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Charity Water Story

In early December, charity: water held its annual black tie gala (dubbed Charity: Ball) inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like most charitable mega-events it was designed as both a celebration and sales pitch. ”Come raise a glass and help us serve 100,000 people in a single night. 100% of what you give will directly fund water projects for people in need,” read the digital invitation. The real question was whether the several hundred guests who’d shelled out $2,000 per ticket had done the math as to what else they were on the hook for.

In early December, charity: water held its annual black tie gala (dubbed Charity: Ball) inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like most charitable mega-events it was designed as both a celebration and sales pitch.

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”Come raise a glass and help us serve 100,000 people in a single night. 100% of what you give will directly fund water projects for people in need,” read the digital invitation. The real question was whether the several hundred guests who’d shelled out $2,000 per ticket had done the math as to what else they were on the hook for.

More than 650 million people around the world don’t have access to clean drinking water, according to World Health Organization estimates. So more than 30,000 die weekly from related hygiene and sanitation issues, many of whom are children. Charity: water’s goal is to fix that by drilling wells (along with a handful of other water pumping-and-purification projects). Since 2007, they’ve funded 17,000 projects around the world helping more than 5 million people.

Now that gala math: Each well costs about $10,000 to install and serves a village of about 300 people. That meant those who showed were about to be asked for a combined $3 million.

But Charity: water CEO Scott Harrison had choreographed his “giving moment” in a way that downplayed all that. First, a gong sounded signaling ushers to led attendees from the lobby bar to through the museums’s Eqyptian wing. They emerged inside a large glass-ceiling atrium that revealed the night sky. At the center, white-clothed tables were arranged around the torch-lit Temple of Dendur, a restored relic from 15 BC. The room was ringed with dozens of 40-gallon neon-yellow jerry can, which villagers often use to haul water. That can is also the group’s logo. The effect was like sort of like stepping into a diorama of the world in which the cause group works.

To magnify that, each table was set with an iPad. After dinner and a video about the company’s mission unlocked to a personal story, Harrison unlocked them to reveal that each was loaded with a video about a ingividual villager in Adi Eto, an Ethiopian village where the group was currently working. Each profiles of each villager and guest were matched by gender, general age, and, in the case of pregnant attendees, with other mothers who were expecting. “These are people just like you and I, so I was trying to create that soulful connection,” Harrison said later. With some obvious subtext: “By they way, they could really use clean water.”

While th iPads were synced for donation-giving, Harrison had throttled them, capping everyone’s initial donations at just $30 a piece—enough to complete the drilling work the company was already doing in Adi Eto (Tk spelling.) Then came the big reveal: Standing at the front of the room, Harrison pointed up at a large video screen. “Can we please opne up the satellite feed to Etheopia?” He asked trumpantly.

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The screen flashed to life. It was nearly just after 10 pm in New York but dawn in Africa. A giant drill ringed by villagers fired up and chugged to life. In minutes, it hit paydirt, emmitng a giant plume of water as everyone on both continent shoulded and jumped around.

That was it. The moment. Harrison mentioned that the IPads would let people give more now. He knew he had them.

The group that night ended up raising $3.1 million, enough to help 105,000 people. Nearly everyone in the building donated thousands or tens of thousands on the spot. “I thought it was particularly effective at getting people engaged,” said David Goldberg, the CEO of the Founder’s Pledge, who appeare sort of awestuck after the group hit water. “Charity water has always been about creating narrative to generate support. It’s changing the way that we think about charity.”

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For his part, Harrison has become known as a sort of visionary for encouraging immediate giving. His work is ad hoc, relying mostly on his own instincts for how people get excited as things, which he honed during a for more notorious past as an upscale club promoter before decided he could use those talents for greater good.
“I mean, look, the vision of the organization is really to reinvent charity, and the mission is proved clean water,” he says. To that end charity : water has been as focused on figuring out new methods for fundraising and rallying support as they are on delivering aide. That could help others reimagine what’s possible in the giving space too. As Harrison puts it, “I think if we had a different mission we would have raised just as much money and had the same supporters, if it was a basic need.”

Economically, finding wells creates a great return rate: Every dollar invested puts $4 to $12 back into the local economy because people end up healthier, often waste les time searching for hydration, and are therefore more able to work, according to the United Nations. At the same time, the entire well-building industry has a trust problem. Roughly 60% of the wells plumbed in the developing world don’t stay working because of breakdowns and groups not planning properly.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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