We spoke to Viktoria Harrison, co-founder of charity: water about the benefits of telling the same story from a thousand different angles and the importance of customer service.
Your partner Scott Harrison has said there wasn’t a single charity brand he looked up to when you two were starting out with charity: water. But he liked Apple’s brand and wanted to build “The Apple of Charity”. What was your initial brand vision for charity: water and how has it evolved over the years?
When we were starting charity: water back in 2006, Apple’s brand was everything to us. We loved that it wasn’t pushy or too flashy – it was elegant, sophisticated, approachable and muted. And truly, I think the 90s and early 2000s were a low point for good branding and marketing. There was a lot of in-your-face, aggressive advertising – lots of bright colours and annoying slogans – most of it felt fake. Everyone was trying to out-scream each other on the pages of magazines, billboards, commercials and packaging boxes.
Meanwhile, Apple was different because they had an effortless, subtle way about them –they were calming and didn’t try too hard to impress. This made their message stand out. We wanted to do the same in our corner of the world – in the nonprofit world.
Nonprofit work is so personal, and giving is so personal and human, that we knew our message and brand had to feel organic and real to inspire the most human response in people. That included values like transparency, humility and sincerity, and talking about the reality of failure, perseverance in unideal circumstances and telling stories that were unexpected, different, raw and real.
We’ve worked hard to stick to these values in our branding ever since, and these days, the creative team has built up a really good radar for anything fake, exaggerated or anything that’s trying too hard to spin or twist the truth. As a result, our brand continues to feel authentic, sincere and human. At least that’s what we hope and aim for!
You describe charity: water as a movement (one million supporters from 100 countries). Tell us how you built that movement.
The brand definitely has a lot to do with it. We built a brand that was approachable, friendly, positive and hopeful. And we did it very intentionally because we knew that would be something people wanted to be a part of. So many charity brands play on feelings of guilt and short-term emotions like fear and pity – and others simply take themselves too seriously. There’s no joy or lightness in their brand’s personality. And I get it because the work so many of us do is serious work. But the truth is, people have enough problems in their own lives and if you can build a brand that helps transport them to a better world, makes them feel great about themselves and their contribution – spreads contagious positivity, as Scott likes to say – then, you’re off to the races.
And after that, it’s all about one event, one campaign, one video and one brand partnership at a time. You acquire 100 people here, a couple thousand there, and bit by bit the word spreads. We just kept showing up and inspiring people, involving them and enabling them to play a part in our story of ending the water crisis. We made sure they felt like heroes in every interaction with us, making people want to come back again and again.
charity: water was founded on the eve of the digital revolution. It’s known for its superb digital communications and using tools such as real-time video to provide donors with fantastic news and content. Tell us about your approach to communications with impact.
We knew we wanted to be a digitally forward organisation from the beginning, so our approach was simple: if there’s a new tool or social app, WE TRY IT. The ones that stuck, we doubled down on. The ones that didn’t, we left behind. But we always tried everything – we had an almost obsessive desire to be the first to try any new technology. When Google Glass came out, I remember we were already brainstorming how to tell a charity: water story through the glasses. They didn’t really make it though, but then virtual reality came around the corner, and we were immediately writing a script and shooting a video in Ethiopia in VR.
charity: water attracts a lot of younger donors. Why is that and what percentage of the donor base do they comprise?
Our average donor age is not actually that young – it’s around 35. But I do also think audiences grow with their brands. When we were up and coming, the older folks didn’t take us as seriously, but the college kids and 20-somethings loved us. Now, 15 years in, we’re credible enough to a 70-year-old granddad, and we’re also still cool enough for his grandkids. We’ve grown up ourselves, and the brand has lost a bit of its silly, scrappy edge but only very slightly. And that’s ok with us – it’s hard to span three generations successfully, so we stay somewhere in the middle.
Does charity: water reach out to other generations (eg Gen X is coming up in the wealth factor)?
Yes. We actually created a program recently that makes it easy for people to write us in their will. We have many efforts like that which are less discoverable to the general public, but our team of fundraisers pitch to very targeted audiences.
