I’m in the process of writing a series of blogs about nonprofits doing storytelling well. In my last blog post in December (if you read my newsletter, you’ll know that I took a couple of months off to focus on my fiction writing) I wrote about charity: water.
In that post, I included two awesome stories that just happened to be by Tyler Riewer. So, of course, I looked him up, along with his background. I wanted to find out more about this guy who did such a great job with storytelling. Well, turns out, there’s a great deal to tell. So that’s what I’m going to do.
The story begins like this: once upon a time there was…no, scratch that. Let’s just start with, there is “the charming and wonderful world of tyler riewer.” And the highlights include a link to a series of videos where host Tyler takes you on a trip to Ethiopia to showcase some of charity: water’s work, information about his year-long hobby adventure (p.s. you can join), a video inspiring people to get to know their neighbors, plus creepy mustache photos, photos of recent acting gigs, and links to a couple of secret clubs.
But let’s start off by talking about “The Journey.”
‘The Journey’ to Tigray, Ethiopia
You can get a great feel for Tyler’s personality with this eight-part video series about his trip to the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. If you’ve been reading for awhile, you probably know that I’m personally more interested in written storytelling than video (although, of course, video is becoming more and more popular). But this video is totally amazing. A must-watch. Here’s the string of great things about it and Tyler. Warning: if you read this list, you’ll have to watch the video. You just will.
- He carries water (40 lbs on his shoulder) in a jerrycan in 90 degree heat up an extremely steep hill (practically a cliff) with a 12-year-old girl, who leaves him in the dust. He doesn’t give up.
- The people he talks to are happy and you can see that they have an amazing work ethic.
- You get to see Tyler dance, and dive behind a bank ahead of an explosion.
- They work with an amazing partner organization on the ground, called REST. Its director helped lead the people in the Tigray area to Sudan during the famine in the 1980s, and when the government fell, he helped lead them back again. There’s no rest at REST, they laugh, and then work until everyone has water.
- With communities that have water wells, you learn what people can do with their spare time — make and sell more lids for stoves, craft handwoven baskets, or schedule more hair appointments. Or, in cases where children have been getting water, they have more time to attend school.
- You get to see the process that it takes to hand dig a well using drills and dynamite. Forty days. You get to see the drilled way too. With a lot of volunteers, it takes about a week before the well is finished. They also have local dispatch teams that fix a well if it breaks.
So, you’ve watched the video. It was produced by Tyler and Jamie (Tyler’s colleague). Goes to show you don’t need a whole film crew to produce an amazing series of videos. And they only had two weeks in the field!
When I chatted with Tyler he said they had an idea of what each episode would be about beforehand (including intros and outros for each video), but it was very difficult trying to make absolutely sure they had enough footage for everything.
When I told him he was great and had a quirky personality on camera (he’s a natural), he said “a combination of quirky and a little bit of a ham.”
charity: water is still in the process of rolling out the video to its audience. It’s being done in three parts. The initial share was with people who fundraised for Ethiopia last year as “a form of proof.” The next rollout is to people who are currently fundraising for Ethiopia to “show them where their money is going and who it will help.”
The third rollout is “to reach out to everybody who has fundraised for Ethiopia and hopefully inspire them to reengage with charity water.”
The video has been a test for charity: water to see what works. It’s different from what its done before. So far the feedback has been positive.
So, are you asking what I did? How did Tyler (who has been at charity: water for two years) get the buy-in to do this? The entire purpose of Tyler and Jamie’s two-week trip was to shoot the series of videos.
Well, it was a number of things. charity: water has “always said we’re going to show you where your money goes and who it helps,” Tyler says. So this was one of those ways. When Tyler travels, he sends emails back to family and friends — kind of a quirky, funny perspective of what’s happening. Check out a couple.
The way people responded to that was a good motivator for doing something with video that showed the field from that kind of perspective, Tyler said. Also, Tyler and his partner shot the first video (the pilot) and sent it back to a group of colleagues.
The group didn’t know what to expect, but they “instantly loved the idea. So I think that pilot episode internally helped sell it.” If you haven’t watched that episode yet, it’s the one where Tyler orders Ethiopian food and eats it in his boss’s office. And oops, I guess he forgot to ask his boss if he could borrow his office.
