Charity: Water on How Brands Benefit From Non-Profit Partnerships and Transparency

Today, March 22nd, is World Water Day, an initiative that grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio. What better time to share some of the great work being done by charity: water?


Today, March 22nd, is World Water Day, an initiative that grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio. What better time to share some of the great work being done by charity: water, a non-profit that is not only reinventing the fundraising model but also offering unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability for their work in the field.

Here’s what Paull Young, Director of Digital Engagement (and another Aussie!) had to share about some of their most recent work and how transparency can work for brands even when things go wrong.

SM: I’m here at SXSW with Paull Young from charity: water. I wanted to ask Paull about two things, the first of which is brand partnerships with non-profits andsecondly, specifically about the case study with Macallan recently in which this fine whiskey participated with charity: water in a fundraising campaign that did enormous things for the brand.

PY: Thanks, Simon. We had a great experience last year working with Macallan. At charity: water, we wanted to get away from the brand/charity partnership that is more of a big check, a handshake and a press release. Big checks are great, but we have to be a bit more authentic and connected. When Macallan approached us it seemed to be a really natural fit. First of all, water is fundamental to whiskey and the whole process. Secondly, they make make expensive whiskey, we build expensive wells, so it’s a great connection!

What Macallan decided to do was get together the oldest whiskey in the world. (Unfortunately I didn’t get to taste any, but I’d probably have to mix it with Coke and that would be a big no-no.) They took this expensive whiskey around the world and sold a dram in about twelve different countries, and at each auction in those countries, people would bid on that whiskey and every cent of those proceeds came to charity: water, and 100% of that was contributed to water projects. So a dram normally went for $5000-$15,000 ($5000 is the average cost of a well).


Where it really blew up was when the final bottle was sold at Sotherby’s in New York in a special crystal decanter. In all of history, the most expensive bottle of whiskey sold for $160,000 but this whiskey went for $460,000. This led to incredible press as a result of the significant contribution to water projects and having raised over $600,000 dollars. The interesting thing for the whiskey sector is that the whiskey is now being remade as an investor item. It was the first time whiskey had ever gone for this much, so it was a natural brand fit, a natural cause fit. The brand and the entire whiskey category is getting a big lift, and through charity: water, we will be giving thousands of people free water with the proceeds.

SM: That’s absolutely fantastic. The thing to take away here is that the partnerships between brands and non-profits aren’t just about being well-intended, there is actually a great halo effect for the brand itself. Now, the second biggest topic here at SXSW is probably transparency for brands. How do they open their kimono effectively? I wanted to give people insights into how you’ve done that yourselves and some of the unexpected, positive results, in the hope of encouraging other brands to do the same. So tell us how charity: water opened their kimono, and what happened.

PY: It’s interesting we decided to call it “Uncomfortable transparency” because if you’re at the point of being uncomfortable about how open you’re being, you’re actually in a very good place. We have two experiences recently that really illustrate that. Traditionally, the aid sector doesn’t like talking about failures or mistakes. It’s a hard thing for most non-profits.

Now, every year on September 7th (our birthday as an organization) we do a live draw from the field where we show people a drill live on the internet from somewhere in the world. This past year we did Central African Republic. We’re doing a large campaign there to find clean water. In the history of the organization, every year there was a big celebration where there is water spurting out and the villagers are celebrating the gift of life they’re getting from the gift of water.

This year, we did it in a village that had never had water. Three times different organizations have tried to bring water there and failed in their drills. We knew this was a risk. The morning of the drill, we were broadcasting live with thousands of people tweeting about it, we were aware we weren’t going to get water. Instead of being able to post a positive celebration, we had to post a very sad video. But the great thing was that we could be honest about not being perfect and about how difficult it is to deliver water. But we had a great response from the audience, which included Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times tweeting about the honesty he saw.

So through showcasing our failure, a very hard day for the organization and being very sad internally for not being able to get the people clean water, we had a great experience with our audience, which informed a bunch of things we are doing now. Even this past week. For years we’ve been saying that $20 gives one person clean water for 20 years, but now, five years into the organization with 30 million dollars granted to the field we’re find that the twenty years number doesn’t quite work. What I think we could have done is removed the 20 year number and never referenced it. Instead, informed by our experience with the last drill, we decided to go public with this message, wrote a blog post about it, tweeted about it and shared it with the world. Once again, we’ve had a really positive response from other water charities, from development bloggers, from the non-profit sector. So we’re going to keep striving to be more and more open, even if it’s a story that is uncomfortable to tell.


SM: That’s fantastic. If you were to give one piece of advice to brands who are considering non-profit partnerships, what would you say?

PY: Go beyond the big check. Find a way to get your employees invested. Every brand has a bunch of employees that can have a huge impact. Today, through social media and social tools, one person can make a significant impact, and you get the huge benefit of employee engagement as well. So find the cause that’s calling you, and that will have you get those employees in line with the brand partnership.

SM: And in terms of transparency, whether you’re a non-profit or a brand, would you recommend being transparent?

PY: Absolutely. Get to the point of being uncomfortable. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, you’re probably in a sweet spot. I know, it’s hard.

SM: Tell us how people can support charity: water.

PY: Follow us on Twitter @charitywater or visit our website, The big thing we ask people to do is consider giving up a birthday for clean water. Ask for donations instead of gifts. You can arrange this on our website. We’d love to have you join the community.


Thanks so much for your time Paull and congrats to the whole team at charity: water.

charity : water founder, Scott Harrison, taking a photo of the Macallan Whisky at Sotheby’s.
Image: Delish

Reprinted from

Simon Mainwaring is a branding consultant, advertising creative director, blogger, and speaker. A former Nike creative at Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, and worldwide creative director for Motorola at Ogilvy, he now consults for brands and creative companies that are re-inventing their industries and enabling positive change. Follow him at or on Twitter @SimonMainwaring.


About the author

Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, the leading social branding firm that provides consulting and training to help companies use social media to build their brand reputation, profits and social impact. Simon is a member of the Sustainable Brands Advisory Board, the Advisory Board of the Center for Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School, the Transformational Leadership Council and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London