What fundraising challenges did charity: water face due to coronavirus, and what did the organisation do to overcome those challenges?
At the beginning of the pandemic, we lost $10 million in corporate donations (about 10% of donations revenue) because many of the businesses that supported us had to close, pull funding, or were completely disrupted. Many of our local partners across 20 countries also faced stay-at-home orders, and the constant travel our water programs team relies on to audit the programs, and finances of our programs, was put on hold. We cut costs, closed our office and went to a fully remote work environment.
After the initial shock, charity: water employees found a new normal on Zoom – as we all did – and the team rallied in an inspiring way, working to make up lost revenue and meet the original goals set before COVID-19 happened. We’ve never been easily deterred as a culture, and our staff love a good challenge. As a result, we wound up raising almost $90 million (very close to the original budget before COVID hit) in 2020 to help 1.5 million people get clean water.
For almost a decade, you helped to build the charity: water brand. Now you’ve left the charity to help entrepreneurs and founders of non-profits tell their stories through your new venture, The Branded Startup. What’s it about?
I’m passionate about helping young nonprofits grow and using my decade of experience at charity: water to help them gain confidence, learn from our mistakes, and make a positive impact in the world – moving their important causes forward. It started first with brand coaching for non-profits and purpose-driven entrepreneurs, hence the name, but I realised that people need more than just brand advice – many come to me with fundraising strategy questions, organisational model questions and much more. So, I’m thinking of expanding it to serve a wider range of non-profit needs.
What is key to a successful brand, and is it any different for nonprofits? Do a lot of people still think it’s about a pretty logo?
I don’t think there’s much of a difference. A great brand is all about telling an incredible story, no matter what sector it’s in. For example, Nike tells the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things with their body. Apple tells the story of challenging the status quo. Airbnb – the story of belonging anywhere you go in the world. At charity: water, we’re telling the story of reinventing charity for future generations. I once heard it said that a great brand tells the same story from a thousand different angles – I love that. And if you tell the same consistent story long enough, your brand starts to mean something to the world. That works exactly the same for for-profits and for nonprofits alike.
Many charities are dependent on events – fun runs, gala dinners, trips to the field, etc. But many events couldn’t be held in 2020 due to social distancing and lockdowns. 2021 might be the year to think about a regular giving program. At FIA Conference, your presentation is going to be about starting a regular monthly giving program. charity: water is an exemplar with a $20 million regular giving program called The Spring. But many monthly giving programs aren’t fantastic – they’re just monthly debits. What’s at the heart of a successful regular giving program?
There are many big ideas that have had to come together at charity: water in order for our monthly giving product to succeed. But if I had to name one that’s at the heart, it would be treating our monthly givers like shareholders. Keeping them inspired, connected to our work and the staff, and updated on our progress. We often invite our monthly givers on Zoom calls with Scott or our Director of Water Programs and just have an open Q&A session where people can ask us anything. It makes donors feel seen and connected. We break people up by geographic location – so, for example, the other day, Scott hosted a Zoom call with all of our Austin, Texas monthly givers. It’s so fun and easy to do and makes people feel like they have an intimate connection with each other, us and the monthly giving community.
Scott is close to the founder of Spotify, Daniel Ek. And when he first told Daniel about launching our monthly giving program, The Spring, Daniel’s advice was simple: if you want to be in the recurring revenue business, you must be in the customer service business. That advice has stayed with us as we’ve grown the program and has fundamentally transformed our relationship with our donors. When you know that a donor will be with you for years – as opposed to giving just once or twice – you begin to think differently about the relationship. You think of it more like a marriage or a monogamous relationship as opposed to a date.
What’s coming up for you and The Branded Startup?
I’m re-launching the Monthly Giving Launch Guide right now, actually – it’s a 12-lesson course that teaches non-profits how to create and launch a successful monthly giving product. I’m excited because the first group had great feedback and is implementing the concepts I teach already.
I really enjoy teaching and consolidating knowledge for people in an organised way. So, I think the next project will be another course – how to pitch to a major donor for a large donation. Stay tuned!
Where can people find you?
Viktoria Harrison will be appearing at the FIA Conference 2021 in February.