How social media leverages social occasions to compound social change

This weekend I had the great pleasure of seeing a presentation by charity:water founder, Scott Harrison. His mission is compelling. The desperate need to get clean drinking water to a billion people around the world is urgent and potentially life saving on a massive scale. A staggering 5000 children die of water borne disease each day. But what was equally impressive was Scott’s deep understanding of how to create a successful business model using social media to accelerate that process.

charity:water is built on a rare and powerful idea: 100% of donations given by people go to the digging of wells. This even includes credit card charges that are made up by the company. While that represents a huge commitment to transparency and the cause, it also makes it very hard to cover the costs of running the company. That’s when the idea of was born.

Desperate to raise funds to keep his company alive, Scott “donated” his 32nd birthday to the cause of charity:water. Instead of gifts, he asked everybody to donate $32 and raised $60,000. Scott realized he had hit on a powerful idea. Long before social media allowed people to connect in new ways, friends and family always come together once a year around someone’s birthday. The power of that emotional connection was the ideal vehicle for social media.

The concept of donating your birthday took off. A 7 year old raised $22,000 for her birthday. Seth Godin raised $39,000. Alyssa Milano raised $92,000. An 89-year old raised almost nothing but stated: “I’m turning 89 and I’d like to make that possible for more people in Africa.”

Such success is an inspiring demonstration of human empathy and one of the fundamental tenets of social media. As Scott himself put it: “As soon as the story stopped being about us [charity:water] and became about you [birthdays], everything took off”. This concept now lives at the site: where almost $5 million dollars has been raised by just under 50,000 members to bring clean drinking water to over 1 million people.

But here’s the truly inspiring fact. charity:water serves 1 million people out of the 1 billion who need clean drinking water. In short, they currently solve one thousandth of the problem. By Scott’s calculations that means charity water only needs two million people in the next decade to give up their birthday to reach everyone else (the average birthday raises $1035 in donations). Only 2 million people in a world where where half a billion people live on Facebook. Put another way, that’s only 200,000 people a year for the next ten years to bring water to 1 billion people. That is achievable which means the problem is solvable which is truly inspiring news.

More difficult is how to keep the company growing when 100% of donations goes to digging wells. Hoping he could innovate his way through this challenge, Scott launched the concept of the Well. The Well is a group of advisors that are treated like shareholders and who contribute on a regular basis on a variety of levels in exchange for full transparency, trips to the field and the rewards of participation. The goal for 2010 is to find one hundred founding members of which there are currently sixty.

By using these two innovations models and despite almost no marketing budget, charity:water offers one billion people the chance to get clean drinking water within a decade. This translates to saving lives, avoiding disease and creating prosperity where there is now only poverty.

But it also offers each of us who participate something equally meaningful. The chance to celebrate the day on which we were born by giving life to someone else. So that what I’m going to do with my 44th birthday on February 24th, 2011. Please join in if you can too. And I invite brands to consider how they might support the cause. How often do we each get the chance to give the gift of life?