How one nonprofit is changing the image of charity through design

Amanda Walgrove
Amanda Walgrove

For a non-profit tackling complex and sometimes tragic issues, good design might not seem like a priority. But for charity: water, eye-catching images are their secret to success.

Most people don’t think about where their next cup of clean water is going to come from. But for 663 million — one in 10 people across the world — this basic necessity is a daily struggle.

charity: water is on a mission to change that.

Founded in 2006, charity: water brings clean and safe water to people in developing countries. The organization has funded over 24,500 programs for 7 million people across 24 countries to date. And they use the power of design to make it happen.

Global Water Crisis
charity: water website

“Branding and design are so core to who we are,” said Lauren Letta, Chief Operating Officer of charity: water. “When we started just over 10 years ago, one of the first hires was a designer.”

Still, while most nonprofits were sharing somber graphics that guilted donors into participating, charity: water made an early decision to take a positive approach to design.

“We wanted to change the image around charity in a way that can be filled with hope and inspiration, as opposed to despair and sadness,” Letta added.

charity: water’s design team now consists of two in-house creators: Senior Designer Matt Pamer and Designer Ryan Dutch.

They’re tasked with taking an issue as complex as the global water crisis and turning it into powerful images that inspire change.

As Dutch said, “From our brand’s bright colors to the joyful illustration styles we employ, we aim to inspire our supporters with a hopeful view of the global water crisis.”

Here are four core strategies charity: water uses to spread hope and inspiration through design.

Share the solution, not just the problem

charity: water chooses to share the “after” picture — not the “before.” That is, they want to inspire donors and advocates by showing them exactly how their contributions can help those in need.

“One of our values as an organization is to not objectify the people that we're serving,” Letta added. “You'll never see photos of kids with flies on their faces. You’ll see smiling, happy people, often with clean water.”

Charity Water IG post
charity: water celebrates 11 years of clean water: Instagram post shared by @charitywater

“Our brand relies heavily on photography, which is a very emotional medium,” Dutch said. “We are very selective with the images we choose and the emotions we want our supporters to feel when they see our photos and interact with our brand.”

To understand what works emotionally, designers don’t have to solely rely on data or a brand guide. They can just use their own human intuition.

“Oftentimes we will receive new content from the field — stories, photos, or videos — that make us feel more connected to the project,” Dutch said. “And that’s a very exciting feeling because when you can design with a healthy balance of emotion and calculation, that’s where the magic happens.”

Help people relate through interactive campaigns

It’s not easy to educate millions of people about the global water crisis. But charity: water has a plan.

“Everybody can understand what it's like to have clean water. So we think: ‘How can we get people to understand what it's like to not have clean water?’” Letta said. “Again, we always lead with inspiration; it's a problem that we know how to solve.”

But they can’t solve that problem alone. That’s why charity: water launches high-profile campaigns to spread the word about its cause and engage its worldwide audience.

For World Water Day, for instance, charity: water produced the “Someone Like You” campaign. Through this campaign, they invited people to take a three-step quiz about themselves, and see who they match with in Adi Etot, a village in rural Ethiopia that was soon to get clean water.

Someone Like You campaign
Someone Like You campaign

Teams traveled to Ethiopia for two weeks and met over 400 people to build this catalogue and show others just what it looks like to live without clean water.

Masho
Masho: Someone Like You profile

“It's about contextualizing this issue,” Letta said. “Someone's on the other side of the world who you might not be able to relate to, but you can see how they go to school, clean their house, and raise their children. We’re always striving to bring the connection as close as possible through our design and our storytelling.”

People aren’t the only subjects of these storytelling campaigns, either. In 2011, charity: water put its drilling rig “Yellow Thunder” front and center. The nonprofit invited donors to crowdsource the funding needed to build the rig, which would help dig 80 new wells and give 40,000 people access to clean water. They even created a video and microsite detailing how each part of the rig would be built and how much it would cost. This helped people know exactly where their money was going.

Once the rig was funded and built, charity: water invited the world to track Yellow Thunder’s journey on a map and follow it on Twitter, where it Tweets its location every time it digs a well.

