The campaign that dared to do things differently

WaterAid's Untapped broke many of the traditional rules but still exceeded its fundraising target. Rebecca Cooney reports

Tombohuaun: the WaterAid campaign focused on the Sierra Leone village
Tombohuaun: the WaterAid campaign focused on the Sierra Leone village

Many prominent fundraisers are calling for a radical new approach to fundraising campaigns to deal with what they see as a growing crisis driven by falling donations, changing donor expectations and evolving technology. But what would this look like? And what are the guarantees it would work?

Marcus Missen, director of communications and fundraising at the development charity WaterAid, believes its recent Untapped campaign is an example of what might be possible under the new paradigm.

Focusing on the village of Tombohuaun in Sierra Leone, Untapped was a decentralised, collaborative campaign that broke many of fundraising’s "rules", including the usually sacrosanct one of always requesting donations in campaign materials.

The approach worked. The charity aimed to raise £3.9m to provide Tombohuaun and villages like it with clean water and sanitation, but overshot its target, making £4.2m despite not always seeking money. It attracted 60,000 donors – a third of whom were new to the charity – and won seven awards, fending off competition from charities and companies.

Missen says Untapped was the culmination of a "journey" WaterAid has been on for the past four or five years. "We felt that the sector had become too transactional, too focused on technique and channels," he says. "The model was broken and unsustainable."

Missen believes other charities could benefit from applying the principles
behind the campaign. "The sector is good at copycatting, though I’m not saying other charities should do that," he says. "It’s about considering the underlying strategic approach and applying it in a way that is relevant to the organisation."

Engagement

The first principle underpinning Untapped was a focus on engagement, rather than pursuing donor sign-ups.

"One of our main thoughts is that we’re looking for partners in the mission, not funders in the mission," Missen says.

The campaign told the story of Tombohuaun’s journey to a clean water supply, using interactive technology to connect the British public directly with the residents. People could ask questions about life in the village through a Facebook chatbot, see a 360-degree view of the village through a dedicated website and get recipes and dance moves through YouTube tutorials created by the residents. Supporters were encouraged to upload their own videos in response.

The campaign was supported by adverts on television, taxis and in stations and cinemas. "If you look at all the content, it’s focusing on driving engagement, creating understanding, being relevant and creating value to a target audience, so there is no need to constantly optimise everything with a donation ask," Missen says.

This value can be as tangible as learning a new recipe or simply making a connection, he says. One of the most successful parts of the campaign was the Facebook name generator. One of the women who lives in the village, Mattu, is famous locally for the nicknames she gives everyone. The generator allowed users to answer questions about themselves and get a name of their own. "Our cause is worthy, but we don’t have to be worthy in every single thing that we produce," Missen says.

The second core principle was building empathy with the people of Tombohuaun, rather than relying on guilt, as charity campaigns have traditionally done.

"We set ourselves the task of ensuring WaterAid was not the go-between for the supporter and the community by shifting the emphasis from ‘a community I observe’ to ‘a community I am part of’, from ‘sympathy with others’ to ‘empathy with people like me’, and from ‘a one-way, charitable relationship’ to ‘a real relationship’," he says.

Crucially, villagers portrayed themselves as they wanted to be portrayed in the
campaign materials. "They’re not shown as objects of charity," says Missen. "It’s very much connecting with the outside world on their terms and with dignity."

The emphasis on collaboration and partnership inevitably meant losing some
control over the message and branding, but Missen says relinquishing control can drive innovation.

Traditionally, brands have been managed through a model of centralised sign-off and approval needed for everything, he says, but in a digital world that’s just not going to work.

"Each time a member of our supporter care teams talks to our supporters, that’s a manifestation of our brand," he says. "It’s not just the way things look; it’s our personality, our proposition, our purpose. We can’t be signing off every one of those interactions, because if we did it wouldn’t be immediate, real or authentic."

Ultimately, Missen says, it’s about trusting the talent in your organisation to do the right thing. "It’s about culture, not process; about leadership empowering and guiding, not controlling and approving," he says. "We’re trying to remove the bureaucracy."

Nor can you expect to control how those outside the organisation operate in a digital environment, he says. "There are very clear examples, such as the ice-bucket challenge a few years ago, where people took it and made it their own," he says. "People outside charities are engaging and mobilising, and they want it on their terms.

"As a sector we need to embrace that challenge. It’s not about WaterAid as an
organisation, but the mission of ensuring everyone has access to fresh water by 2030."

Untapped has undoubtedly been a success, but Missen acknowledges there’s still more to do. "If you keep doing what you’ve done before, you’re not going to drive continuous engagement," he says. "To get that standout disruption of thinking, we have to be challenging what we think is normal and stretching the boundaries. In terms of redefining the model, it’s a journey: we’re not at the end yet."

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