The Conventional Case of an “Unconventional Charity”

Posted on 02 April 2012

Full disclosure, I like Charity: Water. I think they are a smart, effective nonprofit that addresses one of the woefully underrepresented global crises today: the shortage of clean drinking water and its deadly impact on hundreds of millions of people around the world.

However, I think the most impressive about Charity: Water is how it convinced people that it somehow created a new method for raising money or, in The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s words, created an “unconventional charity.”

Founded by Scott Harrison, a former concert promoter, Charity: Water always has been extremely effective in using social media and modern technology to differentiate itself and craft an image as an innovative organization. And they are. But I find it disconcerting that media outlets, especially one as focused on the nonprofit world as The Chronicle of Philanthropy, continue to describe Charity: Water as an organization that is changing the way nonprofits should operate. Instead, Charity: Water is simply adopting the standard practices that most nonprofits use to run their organizations.

In its recent article, The Chronicle of Philanthropy lists the following “secrets” that Harrison attributes to his organization’s success, even though they are nothing but updated versions of time-tested nonprofit strategies (italics are the Chronicle’s words, the following commentary is mine):

1)      Demonstrate results . . . Mr. Harrison said he has been dedicated to showing donors where their money is going through photo documentation and GPS coordinates.”

This is called stewardship. Every nonprofit does it. It’s the practice of showing your donors the impact of their giving. Using GPS coordinates does not represent a change in the practice of stewardship. This is not a secret.

2)      Good design and branding. Mr. Harrison wanted his charity’s image to focus on its mission to provide clean water to Africa.”

Wait, a nonprofit wants its image to focus on its mission?!? I’ve never heard of such of a thing! . . . that was sarcastic.

3)      Not charging donors for overhead. Mr. Harrison created two accounts when he founded the organization: one for operating expenses and one for programs so that 100 percent of donor money would go to water projects.”

Creating an unrestricted, general operating account to go along with accounts for restricted giving is a common practice, not a secret.

4)      Broadcast your failures. Every year, Charity: Water drills a well during a live broadcast. One year, that drilling found no water. To confront the issue head on, Mr. Harrison filmed a video of the failed drilling and sent it to all of the organization’s supporters. He now considers that one of the most compelling things the organization has done. ‘People just want to hear the truth,’ he said.”

Admittedly, proactive communications about failures and other unflattering news is not practiced by enough organizations, both in the for-profit and non-profit worlds. But it’s also not a “secret.” It’s simply a proactive approach to crisis communications that is well-known.

5)      You are what you eat. Mr. Harrison says his organization doesn’t spend much time with other nonprofits because it doesn’t want to operate like other nonprofits. He spends much more time talking to entrepreneurs, especially those in the technology world, because those are the organizations he most wants to emulate.”

I honestly have no idea how this is supposed to be considered “unconventional.” This is the head of a nonprofit saying he spends much more time with prospects and leaders of  successful organizations than he spends with other nonprofits. I can’t think of a charitable organization that doesn’t do this. If Harrison “doesn’t want to operate like other nonprofits,” he sure has a strange way of going about it.

Again, I’m not attacking Charity: Water here. I think they’re pretty great actually, and I wish more nonprofits and donors would pay attention to the growing global catastrophe of the clean water shortage. I believe there is no other more pressing, important humanitarian cause in the world today. If you have a second, go over to Charity: Water’s website and give them some money. I think they deserve it, and I know the cause does. And honestly, I don’t blame Harrison for crafting this false narrative about the “unconventional” nature of his organization. It gets him and Charity: Water in the news and in front of prospective donors.

No, what I object to is the media pretending that Charity: Water is breaking new ground here simply because it is a nice story and may generate some page hits. The real lesson here is how Charity: Water applied social media and new technology to tried-and-true methods from the nonprofit world to create a very successful organization. That’s informative, and that’s a story from which donors, nonprofits, etc can all learn.

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