Insights From The First Nonprofit To Earn 1 Million Twitter Followers

How can nonprofits harness the power of social media? We asked a social media trailblazer from charity: water, the first nonprofit to earn 1 million Twitter followers, to explain his social media strategy and share a few tips.

Paull Young

Director of Strategic Giving and Community Engagement, Dell, Inc.

Who He Is:

Paull is a member of the first executive leadership team at charity: water, a non-profit providing clean and safe drinking water to people in the developing world. Under his leadership as Director of Digital Engagement, charity: water has raised more than $37 million for communities in need.

Q: Describe charity: water’s social media strategy.

A: What we try to do at charity: water is show people their impact and have them fundamentally understand what they give—the time and effort they engage in fundraising or in sharing their content with their friends—makes a real impact. It’s not just about acquiring a donor, getting a donation, and then issuing a tax receipt and asking for more money. A first donation is just the start of the relationship. We want to prove the work that we do. Every water project that we’ve built—there’s over 7,000 now—we’ve marked on Google Maps so people can see them. We’re spending more and more time and energy on trying to report from the ground to connect people to their impact.

Q: Branding is an important part of charity: water’s strategy. Why?

A: We want to inspire people through an epic brand. From day one at charity: water, we’ve been trying to build a brand like Apple or Nike. We want to be people’s favorite brand. We want people to love us like any brand they really care about. Now that’s a very rare-stated goal for a nonprofit. It’s a hard thing to prove direct ROI on, yet it is ultimately one of the core reasons that we are so successful. Part of the reason we can acquire a lot of new donors online is because we have an amazing brand team that produces a lot of amazing content that inspires people. Very few nonprofits have the ability to invest time and energy in creatives, but for me, in a Web economy that is becoming about sharing—about sharing content on social networks with your friends and family and passing things around, instead of direct response, instead of receiving a letter in the mail and pulling out a credit card—you need to have inspiring content to break through.

Q: charity: water’s social media feeds are full of beautiful photographs. How do you use photos on social media?

A: We will send out a photographer out to the field for a week to come back with amazing photos. We don’t show a photo and say, ‘Give $20.’ We use a photo to inspire people. We’ll share it on Instagram. We’ll share it on Facebook. For us, there’s a heavy focus on social media. We’re the first nonprofit to have a million Twitter followers. We were one of the first brands on Instagram. We spend time in these environments because it’s where our supporters are. It’s a really cheap and effective way to scale. You don’t need a huge amount of staff to do this well.

Q: Tell us about a piece of digital content that has helped charity:water acquire new donors.

A: One thing you might want to think about how is how can you as an organization have an asset, whether it’s a Web page or a story or a slide deck, where you can explain to a new donor what your focus is and why it matters in three minutes. If you Google “Water Changes Everything,” you will see a video that is very important to us for acquiring donors which does not in fact ask them for money. It’s more about education and that first level of inspiration that binds them to the cause.

Q: How would you suggest a nonprofit with a $40,000 budget build a digital or social media strategy?

A: It depends on where your strengths lie. Having some great creative talent can be really impactful. There are people out there who would like to commit and invest time and energy in telling your story. Spend a weekend watching amazing videos on YouTube and try to track down who made them. Video doesn’t have to be the answer, but it’s one great way to tell your story. You have nothing to lose. Get out there and try stuff! Get out there and share photos. Get close to the impact you’re having. Post photos online. Thank donors.

Featured Photo: A community celebrates a new charity: water well in Ethiopia.

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