Communicate Through the Crisis

Communicate Through the Crisis

April 23, 2020
56 minutes

Viktoria Harrison · Founder, The Branded Startup / VP of Creative, charity: water | Funraise CEO Justin Wheeler sits down with Viktoria, to discuss the strategy behind navigating your brand messaging. Today, more than ever, it's critical that nonprofits relay the importance of their mission while considering societal changes.  


We're all looking for someone with answers. Ideally, someone who's been here before and can point us in the right direction.

Problem is... this is all new. None of us have been here before. Who can lead us?

Why not you?

Justin Wheeler, Funraise CEO, and Vik Harrison, founder of The Branded Startup and co-founder of charity: water, are here to help you communicate clearly amidst the shouting and the sirens and the stir of our own thoughts.

Guide your nonprofit to wise decisions as you communicate

  • How do we ask for donations without sounding insensitive?
  • Will donors give to organizations that are not first responders?
  • With all the uncertainty, are people still donating when they are focused on saving?
  • Is my mission still important?

The world is looking at nonprofits just like yours and wondering how they can help.

Show them the way.


Justin Wheeler OK, Vik, thank you so much for joining us today! For the audience that is logging in, my name is Justin Wheeler. I'm the Founder and CEO here at Funraise, a technology platform helping nonprofits modernize their fundraising. But today, I'm very excited to introduce our guest, who is the co-founder of charity: water and founder of The Branded Startup. Vik, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your background, your story and what you're up to today?

Viktoria Harrison Yes. Hi. Hey, everyone. It's great to be here. So let's see, how far back should I go? I'll start a little bit before charity: water. I have a background in marketing and design, and I wanted to come out of college and work in the marketing advertising industry in New York City - did that for a couple of years. I learned a lot. Realized I don't want to sell things that are going to make big companies richer and aren't really meaningful. And right when I was looking for a change, to leave the kind of cutthroat advertising industry in New York City, I met Scott, who was this kind of young hotshot ex-nightclub promoter, turned humanitarian. And he told me, hey, you know, I'm starting a thing called charity: water. Did you know that there are almost a billion people, back then, who don't have access to clean, safe drinking water? And I was like, what? People really don't have access? I mean, I was so naive, I was twenty-three. And so together we just went on, our first office was his living room and his dining room table. And we started building charity: water around this dining room table in his apartment for the first six months. So I was kind of working my day job in this unhappy advertising career and coming home and then running straight to Scott's apartment at 6:00 p.m., working until midnight, building this organization as a volunteer. And so I kind of started as a designer at charity: water then started to hire a small team underneath me. During this time, Scott and I fell in love, got married, and I became the creative director of charity: water, running the entire storytelling marketing design team for 9.5 years and sort of got to see this insane rocketship growth from living room to a 100 person team and a huge office and working in 24 countries around the world. So charity: water for anyone who's not familiar brings clean and safe drinking water to people around the world. And our mission is to bring clean water to people. Our vision really is to reinvent charity for our generation. So very much like Funraise, trying to modernize fundraising. We're trying to really modernize a charity.

Justin Wheeler I love that concept. And I think you guys have done an exceptional job at really changing the face of charity on so many different levels, whether that's around donor transparency, the way a nonprofit deserves to be marketed to, you know, the audience and the way you guys just compete, not against, I hate saying against nonprofits, but more so, you know, like putting your dollars into charity: water versus buying some consumer brand. So it's, I love what you guys are doing on that front. And you've been a big inspiration to charities around the world. I mean,  work with a lot and the North Star is always charity: water. So thank you for joining us. Tell us a little bit more about The Branded Startup and what you're doing with that company.

Viktoria Harrison Sure. So after I left charity: water, I'd always had this desire to teach what we've learned on a massive scale. I wanted to show other organizations that there's a better way, that there was a way more fun way to run a charity that really worked like a startup, work like a tech-forward and brand-forward company. And so The Branded Startup was just my idea for a platform to coach small startup nonprofits and really try and grab them in the very beginning when they're just trying to figure out how do we get our name out there, how do we build a donor base and really try and educate small startup nonprofits on the importance of marketing communication and first and foremost, branding and design. So I've been coaching one on one, up until now. But starting to think about what does it look like to have a kind of one-to-many approach to teaching the things that I've learned, the things that I believe would make a great marketing and communication and branding strategy for nonprofits. So that's what I do at The Brand Startup. Right now it's just me, but I'm really excited about the future.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. Thanks for sharing. For everyone that is here listening there is a Q&A tab here on Zoom that you can start writing your questions in. So we're going to, we'll start addressing some of those questions in a few minutes. So if you have any questions for Vik, please drop that into the Q&A tab and we'll start with the most upvoted questions and kind of go from there. But before we do that, I'd like to dive back into a few more questions that I am dying to ask you about. So back to kind of, you mentioned that, you know, you ran creative for charity: water and anyone looking at like charity: water knows that. I mean, there's just a lot of brilliance wrapped around the way charity: water presents itself. And so what drove that creativity? What drives your own creativity? And how can people tap into their more creative side as humans?

