Charity: Water's 2016 tax return

Charity: Water overcomes skepticism with proof of tangible results and open books. Not every organization can do it as well as they do, but it’s a good model to strive for – transparency and accountability that lead to trust. And trust, in turn, is one of the keys to gaining supporters and subscribers.

 

Ultimately, Charity: Water does a great job communicating what they’re about, what they’ve accomplished, and why supporters should trust them. Any nonprofit that can do the same will be on the right track.

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