June 18, 2013
Case Study

Email Marketing: How charity: water increased donations by $800,000 using video, increased send schedule

SUMMARY: Overloading inboxes is a common worry, but this past September, marketers at charity: water proved more email can equal more engagement, and more money.

In this campaign, learn how the team was able to use compelling content to increase the amount of emails sent while decreasing the amount of times they asked for donations.
by Courtney Eckerle, Reporter

"800 million people don't have access to clean drinking water. It's an enormous problem to tackle, and we believe the traditional approaches to charity won't work," said Sarah Salisbury, Digital Marketing Manager, charity: water.

Bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries is the chief goal of charity: water, and this September, they discovered just how substantial a role email could play in that effort.

Annually, charity: water asks supporters to raise money in a myriad of ways to celebrate their founding with the "September Campaign."

The email content has to inspire people not only to give money, but to start their own fundraising.

"Supporters do everything from grow beards, to run marathons, to swimming naked in the San Francisco Bay to fundraise," Salisbury said. "While we work in over 20 countries, the September Campaign is an opportunity for us to focus our efforts on one part of the world and really tell their story."

During the 2012 September Campaign, charity: water was set an ambitious goal of $1.7 million for the Rulindo District in Rwanda — $500,000 above its goal for the previous year. The team decided to focus on email as a substantial way to inspire their supporters to do more.


Prior to the 2012 September Campaign, Salisbury said the team had been very guarded about the volume and frequency of their emails. Tiring out or annoying supporters was a big concern.

However, the biggest challenge facing charity: water has always been awareness.

Increasing email volume would allow them to directly show the effect of donations with conscious and updated content. Email was a way to regularly give access (albeit electronic) to the struggles of families for whom regular access to clean water was nearly impossible.

Previously, "we had never come close to this volume or frequency of emails," she said. "What we learned through the experience … is that we can absolutely increase the volume of our sends, even as dramatically as from once a month to twice a week."

Email content for this campaign was directed at connecting supporters to the frontlines of the campaign, using "videos and stories to raise awareness, and inspire people to join us," she said.


Compelling email content was the driving force behind changing the ways people give to charity: water. Connecting supporters to the impact they are having, Salisbury believed, would make the difference in the upcoming September Campaign.

They had already been accomplishing this by engaging in the digital space, Salisbury said, by interacting on platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

Replicating that connection in email before engaging in these social media interactions became vital for their hallmark giving time.

The team's strategy was to transform from a few mass email blasts to regular and focused messaging dedicated to educating and inspiring subscribers and fundraisers, not directly asking for donations.

Content featured the Rulindo District in Rwanda and fundraising goal of $1.7 million. Transparency between donations and the charity was displayed with simple video content, which led back to the campaign page where subscribers could explore details.

Step #1. Send a pre-launch email

Engagement was the goal for the September Campaign, and instead of focusing on "high-level, one-size-fits-all email blasts, we wanted to focus our efforts on the most engaged supporters," Salisbury said.

Salisbury and her team set up a "sneak peek" landing page where supporters could sign up for emails just about the upcoming September Campaign.

A simply designed pre-launch email sent to regular subscribers announced "It's the land of a thousand hills. And 3 million people without clean water. On August 21, we’re launching the September Campaign to help them."

A "Sign up here" button led subscribers to clickthrough to the September Campaign landing page, where charity: water received extra permission by encouraging them to sign up for receiving regular email updates specifically on the campaign.

The page informs visitors that Rwandans would be benefiting from the campaign, and a video featuring the founder of charity: water explains exactly where the donations would be going and why they are needed.

The current amount raised towards their $1.7 million goal is prominently featured and highlighted the same yellow of charity: water's logo.

"As the campaign went on," Salisbury said, "we just felt more comfortable sending more frequently to those addresses because of this additional permission."

Step #2. Launch the campaign

Subscribers received an email announcing the launch of the September Campaign, as well as those who had already signed up to receive special content concerning the September Campaign.

In bold font, it announced "The 2012 September Campaign is Here," and encouraged watching a specially created trailer about the project, and to "Share it. Join us."

"Our primary asset on the day of the launch was our September Campaign trailer. We promoted it via email, social media and personal outreach [from our team]," said Salisbury.

Surrounding the video was the monetary goal of the campaign as well as statistics reflecting that goal, and supporters were encouraged to go to the September Campaign landing page to explore more — and hopefully begin fundraising efforts of their own.

Step #3. Send weekly content updates to supporters

The main goal in all campaign emails was to get subscribers to take the action of watching the video or reading the story, Salisbury said.

"We chose to share videos and stories rather than make fundraising or donation asks because we believe in sending what is best for our subscribers, rather than what is best for us," she added.

They went out weekly to new email subscribers, people who had signed up specifically for September Campaign emails and subscribers who had opened the previous charity: water email send.

The content emails were simple, featuring a call-to-action to watch the video each week, not donate. It also included a short description of the video's message, which reflected the cohesive goal across the campaign — inspiring supporters.

For instance, one video titled "The Spirit of Rwanda" included the message: "This video is about Rwanda's next chapter. It's about the survivors, the leaders, and the workers who are imagining solutions to the country’s biggest problems — and then building them. It's about replacing poverty with prosperity."

Continue the message onto the landing page

Once clicking through to watch the video, the subscriber was taken to the main September Campaign page, where the video was displayed prominently — meeting the respondent's expectations once they clickthrough.

The only other visible feature is at the top left, a graphic displaying the amount currently raised compared to the overall goal of $1.7 million. The graphic remains at the top no matter how far down the page someone goes.

From where the video left off, subscribers could explore and learn more about the September Campaign’s project in Rwanda, fundraising campaigns of others, and meet people living in the area who would be helped by the donation.

Four people are featured in a “Meet the people we’re helping” section, interviewed and photographed by charity: water staff, so clicking on their picture on the September Campaign landing page leads to a short story about how access to clean water would impact that person’s life.

Following are statistics about the specific area of Rwanda that will be worked in, the Rulindo district, in which 70% of people lack clean water, according to the site.

Even down at the very bottom, the landing page carries the transparency and connection seen in the email content, with a link for people to track "every dollar you raise, showing you the water projects you help fund and the lives you’ve changed."

Step #4. Keep fundraisers updated and motivated

Supporters who started a fundraising campaign for the September Campaign also received an additional weekly email with content tailored to their fundraising experience, Salisbury said.

"The goal of these emails was to make our fundraisers feel part of the movement, and ultimately help them succeed in their fundraising efforts," she said.

The updates contained campaign status updates, displayed other fundraisers that "were doing inspiring things," she said, and other features to keep fundraisers motivated and perhaps give them ideas for how to further their personal goals.

1. Campaigns to Watch:

Three featured had a short description of their campaign, such as, "Cancer in remission: Life is short, so Kelly's celebrating her good health by improving lives in Rwanda and getting friends to help, too."

The short features in the email were linked to each of the fundraiser's project page, where you could view the person's fundraising goal, how many people would receive clean water because of them, a note from the person themselves, as well as notes from people who had donated to their cause.

2. Tip of the Week:

These were further inspiration for fundraising ideas, offering tips such as "We've found that our most successful campaigners send two follow-up emails in addition to their first one," or "Host a small dinner or a big game night, and ask friends to bring donations."

3. Fundraiser Toolkit:

This call-to-action was placed directly underneath the Tip of the Week, for subscribers to "Launch Fundraiser Toolkit" and it was promised that "we packed your Fundraiser Toolkit with more tips and tricks like this one. Get them here."

4. September Campaign Progress:

At the bottom of the email was a graphic that showed how much progress had been made toward the $1.7 million goal at that point in the September Campaign. It also featured a short message from charity: water. For instance, the first week update read:

"We're off to a strong start. In fact, it's our best first week ever for a September Campaign! Keep up the great work — what you do here will change lives in Rwanda."


"Planning for our 2013 September Campaign is already in the works," Salisbury said, adding that testing their ability to increase sends was invaluable knowledge for future campaigns.

"We can absolutely increase the volume of our sends … as long as we do it strategically and send content that is relevant and wanted by our subscribers," she said.

The results they were able to achieve were:
  • A 21% increase in open rates over last year's campaign

  • Compared to 50% in previous years, 58% of fundraisers actively raised donations

  • The September Campaign raised over $2 million, $300,000 over their goal

"The campaign will look a little different than what we did in 2012, but we'll keep our energy on what we know works — inspiration and awareness," Salisbury said.

Creative Samples

  1. Pre-launch email

  2. Launch email

  3. Content email

  4. Landing page

  5. Fundraiser email


charity: water


Related Resources

Content Marketing: How McGladrey built a strategy around content development

Email Marketing: Change in incentive offer causes a 25% increase in email subscribers in one day for nonprofit

Email Testing: How the Obama campaign generated approximately $500 million in donations from email marketing

Email Marketing How-to: 5 steps to improve your email newsletter

Optimization Summit 2013 Wrap-up: Top 5 takeaways for testing websites, pay-per-click ads and email

Email Marketing: Four short emails boost year-end revenue 50% for nonprofit organization

Random Apps of Kindness: Using mobile for nonprofit and cause-based marketing

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