Viktoria Harrison Wow. I could write a whole book about that. I mean, first and foremost, you know, I think it really does come from you and you, whether you're the founder or the co-founder. So Scott and I, I mean, we just we did a lot of like playing. I mean, we just dreamed a lot. And, you know, I remember reading this article Fast Company had I think is like their 10th anniversary issue, it was a long time ago. But they named the most creative companies in the world, including Apple, Burberry, Google, and Nike. And so they defined that the most successful, kind of creatively successfu,l brands in the world are categorized by a very specific relationship, which is between the relationship between the founder and the creative director. And in some companies that title might be called like CMO, some companies might call them, you know, Brand Director or so. But the kind of person in charge of creative so that I believe truly drove our success, is the relationship between myself and Scott, where he was the big picture visionary thinking 10 years ahead. But he didn't love being in the weeds and executing his ideas in a flawless way. Like he just wanted to have the big idea and then have it be executed by someone else. I love executing in a really excellent way. I can think in an innovative way to an extent, but not as big as he thinks. And so that relationship between us truly was, I think, at the core of what allowed charity: water to never close a single door on any idea, like everything was up for grabs all the time. And then, of course, our team, you know, obviously I think one of your first podcast episodes was with Tyler Riewer from charity: water. I joke around with Tyler because I sometimes say "I made you". I hired him, I think he was living in Seattle back at the time. I hired him, he was kind of an entry-level employee at charity: water first. Now he's amazing. He's grown so much. But our team, you know, I mean, we just never compromised on hiring the most talented folks. A lot of them did not come from the nonprofit space. So it was a little bit of an adjustment. But we really did invest more than most nonprofits in design and creative resources and talent. Yeah.

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Thank you. And the other thing I think, which is a part of the creativity and innovation that you guys have led is just the way that you communicated, whether it was, you know, with donors or, you know, in the process of acquiring new donors like online, just like the communication was always, it seemed like it was very well-thought-out. Like at every kind of turn of the page or, you know, the virtual page, that is. And so how do you like connect like a strong communication strategy with the overall impact of an organization, if that makes sense, like how do those two things interact with each other? And how did you think about it at charity: water?

Viktoria Harrison Yeah. I mean, thank you for saying that. Of course, you know, anything from the inside looks a lot messy or so we stress out about a lot of things. And there are still, everyday, you know, still things we wish you could be doing better. But gosh communication, I mean, there's so many different sides of it. Right. But I think you start and so a while back, I was part of Don Millar's intro kind of thing when he was just starting to try out this idea of the hero's journey, right, for a brand. How do you think about your customer in that sense? So it's called Story Brand. He has a whole workshop. He wrote a book called Story Brand, and that really helped us a lot. So after he kind of blew my mind in the sense of like we've always done it, but he was the first person to put words to it and systematize it. But essentially, instead of talking about yourself as the company, the brand, which is the mistake a lot of companies and brands and nonprofits make. They say we're the hero. Look at us. Look at all the things we've done. We've helped so many people get clean water. This is our 100% model. So they're talking a lot about themselves. And after you know, after taking Don's, going through his workshop and reading his book - We realized we need to start talking to our donors as if they're the hero and we're just the guide to help them achieve whatever it is that they're hoping to achieve when they come to charity: water. And so then we started to see ourselves. We started to see ourselves through the donors eyes a lot more and understand, OK, you know, people aren't coming necessarily only to give us money. They're coming to be part of a community that is vibrant, that is positive, that is maybe a little bit cool and possibly even trendy or whatever. So when we started to think about, OK, what are all of these other things people want? On top of just making a donation and feeling good about themselves, they want all of these, you know, more complex. They want to experience a lot of these more complex emotions. So when you start to think that way, your communication becomes just becomes a lot more sophisticated, I think.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, no, that makes total sense. So I spent five years at Invisible Children and one of the exercises we would go through often is and you know, one of things we talked about quite a bit is how do we make charity cool to high school students? If we can make it cool to a high school student and we get anybody to care about what's happening around the world. And I think, you know, we did that quite effectively. And what I remember in that process was just the amount of time it took to actually walk through and create that level of strategy as it related to, you know, the words that we use in our brand, how we communicated about the issue to ensure that it connected with the proper age demographic. Right. So thank you for that. I want to ask you about so you, through the Branded Startup created the Nonprofit Survival Guide. And I'd love to hear from your perspective and in talking with your clients and other nonprofits. How are nonprofits surviving and weathering the storm and what are some of the common challenges that you're seeing nonprofits face today?

