It receives more than 75% of its donations online, but unlike most digital marketing efforts from nonprofits, it doesn’t attempt direct response nor does it buy ads or feature CTAs for donations.

Charity:water achieves success primarily through two channels: social and video. “Word-of-mouth is most powerful in marketing across the board for businesses,” said Paull Young, the organization’s director of digital, when I spoke to him in May at the Responsys Interact conference.

Email stars in biggest role

Despite that viewpoint, Young was at the conference to talk about email marketing: charity:water’s 2012 September Campaign received a distinct boost when the organization revised its email marketing through Responsys’s Interact Suite.

Instead of several mass blasts, charity:water switched to weekly emails that were personalized based on subscribers’ level of engagement and progress toward their fundraising goals.

That last part is key: the September Campaign works by inviting the public to raise funds on charity:water’s behalf so that it can bring clean water to all areas of the world. Last year the target was Rwanda, and the organization needed to activate at least 1,200 people to reach its goal of $1.7 million.

Twelve hundred was a target because the average fundraiser raises about $1,000; motivating the organization’s base was compulsory. “They have to be really passionate to raise the total,” explained Young.

So how did charity:water stoke those fires? 

Become fluent in visual language

Sending regular emails and progressively narrowing their delivery to those who are most engaged and making progress toward fundraising goals was the first step in charity:water’s efforts; the next was ensuring those emails were worth opening.

“We design beautiful emails,” said Young, “the most beautiful emails you’ll ever see.”

Yes, content plays a part (we’ll get to that in a minute), but Young insists on fluency in visual language, explaining how the second hire at charity:water after a web developer was a graphic designer. “We’re committed to producing great creative,” he said.

The emails prove it. They have clean designs, they’re text-light, and they look as if they’d perform well on mobile devices.

Create inspiring content. No, really

Continued Young,

I very rarely see a true commitment to interesting, inspiring content from brands, whether that be nonprofit or for-profit.

Throwing a gauntlet of sorts, he asked, “What was the last piece of content you or your company produced that you were inspired to share?”

Inspiration is highly valued at charity:water because, according to Young, it’s what brings in the dollars. “Inspired people will campaign more effectively,” he explained.

Young doesn’t define “inspirational,” per se, but is quick to say what it isn’t: “I can’t show someone a banner ad and make them inspired.”

He instead talks about stories. From little kids hosting lemonade stands to raise funds for charity:water to their counterparts who have to hike daily down a mountain to retrieve water, storytelling through videos and images is an important weapon in charity:water’s arsenal.

Said Young,

I would rather someone felt inspired and shared something with all their friends and connected with our cause authentically than felt maybe scared or guilty or that they had to pull out their wallet and donate.

Charity:water’s stories and images aren’t all just big-eyed children looking adorably altruistic or sweetly determined, either. The organization’s emails also contained practical advice about how to campaign effectively and, to the extent possible, urged subscribers to conduct outreach via email, not just through social media. 

While other factors were at play—charity:water’s much-ballyhooed radical transparency, for example—the combination of constructive, uplifting content with a visually compelling presentation delivered on a weekly basis powered the organization’s September Campaign last year.

You might want to pay attention to what the innovative nonprofit has in store for 2013.