The “Power & Influence” of Social Media in Philanthropy

(Update: The Nonprofit Times emailed me to point out that I should have disclosed that I write for the Chronicle of Philanthropy when I wrote this post. They’re right, I should have. I write a monthly column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

The Nonprofit Times has released their annual Power & Influence Top 50 list for the social sector. While the NPT isn’t terribly influential itself to the best of my knowledge, their annual list gets a lot of attention and I think it is generally well done.

The most interesting new member of the Top 50 is Scott Harrison, the founder of Charity: Water. Here’s a guy who seven years ago was a nightclub promoter with no connection to the social sector. Today, Charity: Water, the nonprofit he founded, raises $16 million a year, gets a ton of media attention and in my mind represents a case study in how to effectively use social media to connect with donors.

The vast majority of people on the NPT 50 have spent long careers in the social sector to build the power and influence that the paper is recognizing. Bill Gates is an exception, but it took billions of dollars for him to make list without a long history in the sector. However, Scott Harrison had quite a short social sector career before being named to the list. Whatever you think of social media, the way in which people who know how to harness it can build their own power and influence incredibly quickly is amazing (the one other person on the list with such a short social sector career is Wendy Harman, director of social media for the Red Cross).

So what is it that Scott and Charity: Water are doing with social media that has landed him on the NPT 50? Most importantly they treat social media as a tool, not a strategy itself. In other words, the core of what they are doing so well is fantastic communication with social media simply acting as an accelerator rather then thinking that social media itself is the key to success.

For instance, in this video, Charity: Water doesn’t just pull our heartstrings, they use fantastic storytelling skills to communicate the very real statistics that underlie the problems they are trying to address.

(click here to see the video if you are viewing this in an email)

In this next video, the organization, and Scott, show the humbleness that is required of anyone who is trying to achieve results. While most nonprofit marketing paints a picture of a world where nonprofit interventions always succeed, Charity: Water shows that they understand that talking frankly about their failures is important as well.

(click here to see the video if you are viewing this in an email)

What Charity: Water and Scott’s naming to the NPT 50 demonstrate is that social media isn’t just about having a Facebook page or being on Twitter. It is simply a tool that fantastic communicators can use to greatly accelerate their power and influence. The key to success in social media has little to do with getting the technology part right and everything to do with getting the human communications part right.


  1. Sorry for such a quick, boring response, Sean, but AMEN. Very well said

  2. Keneta Anderson says:

    Phenomenal post, Sean, thank you. The second video prompts me to wonder why foundations and nonprofits spend so much time dividing their efforts into “successes” and “failures,” as if they were two different categories of experience, when “realities” is the only category we actually live in, and is what we have to face frankly to get our work done.

    The second video is compelling in itself but especially so because it echoes images the world saw during the Chilean mine disaster (a year ago today). The villagers watching Charity: Water’s drilling efforts remind me of seeing the miners’ family and friends watching the rescue attempts. In both situations, many lives depend on the outcome–what the drilling crews are and are not able to do with their realities.

  3. “There is no success or failure, only reality.” Sounds like Yoda’s advice for philanthropists!

    Thanks Keneta!