Viktoria Harrison Well, I mean, let's just talk about the big one, which is so many nonprofits are still operating in an event-based revenue model where they have one big gala or two big galas a year, and that is where the majority of their revenue comes from. Clearly, that's going to be really hard pivot for a lot of people, but that is going to push people. I mean, you know, obviously, we need to develop,  every nonprofit needs to have a strong digital strategy by now anyway. But with COVID-19 and some social distancing in place for potentially a really long time. Right. This is going to be the defining year of whether, you know, if your nonprofit can delve into the world of digital strategy and really own it and really develop your community digitally, you're going to survive. If you do not figure out how to do that or haven't by now. It's going to be a really, really tough year or possibly two.

Justin Wheeler I know speaking of years, I listened was it two days ago The Daily talked about this whole concept of social distancing could be on and off for the next 2-3 years. Right. Where like we go back out to society and the virus peaks again, and everybody has to go back home and so I love the point. You know, it's not just diversifying for this time that we're in, but diversifying for the long haul.

Viktoria Harrison I was going to say, let's say Coronavirus just happens to magically go away, no one's going to be angry that they developed an amazing digital and social media strategy. Like you should have that by now anyway.

Justin Wheeler Totally. Absolutely. So I'm gonna jump over to some questions that the audience is asking. And there's some good ones here that I'd like to make sure we get through. So outside of asks like, how often should donors be hearing from nonprofits at this time? So one of the ways we've promoted that, obviously this Q&A was communicating through crisis, like how should organizations be communicating with their donors, whether it's related to fundraising or just overall transparency, scenario planning with donors. So how frequent from your perspective do you think organizations should be communicating with their stakeholders?

Viktoria Harrison Yeah, I mean, that's a complicated and pretty broad question because it depends on your organization and it depends on which donor. So I sort of like to divide, right now in this time, every, you know, every nonprofit kind of goes into three buckets. There is the frontline nonprofit. So if you are doing something that is helping on the front lines. Right. Because that's all everyone is thinking about right now is our own country, our own people and the suffering, the job loss that's going on here in America, if there is or you know, or healthcare worker scenarios. But if there's something that your nonprofit can plug into or if you can slightly pivot your mission to be able to help, you know, in a real way then you should be communicating, I think around the clock. I don't think you should put a limit on your communication. So I'm on the board of New Story, which is an organization building, for those who are not familiar, pioneering solutions to Global Homelessness and New Story was previously only focused on working in developing countries. And two weeks ago, Brett calls me and he's like, what do you think about this idea? You know, so many people are about to lose their homes in America. The ones who are not protected by an eviction moratorium. We would like to find an organization to partner with and start paying people's rent in America. And I was just like, yes, immediately, you need to. If you can pivot your mission now in a way that's still on mission. If you're a homelessness organization don't start getting into food programs necessarily or water. But right, if there's something tangential, then you should be communicating around the clock. So then you go into like all of the rest of the organizations who are not responding on the frontlines right now. Those, and charity: water I would put in that bucket right now. We're not doing anything directly related to COVID-19. So all of our focus, our whole communications team now is just focused on providing value for the rest of Americans who are stuck at home and are going crazy with their kids, for example, or are just finding it hard to connect. We're starting to think about how do we take the people who are in our community and perhaps do a book club to help people get involved with charity: water by reading Scott's book? Or how do we create? I think our team is already starting to or maybe already released this, a workbook for kids that parents can go through with their kids that's related to water and using a lot of our resources that we've already created in the past, repurposing our videos, packaging them up for kids in a different way, just to sort of say, hey, parents, we know that you're stuck at home with your kids right now and it's really hard. Here's something you can do with them that's fun, educational and also to help take them off your hands for a little bit. Watch seven episodes of the journey. So that's kind of the second bucket and the third really, if you haven't, I think if you don't have anything relevant right now and this is I mean, this is a really acute time, I think in the next two months, a lot of nonprofits can go back to some version of their previous mission in communicating. I just think for this specific kind of 2-3 month period, when everybody wants to only talk about what's going on in our country right now with Coronavirus, it would feel strange if all of a sudden charity: water came out of nowhere and said, we're trying to raise $100,000 for this water project. Come help us, everyone join us. I think you're actually potentially risking damaging your brand at this time if you're a little too tone-deaf. So that's kind of my thought about it.

Justin Wheeler I love the concept of like adding value to, you know, your supporters, your donors, the people following you and making it relevant to, you know, what you're doing. So in this case, you know, information about water projects and coloring books and tying those things together and helping parents, that's something that donors will remember in three months or four months from now. They won't forget that. And it reminds me also on World Water Day, your guys's quiz that you had sent out. Right. Instead of asking people directly for funds. It was like, hey, we've got a matching donor. If you just take this quiz and, you know, educate yourself on what's happening and share it, it's gonna unlock however much money it unlocked and that sort of creativity during this time, I think is imperative. And it adds so much confidence to your donor base as you continue to build that trust with them.

Viktoria Harrison I actually, just to jump in here, it was funny because that quiz, we had planned to do that before Coronavirus happened. And when Scott asked me, he's like, they were going to release this quiz on World Water Day, what do you think? I don't know if that's a good idea that we should be asking people to take a quiz, it just sounds so playful. It was right in that like really serious week where people were bracing for the biggest wave in New York City. And I thought, gosh, this because this could be a really bad play, but we had committed previously. So it's good to hear that it worked. And I think we actually heard some good feedback as well. People said, you know, we're so thankful that you didn't ask us for money because everyone is so uncertain with what's happening with their jobs at this moment. So it did work out well, even though it wasn't very planned.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. Awesome. Okay. =So what's the most effective communication type to build a stronger individual donor base? Email blast, newsletter, personal calls, emails, Facebook, driving people to a website, donate button, the list kinda goes on. So what have you found from a communication perspective to be the best type of method for building a strong individual donor base?

Viktoria Harrison All of those things are great. If I had to pick one, I'll just use the example of our monthly giving program this spring, and I would say for us it was a combination of a really strong piece of content and Facebook advertising, so I know that's really technical. A lot of things went into that. And, you know, it took us 10 years to work up to having the right, to feeling like it was the right moment to launch a monthly giving program. But it has been incredibly, incredibly successful. You know, you spoke you were at Invisible Children, so we worked with Jason Russell on the spring video, took us six months to create. It was such a big, arduous process. But we had known for perhaps five or six years that we wanted to create a history of charity: water piece that was longer. And when KONY 2012 happened, that was our sign to us that long video formats can work, that these pieces of content can really be successful if done well. So we definitely wanted Jason to be our guy to work on that with us. And we had a very singular purpose for creating the video, the whole video was going to build up to an ask at the end to join this spring, which is our monthly giving community. And, you know, when people, when even my clients asked me, how do we start a really successful or just a, you know, a stable monthly giving program? I say, you know, I think that you've got to have this inspiring ask that is really pointed like you have to ask in a really direct way. So that's what that video did. And then we started, we tried just out of curiosity to buy some Facebook advertising for it. And we've never, we had never previously paid for advertising in the history of charity: water. And it just took off. It was so successful. And then we just continue to invest more and more dollars into Facebook ads because we were getting, I think like six times more of a click-through rate on that video as a Facebook ad than the average across all of Facebook. So that's why we thought it was such a great investment.

Justin Wheeler And it was that the ads were pointing to the video. Right. So the ad wasn't like become like monthly donor. Right. So you were watching this video and then like at the end, the video, you know, asks you to sign up, to become a monthly donor. And that's what I like about that approach is you're providing like value in the content you're giving someone when they clicked on that ad. It's like a high-quality video. Super interesting, entertaining, heartbreaking and wrenching and yet you're educated. It's like something that, like, makes you feel like a better person for watching. And then at the end is when you ask comes in. And so it's you know, a lot of people, I think, make the mistake of just like driving people directly to a donation page and ask them to give, you know, become a monthly giver. What you guys was, we're going to drive you to content, and then going to convert you to become a monthly giver, which is a big difference.

Viktoria Harrison Yeah. And I think that's a compressed version of what I believe any small business or startup has to do in the beginning to build up your donor base or even your email list or any kind of a community. You can't just say, hey, buy my product and expect a lot of people to do that. You've got to first lead with valuable content and give that away for free for quite some time. In the beginning of charity: water, we put a lot of time and energy into thinking about how do we get people to sign up on our email list. And that was the only action we would want you to take. So I remember creating a lot of landing pages and different campaigns where the only goal was to capture emails, not to ask people for a donation. And we kind of balance that out, of course. And so then when we have your email, then we get to educate you a little bit more and take you through a little bit of an email sequence that introduces you in creative, unexpected, interesting ways to what we do, not just boring ways. Right. And then, so we kind of always intuitively knew we had to take people through this little process before we could ask them for a donation. And it was you know, it's so important. I think there's so many nonprofits that think, well, I've got a donate button on my home page and I'm showing some pictures of, you know, kids who are in need or whatever it is or dogs and I don't know why people just aren't donating. If you're not providing value, you know, we provide value through our events. I mean, I joke now. I'm advising everyone against betting on in-person events. But we definitely over the last 14 years, so many new people came into the fold of charity: water through our big gala that we do every year and through many, many little dinners we do all throughout the year with our donors where we ask them to invite their friends who then get introduced to the story.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, I think the difference like with your guys' events, I've been to some of them, is the events, they're not treating the individual or the donor. It's like not the ending point, right, where it's like the big ask, of course there's an ask. It's more kind of like the starting point of a donor journey with charity: water where it's like I wasn't drug out here just to give. Right. Like I'm getting so much more from this experience. And so I think that's like the big difference between like what I call like garage sale style events where it's just a bunch of random shit being sold on the table to raise funds. Right. And sometimes it works for some people, but I think over time it diminishes and doesn't add. It's not giving donors that experience like, I wanna go back to that next year. So we've got a couple other questions here. Well, lots of questions, but how does the world's changing age demographic inform your branding consultation to nonprofits?