Creating Stories, Reinventing Charity
So we already noted that Tyler has been at charity: water for about two years. Before that, he was in advertising, but “in a lot of ways my job hasn’t changed. It’s still creating stories that inspire people to take action. In advertising that was needing to make a purchase or to become a fan of the brand or to help spread awareness. And here it’s just more about spreading awareness of a cause or to take action and fundraise or donate,” he says.
“Or just to believe in nonprofits. Part of charity: water’s mission is to reinvent charity, to change the way people feel about giving. That’s a huge part of the appeal to me.”
How about on a day-to-day basis? What does Tyler do when he’s not traveling? He says it varies. When he came back from Mozambique in September he wrote the story about the 15-year-old president. Yes, that’s one of the stories I discussed in my earlier post.
After that, the focus in the office was around end-of-the-year giving. Then there was Valentine’s Day. It’s easy to get caught up in the commercialization of Valentine’s, Tyler says. But we are putting together a quirky video that shows you you can do something that matters, and here’s what. It’s a fun thing, he says. Then there’s World Water Day this March, and other small campaigns in-between. I get the feeling he does a lot of fun and quirky things, don’t you?
Understanding Your Audience
Tyler describes how he sees the role of a content strategist on his website: “It’s about establishing a thoughtful approach to content (whether it’s copy on your website, posts on your blog, or a social campaign) based on objectives and a deeeeeeep understanding of your audience.”
What is this deep understanding about? While charity: water’s demographics vary and are tracked, Tyler enjoys sitting down and talking with people of all ages who have campaigned for them in the past. To find out why they did it. What made them most excited? What was their favorite part? This is something they hope to do more of.
Inspiring Supporters Via Storytelling
In terms of having a strategy for charity: water’s storytelling, it’s constantly changing, Tyler said.
But storytelling within charity: water has also been important. Scott Harrison, the founder, is passionate and energetic about it, which becomes becomes contagious and gives them the space they need to create content.
They constantly need new stories and photos to share with supporters to keep them inspired and active. They’ve tried the platforms Exposure (which is more visual based) and Medium (which is where I found Tyler’s stories). The best thing they can do is create content that inspires people to campaign, Tyler said.
I asked Tyler about a story I noted in my previous blog post. “It Happened on the Walk for Water” is a story about two sisters who were raped on their way to get water, each on separate occasions. Each ended up pregnant.
Tyler included a writer’s note at the bottom of the piece about how he, as a man, didn’t feel completely “comfortable” telling a story about rape. His partner in the field was also a man, and it was not a story either of them expected to find.
One of the girls came over to them and asked in weak English if she could share her story. She wanted her story to be told. Tyler checked with his colleagues back in NY and they agreed. It was definitely a difficult but important story to tell.
Giving: Where Does Your Money Go?
As I said in my previous post, so many people have written about charity: water as a model nonprofit in terms of online fundraising that I hesitated to write about it again. But I didn’t think I’d be duplicating anything since I was looking at it specifically from a storytelling angle.
Since I do so much reading about what works for nonprofits online, and because I see so many people giving and campaigning for charity: water, I started to wonder if they needed any more money. Maybe I’m better off giving my money to a charity that’s less well-known.
But I’ve since realized that doesn’t make so much sense. I see lots and lots of people (and their mothers and grandmothers) campaigning for charity: water because that’s the platform they use. They also highlight their campaigners and appreciate all of them. That’s why I hear about them all the time. And that’s not wrong. That’s just the way a great nonprofit should act.
When I mentioned this to Tyler, he said he hadn’t heard that from anyone else (although he wasn’t surprised). But he said that sometimes charity: water does sometimes get pushback from other nonprofits because it’s able to give 100% of your donation directly to projects in the field. It doesn’t always make other nonprofits happy because many are unable to do this and feel it’s hard to compete for donor dollars. charity: water raises money for operations separately. It’s a good selling point when asking for donations.
Ok, so this, and the fact that charity: water has awesome employees sold us. Our family of three decided to donate our birthdays this year. Please help us with $5 or $10 if you can.