Charity - Water

Years ago, facing another Christmas season of obligatory gift-giving with my loving family, I conceived a novel tact. This was early in the degrading of my character which has eventually seen my abandoning the consumption of meat, complaining about plastic bags and fantasizing about producing my own yogurt; my idea was to eliminate the purchasing of gifts and instead donate to charity in my family’s names. I researched various organizations I thought would cater to the particular tastes of my parents and sister, printed out informational pamphlets about the prospects and compiled dossiers backed by a charity ranking grade to ensure that a good portion of the donation would trickle through administrative costs and reach the people served. On Christmas morning no one seemed unhappy about receiving my little packets of reading material, although I can’t recall my sister ever getting back to me about where to send money. My dad wanted a hundred bucks to go to the San Francisco Food Bank and my mom selected some organization which irritated me because of their religious affiliation but, well, it was her present. Both foundations which I donated to sent me mail repeatedly hoping that I would fund them again. This was the first and last time I tried this method of Christmas guilt-deflection.

In his recent column Paul Carr slags the charity gift and proposes an alternative,, to get revenge on those thoughtless hippies who assigned your name to starving children instead of a nice bottle of wine:

For just £20, we’ll send a poacher to an African village to steal a cow in your friend’s name! Or, if you’re feeling generous, for just £50 we’ll pay local workers to fill in a much-needed well with concrete or raze an entire school to the ground. Of course, as with normal charity gifts, you’ll receive no actual proof that we’ve done any of the above, rather than, say, pocketing the money to cover admin costs, but who cares? The important thing is that your friend will receive a handsome certificate of authenticity to make them think long and hard about what they’ve done.

Remember: if you steal a man’s fish, you’ll make him hungry for a day, but steal his nets and you’ll keep him hungry for a lifetime.

But this wasn’t actually the point of his column, it was just a humourous lead into the real matter at hand. There was recently a worldwide fund-raising event dubbed Twestival to benefit Charity: Water. Twestival, as the name sort of implies, was something organized by users of the growing in popularity geek-net tool Twitter which allows you to post meaningless and insignificant factoids about your daily life and comment on the meaningless and insignificant factoids about the daily lives of your friends or people you anonymously stalk. Using the combined technology of cell phones, PDAs and the power of the internet faceless names coordinated to organize events in their respective cities for people to attend, mingle, socialize, network and get drunk with the rote hope they might get laid. These parties broke out in over two hundred cities and has raised, at last count, $250,000 with donations still welcome. All proceeds from this geeky community subset’s hard work and burning desire to mingle, get drunk and try to score were donated to the organization without paying for overhead costs. The individual Twitter users who prepared the events worked out the logistics on their own time and were recipients of donations from considerate businesses.

Despite the fact that there are words like Twitter and Tweet and Twestival floating around there’s actually nothing new here. People have been coordinating charity events for a long time, it’s just that instead of writing letters, making phone calls or sending e-mails people passed the word along by means of a new form of communication that acts as a mass text-message. To that extent it’s almost a gathering of the elite– presumably if you’re not twittering then you’re not going to hear about or attend any Twestival– and in some ways this is less about raising money for the poor than it is about a small group of people celebrating their uniqueness by mingling, getting drunk and trying to score. I was certainly not in the know and by investigating the non-Twitter voice for the local Twestival I found their blog is hella ugly and no one’s bothered posting anything about how the event went.

Similarly the beneficiary of all of this twittering isn’t anything new. Charity: Water doesn’t fly teams of engineers around the world digging wells for people who lack clean drinking water, they more act like a marketing firm for the concept of donating to charities that dig wells. The company was founded by a former club promoter who had a spiritual epiphany and ended up working as staff photographer on a Mercy Ship– floating hospitals that bring medical aid to people who lack basic health care. After eight months of seeing poverty and the human cost he returned to New York and decided to found a charity organization of his own. With a small staff of people to handle the administration tasks (and someone in charge of branding) Charity: Water has stepped into the growing field of middleman awareness organizations.

There are countless NGOs spread throughout the world and some of them even manage to do some good. Charity: Water sought out organizations on the ground who had been working on water projects and partnered up, suggesting that they could provide additional revenue by soliciting donations from the burgeoning, liberal arts educated, indie-rock cred middle-class. Utilizing their savvy design style Charity: Water is a breath of fresh air in the charity gas-chamber where Pandas aren’t in and no one wants to see that damn commercial of shoeless children in the barrio. Finding an ally in the Twitter community seems the perfect marriage, the slick new way of doing the same old things. Not that it’s all work and no play. Charity: Water’s unique contribution to transparency isn’t very new either, but they’re at least in step with the new breed of worldwide charities. They provide evidence, they show videos, they take pictures. Interns and even staff members travel the globe with cameras and keep journals of what they’ve seen in the third world, then document the implementation of well projects to prove to the donors that the money did what the money was supposed to do.

One impressive element is that Charity: Water has managed to eliminate administrative costs from siphoning donations by receiving private funding or donated goods/services from companies. Another impressive element is that Charity: Water, by virtue of being en vogue and hip, just raised $250,000 and counting to dole out among various NGOs helping the poorest people on Earth have their most basic need met. That it takes the flash of new trinkets and toys to raise money for good saddens me but it’s encouraging to see that, amidst banks and currency collapsing, massive layoffs and an uncertain future people still came out the pocket. And they mingled, got drunk and tried to get laid.

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Top photo stolen from Charity: Water’s tricky flash display. Photo of Twestival SF is by Flickr user inferno10.