Viktoria Harrison I think every demographic, every generation has different values. So I think it's really important for nonprofits to understand what is the demographic they want in their donor base. I think so many nonprofits and we definitely did this a charity: water, kinda still do, is we would say our donor profile is everyone. We want everyone. We want grandmas. We want little kids. And we actually did build our brand that way, which was hard. I think if you can define and shrink that demo and niche down a little bit more, you're going to just have more success. I think Sarah Lee talked about this. I was listening to your interview with her last week. Right. This idea of New Story not being for everyone. Right. Their boldness, their big ideas, the innovation. If that freaks you out, you're not their donor. They're OK with that. They recognize that that's part of their strategy, I think that's so important - is to not trying to be everything for everyone. But when you start to define what is your target demo, do some research. I remember reading an article. I won't be able to list all the traits. But essentially this idea that, you know, baby boomers have a certain list of values, that it's kind of a staple set of values that that generation very much adhere to and a part of that was tradition and consistency. And I can't remember what other ones there were - it was very interesting because I was like, none of these values are what Gen X and Gen Z value. And so when you understand the values of each generation, you'll know how to speak to them in a much more specific way that resonates.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, when I was at Liberty in North Korea, you know, the natural assumption, and a lot of our donors asked like, why aren't you guys doing more fundraising in South Korea? I mean, it's like the 11th largest economy in the world. It's, you know, some of the major like tech brands are coming from Seoul. There's a ton of money in South Korea. You know, like what people fail to understand is a lot of the population in South Korea grew up with, you know, these bomb drills of North Korea. Like the threat of North Korea dropping bombs on Seoul, so kids would go under their desks. And so when they think of North Korea, they think of it as this highly political issue, not humanitarian sort of issues. They look at things happening around the world and put a higher priority emphasis on that, not because South Koreans aren't generous, it's just that this is where it's a much more compelling kind of issue for me. And so that background in context is always helpful when understanding who are the people that we're talking to, who the people are going to actually be those donors for the organizations. So I like that, the demographic background of understanding the context of each generation. What are some of the most effective digital strategies you have used to recognize donors for their generous support of nonprofit organizations?

Viktoria Harrison I would say it's more of content strategy, but I really love the idea of personalizing Thank Yous. It's a simple idea, but it's just not used as often as it should be. So again, not to use New Story, but when they launched last week, they launched their monthly giving campaign for homelessness or for families who were affected by Coronavirus here in the U.S. I sign up and in an hour I get like the received email etc. Then in an hour, one of their team members e-mails me with a personalized video that she made and she drew my name on a card that said Vik. And I think that somehow systematizing a video-based kind of thank you strategy for a specific group of donors, let's say maybe it's not for everyone or just some kind of a personal touch, and there is digital of course, built into it because you need some digital tools. New Story uses but the idea of, my gosh, I heard from an employee at this organization and all of a sudden now I have a human face to put with the company, because I think that's the biggest hurdle, donors want to give. They want to be generous, but they sit around thinking, well, I don't really know that I should trust this organization. Their cause seems great, but there's so many other ones and I just don't know. If there can be a personal connection to a human being within an organization. I think that immediately drops that level of doubt significantly.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. No, that's a really good point. There's a really great free tool to it's called Vidyard. I think I've talked about this before, but it allows you to easily record a video from your computer. Very low production is necessary and it puts it up online for you. Like you don't have to upload or anything that it's just this really great kind of self-service tool. And I could see nonprofits using something like that to just send these very individualized and personalized thank you's to their donors or even just like a message of, you know, during this time of chaos, like we're thinking of you. And we hope you and your family are well. That goes a long way. And video content, I think, is just all that much more effective as well.

Viktoria Harrison I'll just add real quick. So, you know, don't treat this like an afterthought because that's the risk here like, OK, I guess I have to do these Thank You videos. Ah this is so much work, additional work on top of everything else I have to do because that's not going to work. I remember at charity: water, one of our anniversary campaigns. This is a long time ago, but the entire campaign was not asking for any money. We shut down our office for three days and all of us found and picked one fundraiser. One person who fundraised for charity: water to thank. And it was not based on how much they raised or how little. It was totally random. And we got a whole entire bunch of costumes and props. And we made for three days straight, morning, noon and night, every single employee at charity: water. We got cards, we made a whole system. So, you know, I got a donor who biked across America. So my video was me in a bike helmet on a bike, thanking this fundraiser for doing what he did. And then we released all the videos in a YouTube channel on the day of the launch. So it's 250 thank you videos and that was the entire campaign. So, you know, put some energy into it. I think that's really important.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. Yeah. I like how it was randomized. That's really cool because it just shows, again, like the brand of like thoughtfulness and gratitude that charity: water has for everyone that's supportive. And that goes a long way. Donors see that and appreciate that regardless of the amount that they're giving.

