Every year around this time, charity: water launches their epic “September” campaign (I was working there for three of them). It’s a season where a ton of extra effort is put forth by their team to travel, film, document and market a story that will inspire the masses to give up their birthdays and raise money for clean water. If you’re reading this, I doubt I just told you anything new.
Widely celebrated for their eye for design, thoughtful copy and beautiful videos, it’s hard to find a non-profit or fundraising/crowdsourcing website that doesn’t in some way emulate the innovation charity: water has brought to the table. But thinking back on the early campaigns, charity: water has come a long way.
The first September campaign was actually just a birthday party in 2006. Scott Harrison, just barely on this side of his nightclub promoting days, hosted his 31st birthday party at a swanky club in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan. Given his success as a promoter, it was little effort to get 700 people to show up and shell out $20 at the door. I was actually there, a pretty naive young dude from Oklahoma at the time, gawking at models and celebs and wondering how on earth this was a charity event. $15k and a trip to Uganda later, charity: water’s first six wells were built. And off they went.
In 2007, the team was barely beginning to understand the potential fundraising engine behind birthdays. A comparatively crude website (sorry Vik) went up and allowed 92 people to give up their birthdays. There was no automation behind it… just someone manually putting together profile pages one by one for each person. That year they funded one water project at a health clinic in Kenya. For the time, it was a big success.
Each new September showed measurable growth for the organization. Better design. Better storytelling. More birthdays and more donations and more dollars. And maybe most importantly, smarter investments.
During last year’s campaign, charity: water raised over $1.5Million… 100 times more than their initial party. Recognizing that they needed to help their best partners scale, they invested the money raised in their first drill rig. It’s now in service and tweets out its location. This was actually a pretty big departure, talking about hardware and capacity in the field. But they went for it, and the story resonated.
This year, they’re headed to Rwanda with their partner Water for People. But they’re not digging wells. Rather, they’re investing in “large-scale systems that protect water at the source” and pipe it in to taps where people need it most. Ned Breslin’s Water for People is best known for their commitment to monitoring and evaluation, bringing new tech and innovative ideas to the water sector to better ensure that projects not only get built, but stay working. Everyone Forever, as their website says. This is a smart partnership.
No doubt, charity: water has learned more than a few lessons the hard way. But if I look at each September campaign, it’s evident that they’re growing up just as much as they’re growing big. Their trajectory is taking them from a startup design-y fundraising NGO toward a more efficient re-imagining of what big charity could be in our lifetime. Scale, capacity, sustainability… not exactly conversation topics for a birthday party. But this is the kind of dialogue that gives them the right to continue to talk about actually solving the massive, complex water crisis.