charity: water is a nonprofit that provides clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. Launched in 2006 by twenty-something Scott Harrison, the NGO has raised more than $100 million dollars through its fundraising website The organisations approach to online fundraising is the model of inbound marketing for nonprofits.

Digital Fire was recently approached by a global nonprofit seeking digital marketing solutions for charity fundraising. Being email marketing and digital media specialists, and knowing the potential digital marketing has to drive online donations, we were immediately excited by the prospect. It got our internal research teams reminiscing about the infamous 2012 September campaign launched by charity:water.

The campaign took in more than $2m – largely through digital marketing

The month of September is the biggest annual fundraiser from nonprofit charity:water.

During the 2012 September Campaign, charity: water set an ambitious goal of $1.7 million for the Rulindo District in Rwanda. The campaign took in more than $2m, which was largely through digital marketing channels such as email marketing.

Email content for this campaign was directed at connecting supporters to the frontlines of the campaign, using “videos and stories to raise awareness, and inspire people to join us,” said Sarah Salisbury, Digital Marketing Manager, charity: water.

For September 2012 fundraiser, the charity decided to launch a series of email marketing campaigns to raise awareness and inspire donors. The goal was to inspire people not only to give money, but to start their own fundraising.

Marketing Sherpa did a case study on the full email campaign, which can be read here.

How did charity:water use email to stoke the fires?

Ironically, initially Sarah was hesitant to increase the frequency of their email marketing, not wanting to annoy donors. The charity learned very quickly the high return on email marketing and it’s far reaching impact, if executed correctly. Below is how they revised their email marketing for the September 2012 campaign.

charity:water newsletter - online fundraising

1. Frequency

The charity dramatically increased their email sends from once a month to bi-weekly. The weekly emails were personalised based on subscribers’ level of engagement and progress toward their fundraising goals.

2. Communicate visually

The next was ensuring those emails were worth opening. The charity set out to design the most beautiful emails ever seen. The designs made use of arresting imagery, they were clean, text-light and they performed well on mobile devices.

3. Content that inspires

Inspiration is what brings in the dollars. Storytelling through written content, videos and imagery is an important weapon in charity:water’s arsenal, as it should be in any nonprofits. The campaign emails were filled with content that mattered to donors such as; stories and images about the people reached, practical advice about how to raise money for their causes and where and how donations were being utilised to drill wells and provide clean water to impoverished communities.

4. Continue the message onto a landing page

Call to actions on the emails took the subscriber to the main September Campaign page. Consistent design and messaging ensured that the respondent’s expectations were met once they clicked through. The landing page carried the transparency and connection seen in the email content. The landing page was packed with all the information a donor may have needed to be inspired to give. Videos, stats, progress made, insights into the communities were all available on the landing page.

charity:water receives more than 75% of its donations online

charity:water founder Scott Harrison told the New York Times last year that he “absolutely” attributes the organisation’s success to the web. To date the organisation has raised more than $100 million dollars, garnered 313,000 likes on Facebook and nabbed scores of celebrity endorsements and corporate sponsors. The fact that more than 75% of their donations are online via their website donation portal is testament to the power of digital marketing for nonprofits.

In just 4 months charity:water will be launching their September 2015 campaign. What the organisation will do this year remains to be seen…