Viktoria Harrison Last thing I was going to say is just the ones who didn't get a video because we only did 250. I think that's another big thing. Well, I can't do this for everyone. You don't have to - there's that super like famous charity, quote, do for one what you wish you could do for many. I mean, it's the same thing the donors who didn't get it, this is still so frigging awesome. So that's my last thought.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. Thank you. So any advice on ways to communicate for Giving Tuesday Now that's happening on May 5th. Do you have any thoughts around - should charities participate in this? If so, how should they communicate around their efforts and initiatives?

Viktoria Harrison Again, I really do think right now is the time to be a helper brand or a brand that sort of generously maybe highlights other organizations that are on the front lines. I do think, I think that's probably going to be the best strategy. And also, you know, I think that there's another thing we hadn't talked about, which is we can still allow our most loyal donors to play the hero. So maybe you're not participating in Giving Tuesday in a public way, but maybe on that day you are actually calling or thanking all your donors, or calling donors and telling them what you really need to stay afloat if that's really a big issue for you. But doing it in a way that's one on one, that's really personal. I think we've really got to be careful with being tone-deaf at this moment. But if you do have, which I know a lot of nonprofits, you know, are feeling really scared and in trouble right now. I think the other strategy that can really work is finding those most loyal supporters who've been with you up until now and letting them be the hero, letting them step up and asking them directly like this is our need. We really need your help. But instead of doing that in a massive way where you're asking everybody and sort of muddying the conversation that's going on. I think doing it personally might be a good way to go.

Justin Wheeler Makes sense. So you talked a lot about content. And so this is kind of on the other side of content or at least like, OK, so you create is amazing stuff. But like, how do you get people to actually look at it? So do you have any practical, tactical advice and if so, like how did charity: water acquire email addresses, whether it's through obviously donors and so forth. But like, did you guys have any like magic, any secret sauce that you use to develop and grow your email base?

Viktoria Harrison Yes. It really was a lot of different things and I wish it was not the answer. Probably not the greatest answer that people are looking for. But it's true that it was just a lot of activity. And so when I think about it that way, the most important thing for growing an organization. And scaling it is never losing momentum. Momentum is literally the most precious thing, but you've got to keep focused on. And for someone like Scott, my husband, founder of charity: water. He's just he's a human with an insane amount of energy. Full stop, like he was born causing trouble. And so the momentum came so naturally to him. He couldn't stop, like he from the first day after starting charity: water, it was a snowball effect of, OK, we just did this event. It's time to start thinking about the one in the next two weeks, OK? You know, before that's even finished, time to start thinking about this party we're planning and now time to start launching our campaign. And now it's time to do a live drill for September. And then how are we thinking about the holidays? OK. What are we thinking for World War, not World War, World Water Day. We were really conscious to keep that momentum going. And every time. So, you know, to answer your question, every time you are doing new, interesting, exciting things that have a bold idea behind them, your're literally like a big snowplow, just like trying to capture as many emails as you can because email is still kind of where it's at. On top of that, we got, you know, Scott's pretty good at staying on the cutting edge of technology and everything else and so business trends, etc.. So when Twitter was a 50 person organization, he weaseled his way into their staff meeting and said, can I please speak at Twitter? Can I speak at your company? Same at Instagram. And once he did, when Twitter was putting out the recommended feature, right, when you would sign up for Twitter accounts, they would suggest people follow. And so they were like, yo, we should probably put a charity in there who just recently spoke at our headquarters. Scott here. So let's put charity: water in there. And so there were a couple of those big breaks in there like that. And I think, again, that goes, you know, speaks to that momentum and constantly working your connections. Working that network is probably second most important thing after momentum.

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Thank you for sharing that. OK, so what are some creative ways that you have used in the past or ways you would advise clients today on creative ways for organizations to learn more about their donors like their age, hobbies, etc., so that they can engage in a more personal way?

