Water.org co-founders Matt Damon and Gary White on harnessing the power of innovative nonprofit marketing, philanthropic microfinancing, and the importance of World Water Day.
I’m overhead. That’s a simple tagline that sums up a powerful message delivered by Dan Pallotta just a few weeks ago at TED 2013. Two words—one complex conversation. In his TED talk, Dan challenged some of the fundamental notions about how nonprofit organizations should function in our society. He made a strong case that nonprofits should be given more license to invest in talent, innovation, and powerful marketing strategies—together often called “overhead”—to solve some of the world’s greatest social challenges.
In his marketing and fundraising model of the ‘90s and early 2000s, Pallotta and his partners generated hundreds of millions of new dollars for HIV/AIDS and cancer research by building powerful marketing initiatives like three-day walks and rides. His model came under fire, because so many felt it was wrong to make significant financial investments in marketing, even if the marketing fueled much greater fundraising potential for the cause. In the end, the outcry was too much, and his model came to an end. Many people may have felt that a moral victory had been won, but in the end, as Pallotta points out, a lot less money is going to research.
Pallotta’s perspective could be considered provocative, but in any case, his story struck a chord with us on a couple of fronts. Two are most pertinent to today’s date—the 20th anniversary of World Water Day. The first is that we agree with the notion that those working in the nonprofit sector should be disruptive and innovate as relentlessly as for-profit organizations—as if the future of our enterprise depended on it, just as it does in the for-profit world. The second is that we couldn’t agree more with the point that nonprofit organizations must be bold and explore new ways of marketing the big social causes of our day to motivate more people to take action and join the movements we seek to build.
Today is indeed World Water Day. It’s been 20 years since the United Nations first declared this day of observance and action. How many people in the United States will recognize the significance of this day? How many know that at any given time, more than half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from water-related diseases? Sadly, awareness of the global water crisis hasn’t even begun to spark the kind of movement it deserves, as several other notable causes have—breast-cancer research, childhood obesity, malaria eradication, global HIV/AIDS, or even recycling. And yet, lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation is one of the world’s greatest public-health crises. Every 20 seconds, a child under the age of 5 will die from a preventable waterborne illness. This is more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
Given the urgency and solvability of this challenge, nothing could be more impactful then doubling down on innovation in the sector and mobilizing a movement of support. We believe that the 780 million who lack safe water and the 2.5 billion in need of a toilet would demand of us that we not approach this as business as usual. We’ve taken this challenge seriously. Because it can cost more than $100 to reach one person with water or sanitation, we knew there would never be enough charity to tackle this crisis. So we reimagined the world’s poor as potential customers and explored ways to help them tap into this power through markets and commercial capital.
The result is WaterCredit, an innovation that has pushed down the philanthropic cost to reach a person to below $25. WaterCredit was a risky venture requiring patient, philanthropic capital and partners who shared our vision for a model that had the potential for dramatic scale and sustainability. The PepsiCo Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the MasterCard Foundation, and several individual donors joined us for this journey. This venture allowed us to cover startup costs—what we call smart subsidies—for local microfinance institutions, which then created new loan portfolios and distributed loans to households to finance their own clean-water and sanitation solutions. We now have a network of more than 25 microfinance institutions tapping into commercial capital markets to fund loan portfolios. Today’s global repayment rate hovers around 98 percent. More than 600,000 have been lifted out of water and sanitation poverty. And we’re only getting started. We believe that the early investments made in this kind of innovation will return millions in terms of people served. But it took a little bit of risk and the support to really innovate beyond a traditional approach.
Last month we launched a new-for-us awareness campaign. Until then we were producing pretty traditional videos of our work on the ground with most gaining only a few thousand views. We realized we needed to be as creative with movement building as we were with WaterCredit. We began to search for new ways to tell the story and connect with audiences. Where we landed was a mix of humor, celebrity, really talented video bloggers, and a cadre of digital partnerships. Along the way we found a host of people with great talent who wanted to get on board and contribute their talents in film, photography, writing, production, vlogging, and, yes, marketing. The result is a video campaign that has garnered more than 6 million views, new and unique media relationships, and thousands of email addresses. But most importantly, it has enabled us to generate awareness of and interest in the global water and sanitation crisis.
There have been a lot of lessons along the way, but the most important is that had we not been willing to experiment with a new approach, we would not have been able to capture the attention of a new community of supporters and friends who want to learn about and get behind this very important cause.
In 2009 we merged our organizations—H2O Africa and WaterPartners International—to create Water.org. Given how rare such combinations are in the nonprofit world, you could say Water.org was born with innovation built into its DNA. We never stop thinking about how we can accelerate progress against what we feel is one of the greatest challenges facing the planet. Pallotta’s TED talk gave us all a lot to consider. On this World Water Day, we could not agree more that innovation and movements are powerful and will be entirely necessary if we are to solve the global water crisis or any other great challenge facing humanity.
Each year, on March 22, we join together to highlight the global water crisis and celebrate the progress made to date. Learn more at water.org or show your support by visiting waterday.org, post a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #waterday, or simply tweet your thoughts about #waterday.
For more than two decades, Water.org has been at the forefront of developing and delivering solutions to the water crisis. Founded by Gary White and Matt Damon, Water.org pioneers innovative, community-driven, and market-based solutions to ensure all people have access to safe water and sanitation, giving women hope, children health, and communities a future. To date Water.org has positively transformed the lives of more than 1 million people living across communities in Africa, South Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, ensuring a better life for generations ahead.