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Creator and Artist Stories

5 Questions with Scott Harrison, Founder of charity:water

By Ramya Raghavan

YouTube News And Politics Manager

charity:water is an organization dedicated to providing clean, safe drinking water to people around the globe and since exploding onto YouTube in 2008, they’ve made a name for themselves with consistent catchy, aesthetically awesome videos. charity:water is a nonprofit who isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what’s possible with video so we weren’t surprised to hear that they have big YouTube plans for their upcoming September Campaign. We sat down with charity:water founder Scott Harrison to learn more about the campaign and their approach to making videos that are both inspiring and compulsively watchable.

Q: You're launching your 6th annual September Campaign next week. Can you tell us about the campaign and how video will play a role?

A: charity: water was born in September, and each year we take that month to focus in on a particular country, tell an amazing story and challenge our community to make a big impact there. This year, we’re telling a powerful story of redemption in Rwanda.

It’s been 18 years since the genocide, and the country has been rebuilding faster than most people ever thought possible. Rwanda is now attempting to achieve 100% clean water coverage by 2020 -- something no country in Africa has ever done before -- and we want to help them. By partnering with the local government, through the September Campaign, we’re going to bring clean water to 26,000 people in the Rulindo District.

At the core of this campaign are stories, stories of families who have to haul water up and down a mountain every day--water from a swamp or river that can make them sick; stories of people making a living by managing and maintaining the kind of water points we’ll fund; and stories of our fundraisers doing amazing things to help people on the other side of the world.

In addition to the trailer which launched on August 21, we’ll release four short films during the campaign, and then on September 7, we’ll film and upload a video -- live from Rwanda -- as the work begins in the field. It’s important to us to inspire our fundraisers by bringing the story to life and also to use video to help them see their impact.

Q. Your "Thank You" campaign fascinated us at YouTube because it did a few things differently. For example, it featured your whole staff and each video was targeted towards a particular donor. Was the campaign successful? Can you share any learnings? 

Yes. Last year, to mark our fifth birthday, we decided to celebrate the thousands of fundraisers who gave up their birthdays, biked, swam, and built lemonade stands to raise money for clean water.

There was no fundraising goal for these videos, and we intentionally didn’t make them only for our top donors and fundraisers. Instead our goal was to just make 250 different supporters feel special and let them know how much we value them.

Our metrics for the campaign were soft, but dozens of people who received the videos, sent us emails to express the depth of their feelings and ‘love’ for our brand.

And our staff (everyone from our receptionist to our CTO made videos!) reported back that this ‘thank you experience’ was among their favorite moments working here.

Most importantly, we think that anyone who sees the thank you videos will understand just how much we care about our relationship with our supporters. 

Q: Besides view count, how do you measure the success of a charity:water video?

A: The first goal of our video strategy is to inspire people. Inspire them to become aware of this important issue, to donate, to fundraise, and hopefully to become lifelong fans. Inspiration is difficult to measure, but the results driven by that inspiration are powerful.

For this year’s September Campaign, we’ll release five videos throughout the campaign as key content to drive our $1.7 million fundraising target. Without the video inspiration, we wouldn’t be able to create the movement of thousands of fundraisers needed to bring clean water to 26,000 people in Rwanda.

And despite the fact that we don’t make videos to drive immediate donations, we frequently see a fundraising spike alongside our best video content. For example, last year when we launched our animated Water Changes Everything on YouTube (now viewed over 800,000 times), we saw our online donations spike for weeks.

Q: One thing that comes across in your videos is your sense of aesthetics. How does design play a role in video production and does it take a large budget to make videos that are aesthetically appealing?

A: Time, energy, and talent can be more important than budget when it comes to making great videos. Our video team is only made up of a couple people, but we invest significant time and energy in bringing excellence to everything we produce.

It’s important to us that charity: water videos always look beautiful. It shows respect for our supporters that we invest as much time as possible in the highest aesthetic appeal.

Q: What's one mistake you see nonprofits making with video? What advice do you have for organizations making this mistake?

A: The biggest mistake we see are non-profits using the power of the medium to drive feelings of guilt or sadness, instead of hope and positivity.

You can evoke strong emotions with a video, and a sad tale or a shocking image can indeed induce someone to pull out their wallet and donate. However, we believe in respecting both the subjects of our videos and the audience, and you’ll see us continue to focus on positivity, possibility and inspiration over guilt and sadness.