How do you get people to care about water?

The actor Matt Damon and Water.org try an unusual viral humor campaign to call attention to a crisis

Matt-Damon-Water.orgThe other day I interviewed Gary White, who is the co-founder, along with actor Matt Damon, of Water.org, a nonprofit group that is trying to address the global water crisis. As Water.org frequently points out, there are 780 million people worldwide who lack access to clean water. And 2.5 billion do not have access to a toilet or basic sanitation.

So where does all of this fit in a book about questioning? Turns out White and Damon are asking and tackling some very fundamental questions about water and charity—questions that haven’t necessarily been addressed before. The conventional approach to this problem has involved raising donations and then using that money to build wells in various parts of the world. But it turns out, that doesn’t serve nearly enough people, and the water often doesn’t make it to those who need it most.

A couple of years ago, White and Damon posed this question:

What if local communities could have the means to create their own wells or buy their own way into local water access?”

This was a radical notion: To suggest that poor people lacking water could be seen as something other than passive victims in need of handouts—that they could be seen as potential customers. Having asked Why and What if, Water.org proceeded to How: The organization had to develop a model for making small loans available to people who were willing to pay for access to safe water and sanitation. The group’s innovative “Water Credit” system is now making that possible—using philanthropic capital to spur micro-finance partners who then make the modest loans to local people.

Transforming more than 1 million lives

The recipients of these loans are mostly women. Having access to water dramatically changes their lives, White told me, because it means they can spend less time trying to get water for their families and more time earning a living. To date, Water.org has positively transformed the lives of more than 1,000,000 people.

As it grapples with this immense global crisis, Water.org continues to question everything—including its own approaches and how they can be re-invented. For instance, another question Water.org is grappling with:

“How do you get people who have water, and take it for granted, to care about this issue?”

You can do it by showing the harsh realities of life without water, and by showing the difference it makes when people have it. But in telling this story, is there room for a light touch? Can you use offbeat humor (a key ingredient to viral success on the Internet) to attract attention to a serious issue?

Water.org is exploring this question with its current YouTube campaign, in which Matt Damon announces he is on a “toilet strike”—declaring that,until everyone has access to clean water and sanitation… I will not go to the bathroom.”

To help spread the campaign, Damon is working with a group of the most popular YouTube creators, making special appearances on the YouTube channels of ShayCarl, EpicLloyd, WheezyWaiter, LivePrudeGirls, Smosh, Stan Lee, Lisa Schwartz, and John Elerick.

Check out below the very funny “press conference” where Damon announced his strike (also at http://youtube.com/water). And to find out more about Damon’s strike—and support this innovative campaign, visit http://strikewithme.org

It’s great to have Water.org involved with “A More Beautiful Question”—the questions being asked by this group are the kind that challenge assumptions and change realities.


An easy way to keep up with Water.org is to follow their Facebook page.

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