I met Paull Young when I had the opportunity to visit charity: water‘s offices for a studio talk during The 99% Conference. I was immediately taken with the power of the organization’s brand and depth of their commitment to solving the world’s water crisis, and also with Paull’s affable style and considerable expertise. I knew I wanted to bend his hear for an interview.
Paull is charity: water‘s Director of Digital Engagement and a member of the executive team (and also not someone you want to mess with on the pitch, according to the video that ends this interview!). While storytelling and brand is obviously a strength of charity: water, I was interested in how they deal with planning and strategy, developing a team that can tackle massive challenges with limited resources, and the operational travails associated with running a global organization.
It’s also worth mentioning that charity: water is currently hiring for a handful of high priority technology and software positions including a Director of Technology. Dream jobs for someone out there.
Also current: Inc. Magazine did a feature on charity: water‘s founder and executive director, Scott Harrison.
Many thanks to Paull for agreeing to the Q&A.
Scott McDowell: What’s a Director of Digital Engagement do anyway?
Paull Young: I have a dual role at charity: water, my functional responsibilities leading digital, alongside the more important role as an executive team member leading the organization.
Within digital, I work closely with our founder Scott Harrison (I view Scott as our ‘chief storyteller’ and he’s a natural marketer) and our extremely strong creative team of three, spearheaded by our Creative Director Viktoria Harrison.
It’s a very collaborative process, but I tend to take a lead on our overall strategy, communications and measurement, along with our customer experience and support. We’re a very small team – there’s only 23 staff at charity: water so we all wear multiple hats.
Ultimately, my primary measurement of success is online fundraising, in particular our fundraising platform mycharitywater.org. However, while we do 70% of our revenue for digital channels, we’re just as focused on building relationships and an inspired grassroots movement as we are on driving donations.
SM: I know you’ve been at charity: water for a year. What are you proud of? What have you learned? How has the experience differed from your expectations going in?
PY: I’m most proud of our continually developing team. We spend a lot of time thinking about and working on our company culture and driving more efficiency. We know we’ve got huge goals and potentially tremendous growth ahead of us the coming years. We’re trying to do a lot of hard work now developing our people, our processes and our technology to be provide the foundation to bring millions of people clean water with a very small staff and operating budget.
I’d say my biggest learnings have been around the importance of team and the value of brand and creative.
Our executive team in particular has spent a great deal of time and energy consciously building our team – it’s amazing how hard it is, and just how much growth you can have alongside your colleagues when you focus on it.
I often reflect on how lucky I am to have such a strong creative team at charity: water. Our Founder is completely committed to the power of brands, and this energy and focus gives us the freedom to develop compelling content and visual assets. I’m frequently inspired by the work that comes out of our creative team, and it’s a pleasure to play a role making sure hundreds of thousands of people see this content!
A great example is the Water Changes Everything video we launched on Earth Day:
SM: What are charity: water’s biggest challenges right now and in the future? How are you working on solving them?
PY: One of our biggest challenges is driving operations revenue. We are completely committed to our 100% model – meaning that every cent of public donations contributes to water projects. We fund our operating budget (staff salaries, travel, we even pay back the credit card fees on online donations!) through separate channels, primarily a group of our biggest supporters ‘The Well’.
It’s a lot harder to raise operations money than water money, and we’re still working out the best way to provide a sustainable fundraising base to keep the lights on while we direct 100% of public funds to the field.
Secondly, we’re continually challenged to make sure that the money we raised is put to best use changing people’s lives. International Development work is very hard – if it was easy, we wouldn’t currently live in a world with 1 billion people without safe water. To this end, we just hired a new water programs lead from the World Bank – his entry interview on our blog gives good background on this issue.
SM: As an executive team, how often do you focus on mid- long-term strategy? How do you decide what to focus on?
PY: At the start of every year we set specific annual goals as an executive team, in line with longer term strategic priorities.
We’re still a very young organization (not yet 5 years old!), so we’re solidifying our approach to organizational strategy. This year, we’re trying to be much more intentionally focused on delivering our key priorities – to the point that every staff person has 5 priorities for each quarter taped up on their desk.
Since the start of the year our executive team has spent an hour meeting every single day at 9am, primarily to focus on delivering our annual goals. This helps us maintain our focus on the future as well as our day-to-day.
SM: One of the things I loved about visiting charity: water’s offices is that from the moment I stepped through the door it was like being hit by your story. I feel like a lot if organizations miss on this, their design doesn’t match the gravity of what they’re trying to do. How has charity: water been able to get this so right?
PY: It starts with people and culture. From day 1 charity: water was completely committed to design and building a world-class brand. Our first hire was a water programs staffer, the second – a designer, who has since become our creative lead.
It begins with our founder and CEO Scott and funnels down to the rest of the organization.
SM: What are the organizational challenges of tackling this massive problem with a small team? Is there an organizational secret?
PY: Here I have to turn to our supporters and fundraisers. We only have 23 staff, but there is an army of thousands online who support us each and every day. 8000 fundraisers on mycharitywater.org have given up a birthday and raise over $8 million in just 15 months. Our 1.3 million Twitter followers have shared the brand and passed on our content and message.
The power and energy of our supporters allows us to stay lean and do huge things with a relatively tiny staff.
SM: Lastly, I gathered via an answer to a question on Quora about Sonny Bill Williams that you’re a rugby fan. Do you play? What is it you love about the sport?
PY: Love the rugby question! It’s my great passion outside of charity: water. I’ve been playing since I was 7 and the first thing I did when I moved to NYC 4 years ago was find a club. My team, the Village Lions, is currently one of the top-ranked teams in America – next week we head down to Virginia to play in the National Finals. I love the camaraderie and the mateship that comes with the sport… And I’d be lying if I didn’t say playing a physical sport is a great stress release!
Here’s a little clip from one of our recent games: