Water Changes Everything
August 5, 2014
“We’re a non-profit organization on a mission to bring clean and safe drinking water to every person on the planet.” - charity: water
The first time I encountered charity: water was during one of their birthday campaigns. It was my friend’s birthday, and he made a request to his network that in lieu of any “normal” birthday presents we instead donate our money to a clean water project. Just $20 could provide water to a child, which was a lot better than buying my friend any “material things.”
I watched several people pile into the campaign enthusiastically, acknowledging my friend for his generosity and wishing him a happy birthday with their donations. Charity: water’s sleek website neatly displayed the individuals’ names, gifts, and public comments for the world to see.
Instantly my perception of what it meant to be a “nonprofit organization” was altered. My experience with nonprofits until then had largely involved watching them bombard my parents with direct mail solicitations (remember all those return address labels and Greenpeace calendars?). I also associated the word “nonprofit” with those depressing TV infomercials that showed starving kids in Africa, or maybe that guy standing outside the grocery store ringing the Salvation Army bell.
But this? This was different. This was fun, hip, modern, interesting. It was online. It was social. Charity: water was speaking directly to my young millennial mind. Yes there were still pictures of kids in Africa, but these kids were happy, rejoicing in their newfound supply of clean water. The experience interrupted my culturally-driven narrative of what birthdays were all about. By donating my $20, and by participating in several birthday campaigns that followed, I could feel the act of giving. I was helping another human being on this planet, and it felt great.
Charity: water has taken an innovative approach to philanthropy since its beginning. The nonprofit organization has helped millions of families get access to safe drinking water, and it has built an incredible following in the process. Take one look at the charity: water Twitter stream and you'll see a global outpouring of love and support that would make even the world’s most recognizable brands envious.
In just 7 years, charity: water has raised over $100 million, quickly surpassing the fundraising efforts of many long-standing nonprofits that also focus on water projects. Charity: water's momentum shows no signs of slowing, with corporate donations rapidly growing and the organization now winning top placements in programs like AmazonSmile and the Google Impact Awards.
How has charity: water been so effective? Why do people love it so much? Here are a few observations, shared by many who have sought to describe the organization's winning formula:
- Beautiful giving experience - Charity: water has carefully constructed a beautiful “giving experience.” This should not be mistaken for superficiality or simple aesthetics. Charity: water artfully tells stories using photography, graphics, and video in a way that communicates empathy for its donors, much like a consumer Internet company might craft its brand design to engage users. The result is a deeper sense of impact felt when you make a gift to charity: water. This feeling is itself a reciprocal gift, and something all too lacking in our commoditized culture.
- Authentic personal connection - In addition to involving your friends in fundraising campaigns, charity: water makes the giving experience more personal with intelligent feedback loops. Unlike many nonprofits where you don’t know exactly where your money went, your gifts to charity: water are tied to individual water projects. You can track the status of the construction of a well, for example, and when it’s completed you’ll get an email sharing pictures, a map, and GPS coordinates. This furthers donors satisfaction and helps build new giving habits.
- Scalable operating model - Charity: water has made important structural decisions that enable them to be a highly scalable fundraising vehicle. The organization works with local field partners to implement water projects around the world. By leveraging partner expertise and operations, charity: water can focus more on its core competencies and the bigger strategic picture.
Furthermore, charity: water has a unique funding setup. In the nonprofit sector a lot of focus goes into reducing administrative costs in order to maximize the percentage of donations that make it to end beneficiaries. While well-meaning, this can sometimes lead to difficult decisions and the unintended consequence of nonprofits being underfunded in operational functions that might have enabled larger overall impact.
Charity: water addresses this dynamic by simply separating its two functions: one fund for administrative expenses, one for water projects. This allows foundations and private donors with deeper relationships to charity: water gauge the organization's effectiveness and cover overhead costs accordingly. More importantly, it gives everyday donors confidence that 100% of their gifts will be channeled into water projects. Charity: water calls this a “100% model.”
With droughts, depleted water tables, and the disastrous effects of climate change upon us, access to fresh water is an increasingly urgent priority in our world. Beyond solutions like wells and catchments, charity: water’s “next big thing” is the implementation of pipelines. The organization is also working to improve how they fix broken wells, select effective field partners, and more precisely measure each project’s impact.
The team at charity: water has set forth the courageous goal of delivering at least 100 million people safe drinking water over the next 10 years. We’re inspired by this vision and have put our support behind the cause, timed with the generous recent matching program by Virginia Clay.
In addition to its potential for bringing relief and empowerment to millions of children, it’s exciting to think how charity: water’s strategies can be applied to other areas of philanthropy and activism...
Take the birthday campaigns, for example. With over 17,000 people having pledged their birthdays to raise over $9 million, charity: water has shown this is a fundraising meme that works. But it’s just scratching the surface - after all, every person has a birthday every single year. What if an organization helped people pledge their birthdays to install school gardens that taught kids about growing healthy food? And why stop at birthdays? How about similar pledge campaigns for weddings, anniversaries, graduations, retirements, or any life milestones typically characterized with material gifts or displays of attention?
To create personal feedback loops, what if an environmental organization showed donors mapped GPS coordinates of where gifted trees were planted and growing? Could this tactic help sequester more carbon from our biosphere by cultivating more consideration for our natural habitat?
And what if well-designed social media interfaces expanded beyond displaying donor comments to publishing declarations of solidarity and unconditional forgiveness between people across borders? Could this be a means of helping reconcile international conflict and bring more peace to the world?
The possibilities are endless, and they await the action of passionate change-makers everywhere. In the fullness of time, perhaps charity: water will be remembered not only for addressing a critical human rights issue, but also for being an early role model and design inspiration for a new generation of nonprofit organizations. Along with groups like DonorsChoose, GlobalGiving, Pencils of Promise, Watsi, and Kiva, charity: water is paving the way for a new kind of “startup” ecosystem that uses digital platforms to scale solutions for healing our world.