Start it, nurture it, let it go, watch it grow.

If there was one trending topic at the Institute of Fundraising’s National Convention last week it was charity:water, their great “thank you” video and their command of all things digital.

We ran a session at the agency during Social Media Week back in February on Social Giving that included a presentation by Paull Young, their Director of Digital. I am a big fan of Paull’s, and a massive admirer of charity:water. In 2011, they generated $18 million in donations, 83% more than in 2010.  75% of those donations were online. This is clearly music to fundraising ears of every persuasion. But let’s put that in some context. In the UK, as we know, 12% of the adult internet population has donated online, and the share of donations from online channels has risen 85% in 3 years. But it’s still 3.7%. Even in charity:water’s home land the norm is 6.9%.

So how are they doing it? Well, charity:water have both a latecomer and early adopter advantage. Unlike most organisations they are not decades old. They grew out of one person’s idea, so there’s no weight of history or layers of opinion. There’s one focus: “bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries” with “100% of all public donations directly fund water projects”.

This latter statement is perhaps the key. charity:water’s role is to fund the projects, report back and thank donors. How that money is raised is truly in the hands of the public. They are supportive, not prescriptive. They are curators not creators. And just a glance at some of the projects such as “Water Forward” shows how letting go can really work.

The closest we’ve got to so far here I think is UNICEF’s awesome “Own A Colour” or Movember. Truly innovative, donor led ideas that have proved extremely successful fundraisers. But can it work for everyone? To get near I believe you need to:

  • Be truly collaborative (something interestingly advocated by the major donors in the “Meet the Donors” session).  Ideas can come from anywhere.  But are you geared up to take them on and make them work?
  • Work those networks. Yours, your supporters, your colleagues, your trustees, those of key influencers, those of complete strangers. This is community fundraising for the digital age.
  • Let it go.  Word of mouth is as old as the hills, and we should be conversation starters. And of course the beauty of digital is we can see those stories evolve, join in, adjust our messages to fit our supporters.
  • Put digital, and digital users, at the heart of your thinking.  Yes, yes, I am biased. But after nearly 12 years of watching people attempt to put brochures online or get sidetracked by shiny toys, it’s high time we thought like a person not like a marketing machine.

So what can we truly learn from charity:water? Well, I think Paull sums it up well in his guest blog on The Good Agency site. Be innovative, be transparent, be a failure, be a fast learner. Oh, and my final thought: don’t be afraid of the multiple cash donor. If we want to engage new audiences, we should look at new ways of giving.

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