Viktoria Harrison Man these questions - I'm getting all these good questions. And I like it. Let's see, how have we learned about our donors. I mean. I don't know how I feel about surveys and things like that. I think again, I think it's a lot of. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a really easy sort of, you know, set it and forget it approach I would say. I do think for testing, testing, a/b testing stuff is really great. It's a great way too, because I don't think you can just ask people a bunch of questions and ask them to take a survey and have a good response and get a lot of you know, you'll get some data from that. But I do think that when you have an idea that you bring to the world, that you bring to your donors and you ask and maybe you set up some a/b testing inside of your digital funnel or whatever your flow, you're going to start to understand what people - how they respond to your ideas, which would give you, I think, better data than just kind of, generally speaking, pulling everyone. I do think, gosh, for us, really, Instagram DM's, Instagram stories, putting up little quizzes and polls and things like that, just engaging on your socials is a really great way. Right? So we have Cubby Graham, who is our dedicated social media manager. He's fantastic. He's amazing. And he's responded to I mean, he responds to every comment and every DM for now seven years that he's been at charity: water and does that now on Twitter. I'm not usually on Twitter very often, but I'm sure he is doing that on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. And you just got to be really active.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. I also think that this isn't right for every organization. But creating like donor personas, right. Where like you may not be able to know, you know, kind of like the deep interests and hobbies of every single one of your donors, especially if you're talking about tens of thousands of donors. So understanding, you know, the way they interact with like your contents and the things that you're putting out there. So maybe you have like your social media donors, you have, you know, your donors that appreciate the events and try to create some personas so you have better-segmented communication. Also, there's a lot of tools out there to be able to, whether it's you know, we do this here at Funraise through kind of our payment flow. We can mine data about, you know, we can pull your LinkedIn information and look at OK this person is employed at this company, has this title and so forth. So those are also ways to like scale, sort of like data about your donors and in a way that could be meaningful for your overall fundraising strategy.

Viktoria Harrison I would say, I just go back again to say I think that the core of that question, whoever asked it, really is, how do I make sure that what I'm putting out is really resonating? Right. That's why you'd want to get to know who your supporters are, not just for the fun of it, but to know that when you're working hard on a new thing you're releasing, campaign, piece of content, etc,, that people can respond to in the most effective way. And I just think that's kind of where, you know, you're just not gonna get those answers. Knowing stuff about your people and knowing how they're going to respond to what you produce and put out in the world are two very different things. And no amount of knowing a lot of data about your people is going to tell you how they're necessarily going to respond. So I do think for us at charity: water, we're huge fans of small sprints with our developers and our engineers. And so when we're building a piece of software or a product, we're always going to be building the minimum viable product first MVP and then rolling that out quickly, testing that, iterating, seeing whether it's a flop or being, you know, or being engaged with very, very highly and going from there. So iteration is important. I think that's where you're gonna get a lot of your answers.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. Testing the market and rolling with, you know, where traction is happening. I have a hard question for you, I hope you're ready for this one. I have some thoughts on it, too, so I'm sure I'll jump in. But what's your advice for communications during COVID-19 for environmental organizations fighting climate crisis?

Viktoria Harrison Oh, my Gosh! I might let you take a stab at this one Justin.

Justin Wheeler OK. So I've actually talked about this quite a bit and not just environmental, but really, you know. So I would add a fourth bucket and that fourth bucket would be organizations who are on the frontlines of like life-saving work. Right. So it's not COVID-19 related, but organizations like, if they stopped their work, their efforts, people's lives would hang in the balance. And so I think there's a lot of organizations that fall in that I think the climate crisis is definitely one, it has this long-tail effect on society. So I think that it's all about finding the right ways and channels and understanding how your donors are being impacted from COVID-19 and segmenting communication so that during this time, you know, your audience might be smaller, but your mission still has to continue because it's part of making the world better, saving more lives, etc., etc. So my advice would be, be more thoughtful in your communication. Don't you know, spray and pray your communication at this point. Be very thoughtful, be very intentional, but still push forward heads down on your mission. So that's kind of my high-level thoughts on that.

Viktoria Harrison I think that's right. I mean, to be truly fair and honest, I think humanitarian organizations, which is my specialty, it's a very different kind of donor mindset than other pots nonprofits and environmentalism being one of them or something very political. So I'm actually, I'm really comfortable talking to humanitarian nonprofits. Harder for me to kind of really feel confident talking about anything else. But I think you're right that, you know, like everyone can tie in their mission to what's going on right now. Why? Because COVID-19 affected every single thing about our lives. Full stop, everything. It affected oil production, it affected the environment, it affected our children and education and hunger and homelessness and water and animals, it affected everything. So there's got to be a way to sort of tie it in so that it feels relevant to what's going on. But you're right. You know, continue to show up for your community.

Justin Wheeler Totally. Okay. So less challenging of a question. So obviously, charity: water is known kind of for its digital kind of facing, you know, approach to whether it's fundraising, communications and so forth. Has that been the most effective channel for the organization and is what has helped it grow? Are there things behind the scenes happening? Are you guys doing direct mail? Are there you know, are you writing a bunch of grants to foundations, basically like what's happening behind the scenes that's also enabling the growth that charity: water?

Viktoria Harrison So we, as many people probably know, we've got this split where we have the public's donations and then we have our supporters who fund our operating costs, enabling this 100% model that we have. And the public donations are mostly coming in. And, you know, due to our efforts in the digital space, everything you see on the smaller group, which are we call them our well members, but they're 120+ families, I believe, who fund our operating costs. Those are very personal efforts. So those are a lot of dinners in people's homes where we ask them to invite their community, their friends in their town to come here. Hear Scott speak usually, he's usually there. And that's how we were growing that side of things. And, you know, and even people who come and may not want to join this group. They're still now in the fold of charity: water. So we're big fans of in-person events that are smaller now. Our charity ball is the only big event we do a year. We're obviously not doing it this year. And what else?

Justin Wheeler You guys decided to cancel the Charity Ball that's happening. Typically, it's in the fall for you guys, I believe. And you've just decided that we're not going to do it? Because there was actually several event questions on should we cancel our fall events? Like what are your thoughts on that? So, I'd love to hear more about that as well.

Viktoria Harrison Yeah, I think it's going to be a really tough, tough to have an event and get turnout. Honestly, even if the stay-at-home restrictions are not required by our governments, I am not sure people are going to want to be in a large crowd.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. I mean, Facebook just announced that they're suspending all meetings or gatherings of 50 or more people until June 2021. It's more than a year away. More than 50 people. So I totally agree. I think that, and you said this in the beginning, now is the time to start divesting from events, at least for the foreseeable future and really put that energy and effort and investment into channels that make you less reliant on event revenue because there's just so much unknown.

Viktoria Harrison Yeah. And I'll just again say that the most surprising thing that's worked for charity: water and that's driven a majority of our growth in the last two years has been Facebook ads with this video. I mean, it sounds, you know, again, pretty simple, but creating great content and then putting that out into the world and getting as many eyeballs on it as possible - it's just been what's worked for us. And what I mean, let me just clarify. Great content is not well-shot video that's got smooth transitions and beautiful. It's an amazing story that immediately grips you, the viewer, and is personal to you. So when Scott sits down in that chair in the first 20 seconds of the spring video and he's sort of joking and then he gets into his "when I was a child, this is where I grew up". That personal story is why this thing works, not, oh, you know, I wanted to save the world and give everyone clean water, that's not going to pull someone in. So really understanding what compelling content is and what it's made of is important. And I think story, story, story, always human brain responds to story better than any else.

Justin Wheeler That's great. Yeah. I mean that 100% agree with. And you know, I see often that nonprofits don't prioritize storytelling and you know I haven't really like dug in to like what size do they start investing in this? But as an advisor and coach to nonprofits and startup nonprofits, how are you advising them to think about their own storytelling and how much to invest in, you know, that part of the organization?

Viktoria Harrison Yeah. I mean, I think it's everything. I really do. But I also want to make the distinction that there's good storytelling and mediocre storytelling. So just saying, you know, get really good at storytelling is not enough. I think when I read The New York Times or listen to The Daily, right or read Hoffman's podcasts, for example, the storytelling, the detail, they just know because you're so skilled at it, they know what's going to get your ears to perk up and say, ohh, I want to hear more, this is so juicy and interesting. So that's the kind of storytelling I'm talking about.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, I was actually just listening on my drive this morning, I was listening to Masters of Scale. They have the whole, this whole kind of several episodes around how are, you know, tech executives responding to COVID-19. So they interviewed Airbnb CEO and I literally was crying in my car because the way the story was being told was it was so impactful, so beautiful. I slacked it over to our executive channel. I said, hey, I want everyone to listen and watch this because it had - check it out because he basically like, he walked through like, hey, who are all your stakeholders and this is how you should be communicating with them and making sure you're care of them during this time. And it wasn't just investors, it was the Airbnb community, you know. So there's a wide variety of things and was just like, it was so thoughtful the way it was told was very engaging. So there's is a huge difference between mediocre and high-quality storytelling and the difference between the two makes really, that gap or the delta between those two makes all the difference.

Viktoria Harrison And the number one thing, hands-down, I think that makes a great story is detail, great amount of detail, like really, really granular. Right. You want to know like what did that person's shirt feel like or, you know, what did it smell like in that room? That's what makes great storytelling.

Justin Wheeler Well, thank you Vik so much for joining us today. We are right about at time. And so we're going to cut off the Q&A there. What's the best way for individuals to get in touch with you if they're interested in talking further?

Viktoria Harrison Yeah! So you can follow me at @vikharrison, all one word on Instagram. That's kind of where I hang out the most and I'm actually working on a follow up to the Nonprofit Survival Guide, which is going to talk about how to transition from an events based revenue strategy for nonprofits to a digital one that includes a great month of giving programs. So stay tuned for that.

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Yeah, we'd love to promote that. That sounds like it's going to be some solid content, so we'd love to promote it. We'll also link the website with the follow up to everyone that registered for today's event. So, again, thank you so much for your time and have a wonderful rest of your week.

Viktoria Harrison Thank you so much. See you later.

Justin Wheeler Thanks, everyone for joining. Have a good one.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit. This podcast is brought to you by your friends at Funraise. Nonprofit fundraising software, built by nonprofit people. If you'd like to continue the conversation, find me on LinkedIn or text me at 562-242-8160. And don't forget to get your next episode the second it hits the internet. Go to and sign up for email notifications today. See you next time!