Case Study | charity:water : How Story Connects Brands to People – Part 4

In continuing with some of the thoughts I’ve put together on creativity, business, and storytelling:

In order to better understand the way creative actions and storytelling play a part in business, it will be helpful to look at three different case studies: the non-profit organization charity: water, the for-profit organization TOMS, and the Harvard Business school case method.

charity: water

cwScott Harrison, founder of charity: water, is a man on a mission with a creative focus. After spending ten years as a nightclub promoter, he realized one day how intensely he was wasting his life, and decided to change. He wanted to give back, and was hired to take photographs and tell stories for Mercy Ships, an international charity providing medical care to the poorest parts of Africa. He encountered numerous patients who needed tumors removed, and it was during a journey inland with one of the doctors that he discovered the reasons for the tumors: unclean water. What he saw ignited him to want to rid Africa of unclean water in his lifetime. Upon his return he set up charity: water to do just that, but he wanted to do it differently. His background wasn’t in running a non-profit, it was in nightclub promotion, photography, and writing. Harrison decided he would disrupt the charity model.

After presenting the story of how he created charity: water in a talk at Story conference in 2013, Harrison said to the audience “I’ll talk a little bit about the water crisis, but not through statistics. … [these statistics] don’t mean anything to you. … But if you were to actually come with me and put names to faces, you would meet…” and he proceed to flip through slides of real people and their stories. That is Harrison’s strategy: he puts stories first, not only when he speaks, but stories comes first on charity: water’s homepage. Harrison knows that it’s through story where his audience will make a connection. As we’ve already seen, the human brain makes more empathic connections, and is able to learn better, through stories. It’s part of the way he’s disrupting the charity model.

The other way he’s disrupting the charity model is by implementing creative strategies that typical charities haven’t thought of. The first thing he did for the charity was to throw a party, since that is what he used to do. He charged $20 a head, and used the profit to fund his first projects. He sent photos and stories of those projects back to everyone who attended the party. One of the cornerstones of charity: water is keeping each donor informed about where their money is going, and they employ technology to do it. One of the first charities to use Instagram, charity: water posts pictures and updates through social media, even linking Twitter accounts to drilling rigs so that donors can get updates in real time. charity: water has also focused on unique marketing, partnering with Saks Fifth Avenue and Macallen, a whiskey company, to bring awareness about clean water and raise donations. Harrison has also been amazed at how people have joined in to his story and made it their story, bringing their own creative ways to raise money to this cause. Those individual campaigns are featured on charity: water’s homepage. “We’re trying to bring these mind-numbing statistics to life,” he says.

Harrison’s creative approach to running charity: water has paid off. They have raised over $128 million in their seven years of operation. When Harrison shows numbers from the first years of the organization, he comments that they look like start-up numbers. charity: water grew 90% each year during the first five years, a time when the worst giving economy was occurring. People are responding: charity: water was the first charity to reach one million followers on social media.

Next: Case study: TOMS

Last: Are We Programmed for Story?: How Story Connects Brands to People – Part 3


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