It’s a sad fact that one of the world’s greatest charity fundraisers never lived to see the fruit of her efforts. On July 23, 2011, nine-year-old Rachel Beckwith was killed in a tragic car accident on highway I-90, near Seattle, Washington.
Shortly before the accident, she had opened a fundraising page to raise $300 for charity: water. It had reached $220 in donations by the time of the accident. Rachel’s parents decided to keep the page alive, in her memory. What happened next was unprecedented.
Rachel’s story went viral on social media and donations started pouring in. Within months, the campaign had raised more than $1.2 million.
A year later, charity: water invited Rachel’s mother and grandparents to see how the money had helped 37,770 Ethiopians gain access to clean water.
The story is immensely moving from a human perspective, but also carries important lessons about the burgeoning relationship between fundraising and technology. Rachel’s campaign could never have taken off to this extent without the amplifying effect of social media.
And it is perhaps no coincidence that charity: water, which aims to improve access to drinking water in developing nations, is one of an emerging generation of charities that is embracing technology to raise funds in more effective and efficient ways than their predecessors.
In 2009, for example, charity: water’s president and founder, Scott Harrison, bagged a major donation via Twitter after actor Hugh Jackman tweeted: "I will donate 100K to one individual's favorite non profit organization."
Harrison earned half of the charity bounty by tweeting back a photo of Ethiopian children bearing a sign that said: “Dear Mr. Hugh Jackman, thank you for helping us!”
The way technology can help communicate stories is central to charity: water’s success, says social media strategist Cubby Graham. “We have always relied heavily on social media and video as a storytelling mechanism,” he says.
The charity has used video to launch highly successful campaigns such as The Road that Changed Everything and even has an app based on Google Maps that allows donors to see details of progress on the projects they are supporting.
Other up-and-coming charities, such as Street Child, a European non-governmental organization dedicated to helping homeless children in Africa, also place significant emphasis on using video to bring fundraising projects to life for potential donors.
This is effectively a new frontier for charitable organizations. Over a decade ago, the rise of fundraising platforms such as Causes.com or JustGiving.com made it easier for donors to put money towards charity campaigns.
Now technology is helping charities to greatly reduce one of the biggest financial burdens they face: getting donations. Unsurprisingly, research has shown charities that spend more on attracting funds tend to raise more money.
The way technology can help communicate stories is central to charity: water’s success. "We have always relied heavily on social media and video as a storytelling mechanism."Cubby Graham, social media strategist
But this has led to charities spending inordinate amounts of their fundraising income on trying to attract more funds.
Clearly, any measure that can create donations without requiring such significant investments in flyers, mailers, and other promotional items would be welcome for the charity sector. And many charities have been aware of the potential for technology to help.
But this awareness went through a step change in the summer of 2014. That was when the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral.
Dedicated to helping combat a little-known disorder called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's Disease, the Ice Bucket Challenge aimed to raise cash by daring donors to cover themselves in ice water and document the achievement on camera.
Spurred by the ubiquitous availability of social media and smartphone cameras, this unlikely fundraising mechanism turned into one of the most successful charity campaigns of all time, prompting 1.2 million videos and raising around $220 million worldwide for ALS-related charities.
Most of these charities had nothing to do with creating the campaign mechanic, so their costs were effectively zero. This was great from both a charity and a donor perspective, since it meant as much money as possible was destined towards the cause.
In theory, any other charity could achieve this since the technologies involved, from consumer video to social media, are either free or very cheap to use.
And as a measure of how much this technology has transformed charity operations, says Graham, charity: water has been able to raise around $210 million over almost a decade without even having a traditional marketing department.
“In August we hired our first-ever chief marketing officer,” he says. “Until that point we had operated without them.”