Scott Harrison—a former nightclub and fashion promoter —was at the top of his world. He had money, power, and beautiful girlfriends. But there was something else that came with the lifestyle too: he felt “spiritually bankrupt”. Desperately unhappy, he wanted to change. He constantly wondered, What would the opposite of my life look like? In a search for that answer, he signed up to volunteer aboard a floating hospital that offered free medical care in the world’s poorest nations. He traded his spacious midtown loft for a 150-square-foot cabin for bunk beds, roommates, and cockroaches, the upscale restaurants he frequented were replaced by a mess hall that served four hundred people.
Harrison traveled to Africa, serving as the ship’s photojournalist, and soon began to see a very different world from the one he knew. Upon arrival at a port, the ship’s medical staff showed pictures of the deformities and diseases that they could alleviate, and thousands of people would flock looking for an answer to a debilitating problem—an enormous tumor, a cleft lip and palate, flesh eaten by bacteria from water-borne diseases. Harrison’s camera lens brought astonishing poverty and pain into focus, and he began documenting people’s struggles, and their courage.
After eight months, Harrison moved back to New York, but did not return to his former life. Aware that many of the diseases and medical problems he saw while traveling stemmed from inadequate access to clean drinking water, he founded Charity: Water, a nonprofit that would bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
“It all started with a birthday party,” Harrison recounts. Harrison launched the organization on his thirty-first birthday, asking his friends to donate $31 for clean water efforts instead of giving him a gift. The birthday party ended up generating $15,000 and helped build Charity: Water’s first few wells in Uganda. And just like that, Charity: Water was born.
In the three years that followed, Harrison’s simple birthday wish has snowballed into over $13 million raised; 1,548 water projects; and more than eight hundred thousand people who have benefited from clean water as a result. With innovative and successful social media campaigns like the Twitter festival (called “The Twestival”) which raised close to $1 million dollars, or the opportunity for others to replicate Scott’s birthday party donations with MyCharity:Water Birthday drives, Charity:Water serves as an example for the powerful ways social media can be used to engage individuals and inspire them to action.
The success of Charity: Water’s efforts can be explained through four important design principles:
1. Telling a powerful story: The first method Harrison employed was telling a story —one that evokes themes of redemption, change, and hope, which engages others on an emotional level. Harrison, who comes off as a thoughtful and accessible thirty-something, candidly discusses in media interviews and on YouTube videos why and how he started the organization. Viewers fall in love with him and his cause as he shows his audience what’s possible.
But Harrison’s story is just the conduit to the hundreds of other powerful stories available through Charity:Water’s website. With powerful videography, photography, and graphics, Charity:Water engages its audiences by making the stories of both the people who donate their time and money and the people who receive the benefits of those efforts readily accessible. To see some of their storytell, visit Charity:Water’s Media page at http://www.charitywater.org/media/.
2. Making an emotional connection. Charity: Water has found a way to evoke empathy, through the use of photographs and videos that reveal the urgency of the water situation in the developing world. The use of visual images has been a pivotal part of the campaign process since the group’s founding, when it funded six wells in Uganda—and took pictures of them.
Instead of relying on statistics and numbers, the organization promotes compelling stories from that community to their audience back home: stories of a fifteen-year-old boy in Murinja, Rwanda, who no longer walks five times a day with a twenty-pound Jerry Can on his head to get necessary water; a mother in Uganda who now has water to grow vegetables, clean her children’s uniforms, and bathe; the people of Rio Platano, Honduras, who are no longer getting sick from contaminated water. Charity: Water uses events to get other people to empathize, including its use of outdoor exhibitions where dirty water is displayed. People are forced to think about what it would be like to live without access to clean water, because the images are staring right back at them. It’s hard to watch one of Charity:Water’s videos without feeling compelled, on a deeply emotional level, to act.
3. Being Authentic. Charity:Water engages their audience by being candid authentic,; they uphold a commitment to transparency which is evident across all media platforms. Donors give knowing where their money is going—and that 100% of their donations go to projects in the field. Then, through the reports and updates on the website and through Twitter, they are connected to the results. As a result of being constantly connected to their donors in genuine and accessible ways, Charity:Water feels less like an ivory tower organization and more like a group of individuals committed to a cause, eager to recruit others on their team to accomplish their goal of getting clean water to those who need it. Their authenticity radiates in every reach out, and breeds genuine engagement from individuals who become inspired.
4. Using Powerful Platforms. Charity: Water excels at matching the media to its message. Scott Harrison says, “We really maintain a platform on about ten social media platforms. We’re sort of everywhere we need to be, because it’s as simple as a sign-up.”
The group has a staff member dedicated to updating the various social media platforms regularly, and creating distinctive messages for Twitter and Facebook fan pages. They also rely heavily on video. One of the most effective video projects involved convincing Terry George, the director of Hotel Rwanda, to make a sixty-second public service announcement for Charity: Water, in which movie star Jennifer Connelly takes a forty-pound gasoline can to Central Park, fills it with dirty water from the lagoon, and brings it home to serve to her two children. Charity: Water even managed to convince the producers of American Idol to broadcast the spot during the show, ensuring that more than 25 million viewers saw it. There is perhaps no website that is more thoughtfully designed, or with clearer calls to action than Charity:Water’s; engaged by powerful storytelling and graphics, learning about and getting involved with clean water efforts has never been as compelling – or easy.
To learn more about Charity:Water, or to start your own campaign, visit Charitywater.org.