Yellow Thunder
charity: water's 2011 September campaign - Yellow Thunder Drilling Rig

“Ideally, we’d take anybody who wants to learn about the water crisis to the field and help them see it firsthand,” Letta said. “But we know that we can't do that, so we have to find ways to make this issue relatable and connect people as close as possible to those who are affected.”

charity: water also takes this approach with its annual charity: ball, a black-tie affair that caps the end of each year.

“For our annual gala, we're always telling a story, typically about a community or a group of people that we'll be able to collectively help in that evening,” Letta said. “This year, we decided to go a layer deeper and profile our implementing partners.”

The 2017 gala — held in December at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — highlighted two indigenous organizations in Cambodia and Ethiopia. charity: water used its platform to tell the stories of the people, drillers, and teams that bring clean water to communities in these countries each day.

Charity Water 2017 Gala
The 2017 charity: ball

Create your own gala invitations in Canva with templates like Brown Bordered Gala Invitation and Black and Red Illustrated Flower Gala Invitation.

“We'll be talking about the sacrifice they make to do their jobs, because in many cases it means being away from their families for a long times and working excessive hours,” Letta said. “But then, we’ll highlight the joy that they receive by actually being the people on the ground, seeing the communities get clean water for the first time.”

Make information easy to share and consume

Beyond the human emotions and stories behind charity: water’s work, there’s a web of concrete numbers and data to be shared with audiences.

“We’re always thinking about how to use numbers and data, and how to make them relatable and interesting,” Letta said. “So we try to turn big stats into content that people can digest and understand.”

Take this blog graphic, for instance. It communicates the achievements of charity: water's teams of mechanics at a glance.

Story of Asharfi

charity: water also offers a downloadable poster that people can print or share online. It showcases a harrowing statistic: each year, 443 million school days are lost due to lack of clean water and sanitation. But it uses bold text and engaging graphics to grab people’s attention and draw awareness to charity: water’s mission.

Water Poster
charity: water downloadable poster

Create your own downloadable poster in Canva with templates like Blue Water Poster and Blue Water Tap Campaign Poster.

The nonprofit even designed a series of Facebook Timeline Photos for advocates to download and place on their own sites or social platforms.
Charity Water Facebook timeline photo
charity: water Facebook timeline photo

Create your own Facebook cover in Canva with templates like Blue Curves Event Banner and Green Earth Tumblr Banner.

Blue and Orange Monochromatic Photo Indigenous Peoples Facebook Cover
Green Photo Indigenous Peoples Facebook Cover

“With everything we create, we think of the audience first and how and where they are most likely consuming content,” Dutch said. “Our strategy changes drastically when designing for different mediums.”

When Dutch creates graphics for social media, for instance, he considers that people are probably seeing this content on their phones and tablets. So he tends to create short, easily digestible content for these mediums rather than long-form stories.

For example, charity: water released this infographic in September to celebrate 11 years of providing clean water to millions of people in need. Instead of just writing, “Thanks for helping us reach 7 million people!” or drafting a long blog post about the nonprofit’s history, the designers created a timeline to showcase charity: water’s progression. It could easily be shared and consumed on social media.

Eleven Years
Celebrating 11 years of clean water: Facebook post shared by charity: water

Create your own infographics in Canva with templates like Ocean Pollution Infographic and Shark Conservation Infographic.

Embrace the beauty in charity

“We really believe that charities can be beautiful,” Letta said. “You should want to wear a charity, to be really proud to wear a charity T-shirt because it's beautiful, and because you want to support that organization.”

This doesn’t just apply to donors and advocates. It applies to charity: water’s own teams as well.

“Even internally, we brand everything — our onboarding, our decks, our performance reviews,” Letta added. “We really believe in excellence, and we believe in putting our best foot forward, and always looking our best.”

Most importantly, this commitment to branding helps charity: water stand out from the noise and continue to spread hope and inspiration.

“There's so much amazing content out there — not just from nonprofits, but from all brands,” Letta said. “So how do we stay unique? We're constantly trying to push forward and find a new way to innovate. Whether it be through storytelling or design, we continue to be cutting edge in the way that we think about our brand.”