Charity Water: Bringing clean water to 8.2 million people

Photo of interview with Christoph Gorder of Charity Water

What does it take to create an iconic brand? To find out, we traveled to The Gathering earlier this year to ask marketing leaders from the world’s most-coveted brands how they guided their companies to cult status. While we were there, Shane Steele, Head of Global Brand Marketing at Dropbox, spoke with Christoph Gorder, President and Chief Global Water Officer at Charity Water, to find out how his non-profit brings their story to life.

Shane Steele: Could you give us a little background on Charity Water?
Christoph Gorder: The world water crisis is one of the largest problems we face on the planet. One in 10 people in the world don’t have access to clean water. Unlike many of the big problems in the world, we all can agree that everybody should have clean water, and we actually know how to solve it.

How much clean water have you delivered to date?
We’ve been around for 11 years and we’ve given clean water to 8.2 million people, which we’re really proud of but there is still another 600 million people, 20 times the population of Canada, that we have to reach and we’ve got to go faster and harder. But we’re really proud of the 8 million people we have given clean water to.

“We’ve had a bunch of talented, passionate people who said this is what we believe in. This is how we want to do it. And we really hope other people are going to come along.”

By bringing your story to life with the impact you’re having, you’ve connected with consumers in a way that some non-profits struggle to do. What’s your approach to brand storytelling?
What we’ve been trying to do is to build the charity that we want to be part of. The way we’ve gone about it hasn’t been through focus groups or through hiring agencies. We’ve had a bunch of talented, passionate people who said this is what we believe in. This is how we want to do it. And we really hope other people are going to come along. We did so much in the beginning intuitively. It wasn’t until recently we started to really measure the metrics on the website and do A/B testing and all of that. We built the brand in an intuitive way.

Could you tell us about your role as the Chief Water Officer? What does that mean?
That means I deliver on the brand promise. We’re out there talking to the public about the water crisis, asking people to support us. Then we need to take that money and invest it in the field and actually turn it into human impact. So my job at the organization is to spend the money. I spend most of my time thinking about where it’s going to go and what countries we’re going to work in, and managing the global network.

“If you can think about building 4,000 small construction projects across remote areas of 17 countries on the other side of the world, that’s my world.”

How do you choose where to go?
There are 13 countries in Africa and four countries in Asia. If you look at a map of the world where the 600 million people are that need clean water, it’s vast. We look at the poorest countries first. Within those, we looked for the ones that have the highest need for water sanitation. Then you’re down to about 50 possible countries. Within those, there’s a few countries where there’s active war going on… we’re just not equipped to work in war zones. We started looking for great partners on the ground. We find organizations who are doing amazing work, and we work with them to scale them up. It is partially data-driven, then partially finding the right partner who’s aligned with us and has the capacity to work with us.

What kind of collaboration happens inside Charity Water?
First of all, the culture is a core part of the brand. The brand and the culture are almost indistinguishable. The brand lives in the culture and the culture lives in the brand. We live it on a day-to-day basis. So the brand values are the same values that we hold. Collaboration’s one of those. Internally, we have a highly collaborative work environment. We’re able to do that using a bunch of tools. We have a team that is constantly traveling, remote locations. So having easy video conferencing, having collaboration tools. We use Basecamp, Slack, Hangouts. I think when you walk into our office, it looks much more like a tech office, like a dot com startup. It doesn’t look like a charity. I just hired a guy who spent the last 20 years working in charities in the field. His mind was blown (by) all the technology we have.

“A big part of how we’ve been able to reach people has been through partnerships with brands.”

You’ve started doing a lot of work that involves partnering with brands. Can you talk a little bit about what some of those partnerships look like?
We’ve never had the budget to do any paid advertising or paid marketing. So, aside from our use of social media, a big part of how we’ve been able to reach people has been through partnerships with brands. We partner with all sorts of different brands. Each partnership is pretty unique. Some are around their products. Some are about their employee engagement. We have a partnership with Nautica, which is a point of sale partnership. At their stores, they ask you if you want to round up. They’ve collected millions of dollars of change. Their employees feel great about it. Their customers feel great about it.

On the other hand, we’ve partnered with eBay to do some really cool auctions. Do you know Lokai?I have a middle schooler, and her social status is determined by how many Lokai bracelets she has. So it’s this kinda cool bracelet, and they did a special edition where we got $1 per bracelet—and they sold 500,000 bracelets. As you’d imagine, it was incredible. There are brands that come with their ideas, with ideas that really fit into their environment, their plans, and we work with them, too, to help make it converted into clean water for people.

What would success look like for you? What’s your future vision for Charity Water?
I think the idea is for us to make a quantum leap forward in terms of the scale and the quality of what we’re able to do. We’ve just come off of our best year ever. We had a great 2017. We grew revenue 39%. We grew expenses 2%. Those are great numbers for any company to have.

“We’ve asked people to join us in a way that’s sustainable, and will help us really plan for the future. That monthly giving community grew from basically nobody to 15,000 members.”

What do you attribute that to?
Well, in any success, there’s some degree of luck. But a lot of the growth, we saw in our monthly giving program called The Spring that we launched in late 2016. We’ve asked people to join us in a way that’s sustainable, and will help us really plan for the future. That monthly giving community grew from basically nobody to 15,000 members. It’s now at 15,000 members, each giving an average of $30 a month. That didn’t exist as a revenue stream before. So that was a huge bump for us. We had some great breaks. Like most companies, you have a bunch of different revenue streams, and all of them performed really well last year.

So that quantum leap: Do you have a plan for how you’re going to get there?
The magic number for us has been $100 million. ‘Cause we’re a little bit shy to say $1 billion. [chuckle] We don’t work in Silicon Valley. But we feel like $100 million would be a huge milestone for us. Already, at $50 million, that puts us in the top 300 charities in the entire country. We’re halfway there.

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