Bill Leeson doesn't have much patience for do-gooders. Ask him to talk about most nonprofits — outfits bound by tradition and filled with self-importance — and the hot-headed Brit finds it hard to contain himself. "I hate the idea of charities as holier-than-thou organizations that set themselves apart from the world, as if they are the chosen ones that will fix things," Leeson complains. " 'We are the do-gooders that will sort out all of these problems. You just give us the money.' That's a bloody crock."
Think of War Child, the organization that Leeson cofounded six years ago to aid children in strife-torn regions, as the anti-charity charity. It has delivered nearly 8 million pounds ($13 million) worth of aid and services to young people in the former Yugoslavia and in Africa — but it has a staff of just 15, and it operates on a lean 4% overhead. Its more ambitious projects (a music-therapy center for children in Mostar, Bosnia, completed in 1997; a soon-to-be-completed children's-education center in Liberia) are decidedly unorthodox. And no matter how obscure the countries that it's working in may be, War Child maintains a glamorous image in its home country, where it hosts "eat-ins" at chic restaurants and puts on concerts featuring Luciano Pavarotti, U2, Spice Girls, and Oasis. In short, Leeson has created a new breed of nonprofit — one that combines sympathy with savvy, noble ideals with self-interest, and good works with smart business.
Leeson, now 55, got his first close-up view of war in 1993, when he traveled to Croatia to film a documentary on artists. His experience there changed his life — not just because of the violence that he saw, but because of the effect that the violence had on young survivors. Walking through the streets of Zagreb, he saw children's drawings hanging in shop windows. "They were just what you'd expect of children's artwork — stick figures drawn with brightly colored crayons," he says. "Except that they were pictures of guns and corpses. It was all stuff that these kids had seen with their own eyes. It was horrifying. I found it terribly difficult to go back to my normal job again."
So he didn't. Soon after returning to London, Leeson organized a fund-raiser. Friends encouraged him to take personal control of how the money that he raised would be spent — instead of donating it to a charity whose overhead (according to War Child) would take as much as 12% off the top. Ten days later, War Child was born. From the start, Leeson recognized that his competition was not other charities — it was indifference and ignorance: "When people watch TV, they see a 10-minute news program with half a dozen wars, each reduced to a 30-second sound bite. People get desensitized, and they flip the channel."
One of the organization's first efforts was to sponsor a mobile bakery in Mostar. Instead of delivering rations to thousands of people for just a day, War Child supplied fresh bread to one village for several months. Donors who suffered from compassion fatigue suddenly heard stories about their dollars buying warm bread for families.
War Child has also helped reforge the link between rock music and good works — a relationship that had become decidedly unhip to teenagers, who saw earlier efforts (such as the "We Are The World: U.S.A. For Africa" recording) as cheesy. "We had a generation of young people in the UK who felt that charity had nothing to do with them," Leeson says. "We wanted to show them that charity could be cool." War Child was able to persuade some of the UK's hottest bands to write songs for an album. The CD, titled "Help" and produced by Brian Eno, raised £1.5 million ($2.4 million).
Leeson also understands the power of the media. Starting with his first fund-raiser, a concert in London's Royal Festival Hall, he has always drawn impressive coverage. Part of War Child's media success has been the result of connections: It helps to have friends who control the cameras. Plus, as the fighting in the Balkans has received more and more exposure, the plight of people in Bosnia and Croatia has gained in "popularity."
But neither of those reasons explains how War Child has managed to get such sustained coverage while so many other nonprofits toil in obscurity. Leeson explains it this way: "I am a deal maker. I make deals to get my story out." He's not talking about bribes; he's talking about working with the media to generate compelling footage and dramatic stories — a form of collaboration that is deemed taboo by many traditional charities. "The media world and the aid world have completely different agendas, but few nonprofits bother to try to understand what the media agenda is about."
For example, when the music-therapy center opened in Bosnia, the BBC wanted to do a story on the work that was taking place there. Leeson worked with people at the center, telling them why a camera crew was coming and why they were being filmed. As a filmmaker, he had a sense of which stories were more visual, and so he led reporters to those stories. "When I evaluate projects for War Child," he says, "I have three criteria: First, is it needed? Second, does it duplicate other efforts? Third, can I publicize it? You can't raise money without awareness."
That's one reason why Leeson's plans for War Child include developing a film division, one that would provide footage of wars in remote areas to TV stations with limited budgets. Such efforts are designed to make War Child a name that resonates — not only in the entertainment world, but in any arena that the organization chooses to enter. "War Child is a brand name," Leeson explains. "When people see it — whether it's tied to an event or a book of photographs — I want them to think, 'That was done by War Child, so it must be good.' "
To learn more about War Child, visit the Web (www.warchild.org).
A version of this article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.