What charity: water Knows About Social Media That You Don’t

It’s no secret that our world is facing a water crisis. One in eight people don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. Unsafe water kills more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. It’s also a solvable problem: just $20 can give one person clean water for 20 years.

After reading those four sentences, did you decide to donate money for access to potable water? My guess is you didn’t. We see shocking statistics like these all the time and have learned to ignore them. So how do you convince someone to care about water? One non-profit has done an excellent job at using the power of social media to inspire action. The following excerpt from The Dragonfly Effect tells the story of charity: water‘s founder:

Scott Harrison—a nightclub and fashion promoter who excelled at bringing models and hedge-fund kings together and then selling them $500 bottles of vodka in cavernous spaces—was at top of his world. He had money, power, and beautiful girlfriends. There was something else that came with the lifestyle too, though: he felt “spiritually bankrupt” and miserable. 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 Mercy Ships, a floating hospital that offered free medical care in the world’s poorest nations. He traded his spacious midtown loft for a 250-square-foot cabin with 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 would show 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 atonishing 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 Mercy Ships worked to address 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.

Consider this story, and then compare it to the following story: People in developing nations need clean water. Please donate money to help them!

Which of these two campaigns are you more likely to donate to?

Charity: water excels at engaging people by creating powerful, lasting memories both through Harrison’s story and stories from the field. Harrison’s story evokes themes of redemption, change, and hope and engages others on an emotional level. He 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. His story makes us all ask: if a guy who used to go to nightclubs for a living can positively impact the world, why can’t I?

Founded in 2006, charity: water has funded 2,906 projects in 17 countries, benefiting over 1,277,430 people. The organization had sent over $13 million to developing countries. This enormous success is the result of more than just a sticky story. In addition to embracing the power of storytelling, charity: water empowers others to take action through campaigns such as the the September Campaign.

In The Dragonfly Effect, we outline the four Design Principles of empowering others to take action: Make it Easy, Make it Fun, Tailor, and Be Open. Harrison launched charity: water on his 31st birthday, and asked friends to donate $31 instead of giving him a gift, as a way to make a difference. It worked: the birthday generated $15,000, and helped to build charity: water’s first few wells in Uganda. Every year, charity: water replicates this original model by asking supporters to donate their own birthdays.

The model is Easy: ask people to donate money to charity: water instead of giving you a birthday present. It’s Fun because–hey, who doesn’t like a birthday party? It’s Tailored because participants, such as Diane Johnson or Will and Jada Smith, can choose how much money to ask for and how to ask for it. And finally, the September Campaign preserves Openness by tracking total and individual donations through the mycharity: water portal and promising that 100% of donations go directly to water projects (operating costs are covered by private donors).

By engaging others and then inspiring them to action, charity: water is a model for all organizations that seek to use social media to promote social good. And with 1 billion people on the planet without access to clean drinking water, their success is something we should all be rooting for.

  • Ian

    I really what the comparison between two tactics. Storyselling is the way to go and Charity: Water is a good demonstration of that. As well they’re really tapped in the visual nature of our culture and they’re website visuals are awesome too!