enthusiastic person running to the beachThis year, I decided to donate my birthday to charity.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of my age and wanted to excuse myself from adding a year. I find my age — 39, every minute of it, not one more or less — to be generally meaningless. I donated my birthday because I decided that I could not accept another set of kind, generous gifts I didn’t need. I donated my birthday because I heard I could, and it immediately made me raise my fist and say, “Heck YEAH!”

I learned about charity:water on Twitter in late August, when someone linked to a Forbes article about the founder, Scott Harrison. Scott was working as a nightclub promoter when he decided that he wanted to contribute to the world in a more meaningful way. You can read the article for more details on his story — which is really fantastic — but the gist of it is that he returned from two years of humanitarian service abroad with the idea for an organization that would bring clean drinking water to communities without access to it. Rather than a generic fundraising strategy, Scott developed a simple method of making individual fundraising not only possible, but simple, effective, and leveraging our increased use of social media. The organization uses 100% of the funds raised by the general public toward digging wells and providing water systems — so every single donation collected through their Birthday Project can feel connected to the actual water projects they’re funding. More about that later.

Here’s how the process worked for me: I began by creating an account on their web site. I was able to customize the name of my own fundraising campaign — I called it “Debi’s Birthday Repair Project” — and the photo featured at the top of the page. I could also add a profile picture of myself. I chose to use their beautiful photography of water projects they’ve already funded for the feature photo, and a thematically-appropriate photo of myself drinking a glass of water for my profile photo. It looked like this:

charitywater campaign page

Even the suggested donation amount was customizable — they suggested I start with asking for my age in dollars, so I did. They naturally added a zero to the end of it for the next level up, but donors were able to enter their own amount as well. Below my profile photo, I had the opportunity to write my own campaign letter to potential donors. There were several canned options, and they were all really well-written, but I had my own story to tell, so I just used pieces of their talking points. The whole thing was very easy to use and edit.

I created the campaign in the weeks before my birthday, and well-worded emails came to me in the week or so before my birthday reminding me to let my friends and family know about it. What was especially gratifying, though, was what started happening after the first Facebook post I made about this campaign. I put it on my personal page.

charitywater facebook post

Within an hour or so, I had several donations, and charity:water sent me an email about each one. The resulting feeling I got with each message was worth more than the sum of its parts; I felt all the excitement that comes when someone thinks enough of me to send me a gift, and I also experienced something like the sense of altruism that comes with making a donation myself.

A few donations — with emails to announce them — came every single time I posted an update to Facebook or Twitter about this campaign. Some people gave less than the $39, and one person gave more. In the end, the best thing by far was this:

charitywater donation progress

I could picture them. There are videos and promotional materials all over the charity:water site, including a whole section of videos about the projects they’ve completed. Now, in my mind, I can picture twenty-seven people who have something basic that comes out of my faucet, and all I had to do was spend, in total, probably less than an hour sharing these links on social media. I didn’t even send out an email — but next year, I will.

Why am I sharing this on Jebraweb’s site? I’m sharing it here because this is how the internet can help people. I didn’t build the charity:water web site, but I wish I had. I didn’t help them turn their idea into great tools people could use to make it real, but I would love to do that for other organizations. What made it meaningful for me and, I hope, the people who contributed to my campaign, is that there were tangible things attached to $39. We saw how many people would be helped specifically by our donations. And — even better! — in 18 months, which is how long it takes for a project to be completed, all of the people who donated to my campaign will get photos and GPS locations of the sites to which our donations brought fresh, clean water.

This is how online fundraising is done well. This is how you attract people to use their networks for good. I am incredibly impressed with charity:water, and I want to encourage other people to donate their birthdays. You can click on the banner at the bottom of this page to do that. If you run a non-profit web site, think about ways your organization can do this. There are simple ways to replicate this system on a smaller scale — an explanation of how different donation levels will affect your organization, a system of well-worded updates to your donors, even just the provision of great collateral materials they can share on their social networks. I see a lot of online donation systems, and what charity:water has done clearly impressed the heck out of me.

If you’ve seen some particularly effective online fundraising tools, let me know! I’d love to see what inspires you to get involved. Shout out to me on Facebook or Twitter.