This September, charity: water, a New York based nonprofit providing clean water in 24 countries, had their 10th birthday. I realize it's odd to talk about an organization having a birthday, but a birthday is at the heart of charity: water's founding and its trailblazing fundraising strategies.
charity: water was launched with a birthday fundraiser 10 years ago from founder Scott Harrison raising $15,000 from friends and family for a water project in Northern Uganda. Scott committed to go to the project site, take photos, and show his, skeptical, supporters that the well was built and functioning. Crowdfunding and radical transparency.
Two unique elements of charity: water that are in the very core and DNA of the organization and also two reasons why charity: water has raised more than $230 million from 1 million unique donors and funded over 21,000 water projects in 24 countries for 6.4 million people.
As a charity nerd, fundraiser and nonprofit professor with a background in international development I've been following and fascinated with charity: water since year 2. I've been lucky enough to visit them in New York and have a few chats with staff and recently got some of Scott's time to hear more about his 10-year journey, what he's learned, and what's next. So with that, here are...
5 Lessons Learned Over 10 Years With Scott Harrison from charity: water
1. Crowdfunding Has Been Commoditized. And That's A Good Thing.
charity: water launched their first September campaign focused on people pledging their birthdays and instead of getting more gifts they would create a fundraising page and ask for donations. This peer-to-peer strategy is commonplace nowadays but when Scott and team first started there weren't even tools to do it well. So they built it.
In the 9 years since that first campaign, crowdfunding has exploded as a method to raise capital for projects - charitable or other - with crowdfunding raising over $34 billion around the world in 2015. Platforms like Network for Good have seen peer-to-peer grow to 24% of all donations processed in 2015. And charity: water was one of the pioneers to prove the model and lead the way.
Crowdfunding and peer-to-peer fundraising may be commonplace, but with continued advances in technology, socially connected and cause interested Millennials, and more acceptance of the approach, we're really just seeing the early days of crowdfunding's power for causes.
2. Starting at Zero Is Untenable.
As the birthday pledging grew, became a year-round strategy, and the platform was able to scale, a new problem emerged: donor retention. Donor retention is a common problem for organizations but when your donor base are giving small amounts, online, from all over the country, and largely because a friend asked them - as opposed to an organization - donor retention isn't just hard. It's almost impossible.
"Only about 15% of those people were giving year over year so each year we had to work so hard to recruit more fundraisers to get more donors just to keep up, let alone grow. We are too big to start at zero every year. It's untenable."
To help combat this, this year's September campaign celebrated all the heroes from the past campaigns but also has a new and different focus: monthly donations. charity: water is calling this program The Spring, and will be taking a hands-on, iterative approach.
"We see it as a 3,000+ person pilot program. We want to see what works, what people want, and how we can 'surprise and delight' them. The idea is that we've had 1 million donors get us through the past 10 years, but now we're looking for donors who will be with us, month in and month out, for the next 10 years. We think it's what's needed to really tackle the clean water crisis and reach the 663 million people still without clean water"
Thanks in large part to the September campaign and charity: water's iterative approach, The Spring has over 5,200 members in 61 countries. And counting...
Whether your donor retention rate is 15% or 85%, all organizations can benefit from these low cost, high impact, high convenience forms of giving to boost revenues - year over year. As long as the donor remains the hero and treated as such - with regular updates, exclusive content, and special perks - programs like The Spring will help grow and sustain powerful organizations well into the future.
3. People Are Attracted to Excellence And Excellence Isn't Cheap.
charity: water was recently featured in AdWeek for their new, swanky, New York office. I know what you're thinking, "But wait, aren't they a poor charity? Shouldn't they be spending their money on clean water and not wasteful things like their staff and employees?" Okay, that last part was me because the idea that staff is 'overhead', a waste of money, and not part of the 'cause' or 'mission' is absolute garbage. And not having that 'poverty' mentality has been key for Scott and charity: water.
"I didn't come from charity, and we didn't have a lot of people here with charity backgrounds so we thought differently. We think our staff is our greatest asset and they should like coming to work, sit in comfy chairs, and be in an environment to do their best work. Because the work is important!"
From advertising campaigns on 5th avenue, fancy galas, and magnificent office spaces, charity: water hasn't shied away from spending on things that are valuable to their work. But they've also been smart at working with partners who donate products, gifts in kind, and services as well as donors who 'get it' to cover these overhead costs.
"There's that tension for sure but we believe that people are attracted to excellence. Staff. Donors. Volunteers. So we do what we need to do to be excellent while being true to ourselves and our mission and our donors get it and support it."
As donors start to expect more from the organizations they support, they also need to be willing to fund and be okay with more investment in staff, infrastructure, and 'overhead' if they really want to see nonprofits grow, work expand, and the people they serve thrive.
4. 100% Model Not 100% Right For All Organizations.
Of all the paths Scott and charity: water have pioneered or brought to the fore in the philanthropy space, the 100% model is perhaps the most well known. Trying to cater to people who didn't give to or trust charities, Scott promised early supporters that 100% of their donations would go right to the projects they supported. He even opened two separate bank accounts for transparency and accountability. Something they still have in place today with separate audits from KPMG to test the accuracy and transparency of the 100% model.
"We want charity: water to be a place where people make their first charitable donation and feel good about it. How money is spent and 'overhead' is an issue for many people, so with this model, we take it off the table and just ask people to give."
And while this has been hugely successful for Scott and a staple of the charity: water brand - as well as a key differentiator of The Spring - it's not always going to be right for all organizations. And it's not easy.
"There were some tough times for sure. We thought we may have to close up shop if we couldn't find the funding to cover our expenses and that's how much we believed in it, that we were willing to close our doors if we had to. But that's our story and it's not for everyone."
Evaluating organizations based on overhead is foolish and damaging. But many donors still do it. So donors who get it have the chance to 'cover' the overhead to make it easy for donors who don't to simply give and get to know the organization.
5. Moving Beyond Scott.
When I was studying nonprofit management in grad school, we talked a lot about founder's syndrome. As a relatively young and inexperienced student, I didn't fully realize what it was and why it was such a big deal. But working for a founder (who was great it should be said) and running into numerous other founders in my philanthropy career I came to realized just how big of an issue it could be. And how big of an issue it could be for Scott and charity: water as he's been the founder and face for 10 years.
"This video for the 10th anniversary is probably the last one to really feature me and my story. The last 4 years have really been about other people. Christoph is doing more of the speaking, meetings, and events. We have something really special and it's much bigger than me now which is a great thing."
All founders - nonprofit or otherwise - dream of building something significant that can grow beyond themselves and sustain themselves for a 10 year period. The past 10 years for Scott and charity: water have truly been remarkable and it will be exciting to see what's in store in the next 10 years.
10 years. 1 million donors. 6 million people with clean water. 663 million more who need it.
What Scott and charity: water have been able to achieve the past 10 years is remarkable. Their impact on the charitable sector and people like me have been immense and is in addition to the 6 million plus people they've brought clean water to. But there's more to be done.
663 million people are still living without clean water. This means time away from families and schools to fetch water. This means loss of income and jobs. And this means disease and even death. charity: water has been working for 10 years to combat this and will continue to fight this battle with a focus on excellence. You can learn more about charity: water here and The Spring here.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated charity: water was launched with a birthday fundraiser 10 years ago from founder Scott Harrison raising $30,000. It raised $15,000.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated charity: water in total has raised $155 million from 1 million donors to give clean water to over 6 million people. It has raised more than $230 million from 1 million unique donors and funded over 21,000 water projects in 24 countries for 6.4 million people.