How An Old-School Nonprofit Is Learning To Tell A More Captivating Story

The Nature Conservancy’s new water campaign carefully ventures into a more modern style of digital outreach.


The Nature Conservancy, a 65-year-old nonprofit and one of the world’s most well-funded environmental charities, doesn’t necessarily lack for resources to set up a fancy website. But sometimes, even it needs a lesson in how to hold the attention of the capricious Internet generation and tell its story better.


One of the group’s main focus areas is water. A few years ago, after conducting a survey, it realized a huge majority of people–about 70% of respondents–had no clue where their own water comes from. Some simply said “the tap.” This was a bad sign.

“If you’re trying to protect the ultimate water source, which is the forests and watersheds that we all depend on, and the vast majority of the public has no idea–you have a problem,” says Giulio Boccaletti, the Nature Conservancy’s global managing director for water.

The organization embarked on a campaign to educate the masses, appropriately titled “Where Does Your Water Come From?” An informational site included lots of statistics and a Google Map; people could click to see more about where their city’s water came from. Mostly straightforward stuff. And some of their members and social media followers indeed visited. But the Nature Conservancy (TNC) came to realize it wasn’t having the impact they’d hoped.

“I wouldn’t say it failed, but I think it spoke to our existing constituency–people who were traditionally interested in conservation,” Boccaletti says. “It was a very analytical, non-emotional approach to tell the story. There wasn’t really a narrative aspect.” Even the language was a barrier. Through more focus group work they realized that many people don’t even know what a “watershed” is.

That’s around when the TNC’s youngest board member recommended the agency Lovesocial, a brand strategy and communications firm that is focused on storytelling, especially to younger audiences. The agency had previously worked with clients like NPR, Nike, the Tribeca Film Festival, and Joe Fresh. Also, as a certified B-Corporation itself, it had a social good bent.


Last November, TNC’s “Liquid Courage” campaign was born, moving from a text-heavy site to a interactive, scrolling site with bite-sized social content that focused on the user. The #liquidcourage hashtag played on young people’s use of the term in a more alcohol-related context. The site locates the user and tells a simple story about their water–replacing the jargon with playful graphics instead. On the first day, with the help of a social media service called ThunderClap, LoveSocial estimates the initial message reached 1.2 million people. Of the some 60,000 people who came to the site, many spent minutes and almost half of visitors were between the ages of 22 and 40.

The lesson from Lovesocial is that as older nonprofits compete for attention against newer digital-savvy organizations and other forms of online media, they need to re-think their brand.

“There’s much more of a need to clarify and simplify their offerings, and really offer something creative,” says Azita Ardakani, Lovesocial’s 29-year-old CEO and founder. “To draw in audiences, and keep them there, and eventually turn them into evangelists, it’s about making the user the star.”

A screenshot of the initial “Where does your water come from?” campaign.

The initial Liquid Courage site was such a success that, in March, TNC launched a new, expanded version of the campaign with a fresh sponsorship for Pepsi. It takes about eight minutes to scroll through, and uses a bit more humor than a large nonprofit might typically be comfortable with. Explaining how much water goes into the production of, say, your jeans, it notes: “The next time you get dressed, think about us (not in a creepy way).”

“For TNC, it’s an experiment, and it’s a venture into a new way of doing things,” says Boccaletti. “I see it as a pilot: Can we tell our story and engage people in a more narrative way, and a more emotional way, and in a way that would activate the younger generation?” He says: “Ultimately, we’re trying to make it feel like we’re creating a movement, instead of just passing on information.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire