As a general rule, successful charities have mastered two core deliverables. One, they've demonstrated a high level of transparency and accountability to conjure confidence and public trust. And two, they've established significant empathy from donors for recipients, all in an effort to provoke initial donations and sustained giving over time.
From its inception in 2006, Charity Global Inc., the 501(c)(3) nonprofit better known as Charity Water, pretty much nailed the accountability objective. Founded by Scott Harrison, Charity Water strives to provide drinking water to people in developing nations. Unlike most nonprofits, though, it operates using a one-off model that employs two separate financial accounts – and therein lies the trust-building transparency.
The first account, the Well, relies on private donors and brand partners to fund all operating expenses. Meanwhile, the other account, Water, is backed by public donations with 100 percent of the funding going directly to clean water projects. Along with the organization's other transparency efforts (e.g., remote sensors to measure the flow of clean water in the field, easy-to-find online financial reports, audits and surveys by leading charity-rating organizations, etc.), this separation of church and state has helped bring in more than $333 million in 12 years, ultimately funding roughly 38,000 water projects and delivering clean water to nearly 9.6 million people.
Clearly, then, Charity Water is all aces when it comes to accountability. But what of empathy, that second critical objective? While the nonprofit's website is certainly filled with heartwarming, in-their-shoes photos and stories of happy beneficiaries, the organization usually relies on its annual fundraising event, the Charity Ball, to conjure empathy as well as a sense of community among core donors. Typically, Charity Water uses storytelling techniques peppered with a dash of cutting-edge technology to elicit the intended emotional – and financial – response.
Filled with several screens offering dramatic images of Ethiopia's Tigray region, the reception area set the emotional tone for the upcoming fundraising event.
In the past, the event's storytelling tactics have included everything from a virtual-reality film depicting a girl drinking clean water for the first time to a video-matching experience that connected gala attendees with people from a village without clean water. Going into the 2018 event, however, Charity Water upped the ante and tacked on several additional goals. While the event needed to generate the same level of compassion that had fueled previous donors, the nonprofit also wanted to marry this emotion with hard-core data about how the contributions would be used – preferably delivered live as contributions were coming in. What's more, for the first time the organization opted to not only switch venues but also swap coasts.
A Watershed Moment
After hosting the event in New York for 11 years at venues such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harrison and his team decided to move Charity Ball to San Francisco in 2018. The decision hinged on two factors. First, New York venues tended to have timing or capacity restrictions that had constrained the event in the past. For instance, setup at The Met had to be truncated by normal museum operating hours. Second, while Charity Water is based in New York, a large number of key Well donors reside in the Bay Area. Most of these benefactors had traveled to New York for the annual events, but the organization thought it was time to bring the gala to their backyard for a change.
Switching coasts obviously meant finding a new venue. Early in the planning process, Charity Water settled on The Armory, a cavernous multipurpose event space in the heart of San Francisco. "Harrison and his team are always designing a new story to bring people into the experience," says Elle Chan, co-founder and executive producer at Trademark Event Productions Inc., the agency charged with creative and production responsibilities for the event. "The San Francisco Armory, which was a massive space with fewer restrictions than most New York environs, provided us with a blank slate. Our job was to fill it with a memorable and impactful experience."
But along with this blank slate came fresh expectations. Given the new locale, attendees would no doubt anticipate a stellar experience that would blow the New York events out of the water. On the flip side, Charity Water hoped to offer a full-course meal during the festivities, meet some hard-core monetary goals, and attach a time-based theme.
"Prior to contacting Trademark, Charity Water determined that the 2018 event would be centered around the concept of time," says Wendy Cook, head of production
at Trademark. "In developing nations, women and children are often saddled with the responsibility of finding and securing clean drinking water for their families.
This requires literally hours of work every day and an enormous amount of physical energy. So these women and children are unable to go to work or school full time, which means they can't contribute to their communities or further their own endeavors because of the time spent securing water. That's why the nonprofit wanted to highlight the time and opportunities gained as a result of having clean water."
Using the time theme as a backdrop, Harrison and his team also hoped to generate enough donations to completely fund a new drilling rig for the Tigray region of Ethiopia. This equipment alone would cost approximately $720,000, but they also needed enough cash to operate the rig for a minimum of four years. Thus, the donation goal for the 2018 event was set at a whopping $5 million.
With the goals and venue established, Chan and Harrison convened to breathe life into this yet-to-be-determined event. "Initially, Harrison talked about the highly emotional experience of a village getting fresh water," Chan says. "He explained how villagers expectantly circle around the well, singing and dancing, as clean water arrives for the first time. His vision for Charity Ball was to create an experience that would literally surround attendees and offer the same kind of passionate connection."
While Harrison, a gifted communicator and motivator, and a philanthropic hero of sorts among donors, would emcee the event, it was up to Chan and her partners to design the rest. Luckily, a bit of serendipity intervened to provide inspiration. "Just a few days before we met at The Armory, I'd been to a screening of a 360 movie directed by Drew Lightfoot," Chan says. "So when we started talking about circling attendees with an emotional story, my thoughts turned to a 360-degree movie as a way to literally surround attendees with the experience."
Under direction of Lightfoot and with production services from Bodega Studios, the resulting film would offer a slice of life of a woman from the Tigray region, Abrehet Gebreyohannes. It would depict the many hours she walks each day to obtain water, illustrating her struggle and emphasizing the amount of time spent on the endeavor.
As guests entered the Halo experience, live musical performers filled the
environs with moving music befitting the imagery on the screen.
Not surprisingly, Lightfoot and his crew didn't come cheap, nor did any of the countless services necessary to pull off an immersive event that included a custom screen, catering, myriad audiovisual components, and more. Thankfully, Chan's prior work at motion-picture visual-effects company Industrial Light and Magic, along with the slew of affiliations and partnerships she made during that time and beyond, helped her work a little budgetary magic of her own. In effect, she called up her contacts (and no doubt called in a few favors), ultimately convincing them to offer discounted, wholesale, or downright cutthroat pricing to execute this cutting-edge philanthropic event.
Ducks to Water
While Lightfoot and Bodega Studios set about crafting the film, Charity Water reps focused on the guests. Roughly four months before the Dec. 1 event, the marketing team started sending invitations. "Everyone on our predetermined guest list received either a digital invite or a mailed invitation," says Lauren Letta, chief operating officer for Charity Water. However, they made a special effort with regard to VIP Well donors. "Scott contacted Well donors via personal email," Letta says, "but we also sent them printed invitations complete with beautifully packaged 3-D hourglasses to emphasize the time theme." Well donors received complimentary tickets to the event, and all other invited parties could purchase tickets priced at $2,500 for individual seats and $25,000 to $50,000 for entire tables. "Charity Ball sold out almost immediately," Letta says, "validating our decision to move the event to San Francisco."
On the night of the event, guests began arriving at around 6:30. Initially, they checked in at a registration desk, where they received their seating assignments for dinner. Behind the scenes, registration software pushed the name of each guest to a custom iPad located at his or her seat. Later, during the funding portion of the event, attendees would use the tablets to pledge donations.
After registering, guests mingled and imbibed cocktails amid the reception area, which set the tone for the upcoming experience. Throughout the space, which was separated from the dinner and donation area by heavy curtains, Trademark positioned several screens offering breathtaking videos of the Ethiopian landscape, as well as Tigray-area villagers who spoke about what their lives are like without water and how they expect their lives to change when water comes to their villages.
Event designers also added a photo-op area featuring a unique blend of neon lighting and real, rustic-yellow jerrycans. Originally designed by the Germany military, jerrycans, which can weigh more than 40 pounds, are often repurposed to carry and store water in developing countries. "With the jerrycans and the sights and sounds of Ethiopia, the reception space set the scene for what was to come," Cook says. "It was a transformative link to the clean-water story that awaited guests in the main event space."
A Flood of Emotion
Despite this visual link, though, visitors were completely unprepared for the technological wonderland that awaited them. At approximately 7:45 p.m., staff escorted guests past the thick curtains and into the dining and donation space, where a live musical score from LiveFootage (with sound design provided by Grayson Matthews) set the tone. Normally, visitors would have been drawn to the beautifully decorated round tables set for the event's 520 dinner guests. But here, the overhead space immediately drew attendees' eyes and plucked at their heartstrings.
A 276-foot-diameter circular screen – coined the Halo – dangled from the ceiling. Comprising 840 LED panels, the 20-foot-tall ring weighed 40,000 pounds. (Trademark enlisted two partners, Global Trend Pro and Immersive Pro, to wrangle the audiovisual rigors of this assembly, which among other things, included producing custom L-shaped brackets to replace traditional supports and significantly lighten the load.) Although the mere sight of the never-before-seen Halo was impressive in itself, the video imagery it displayed throughout the evening was absolutely mesmerizing. As guests entered the dinner area, images of the expansive Ethiopian landscape – which while dry and barren is also awe-inspiring and exquisite – filled the screen for roughly 25 minutes. This gave guests plenty of time to take in the room, locate their seats, get accustomed to their iPads, and relax under and within the Halo.
Throughout the event, on-screen content depicted a drilling rig seemingly
coming to life through attendee donations.
At 8:10 p.m., Harrison took the stage, a 10-foot-diameter elevated platform in the center of the Halo. He then spent roughly 15 minutes relaying statistics to support the need for clean water and explaining Charity Water's solution. Meanwhile, the Halo showed still shots (e.g., jerrycan images, text illustrating key data figures, organization logos, maps, etc.) to accompany his content. At the end of his presentation, Harrison introduced the Lightfoot film and its star, Abrehet Gebreyohannes. As the film rolled on the Halo, Harrison encouraged guests to observe this one woman's journey for water, which, unbeknownst to them at that time, would continue on-screen for more than an hour – as they sat in a comfortable room, eating a lovely meal, and drinking fresh, uncontaminated water.
After dinner and just as the film featuring Gebreyohannes' walk was concluding, Harrison took the stage again to point out what attendees had no doubt realized: While they ate, the woman walked. In fact, as he pointed out, she walks hours every day to secure dirty water, not the clean, safe drinking water that Charity Water hoped to provide to her and her community. Harrison went on to clarify that Gebreyohannes was just one of many women and children walking for water in this one community among hundreds or thousands. As he spoke, the screen filled with images and voices (with lower-screen text translations) of other women who walk, sometimes for hours each day, to collect water. "With all of the women's faces on-screen and their voices filling the room, guests couldn't help but feel empathy," Cook says.
Supported by screen-based imagery and animations, Harrison explained that the goal of the evening was to buy a new drilling rig and to fund its in-field operational costs for three years. He indicated that if guests could raise enough money for three years, an anonymous donor would cover the fourth. Meanwhile, the Halo showed an exploded view of a drilling rig so that all of the parts and pieces appeared almost like the blueprint of a truck that had yet to be assembled. As Harrison pointed out that ticket sales from the evening would go toward funding the rig, one of the animated components connected itself to the body of the vehicle – symbolizing that with this donation and others to come, the rig was coming to life.
Next, Harrison turned his attention to the custom giving app, designed by All of It Now LLC, that appeared on guests' iPads. At various times throughout the event, guests could pledge a dollar amount of their choosing to fund the rig and its operation. The app then connected to a back-end server that tallied the donations in terms of money and villagers' time saved. Images and charts on the Halo showed results in real time. As rig components attached to the vehicle body, figures for the total amount raised and the money still required flashed on screen, and donors' names appeared in a list next to the vehicle.
The donation portion of the evening continued from roughly 9:30 to 10:45, during which time on-screen data points, rig animations, and funding totals augmented Harrison's lively and emotional commentary. When donation segments shifted from buying a rig to funding its operation, calendars representing four years appeared on-screen along with data points showing the countless hours of walking the women and children would no longer endure, time that could then be used to better their educations, families, and local communities.
All told, there were 11 separate giving moments when Harrison and attendees' iPads prompted additional pledges. Following each round, celebrations ensued – some complete with champagne toasts and other simply filled with joyful applause – as the Halo displayed results in real time. After the final giving moment, Harrison announced that thanks to guests' donations, countless villagers would receive fresh water for the first time, and in fact guests would get a little taste of this very same experience. At that moment, the Halo showed a rig sending up a gusher, showering the locals with water. Atomizers attached to several 40-foot overhead booms burst to life, sprinkling guests in a fine mist of water and symbolically transporting them into the life-changing experience along with the Ethiopian villagers.
Charity Ball donors shared the villagers' elation at the arrival of fresh water as atomizers showered guests with a fine mist while everyone cheered.
Guests cheered and hugged (and a few even teared up) as the numbers on-screen showed they'd met and exceeded their donation goals. As they reveled in the success and considered what their money would do for Ethiopians, there was a palatable sense that the celebration should continue. But eventually all good things must come to an end. The lights game up, Harrison left the stage, and guests adjourned to an upstairs portion of The Armory for dessert and a nightcap before heading home.
Awash With Success
After an emotional experience like this, any human with half a heart would develop empathy for the villagers who had practically become family in the span of an evening. Needless to say, 520 Charity Ball attendees felt all that and more – and they gave accordingly.
"The 2018 gala was our most successful yet, both from a revenue standpoint and in terms of our innovations in storytelling," Letta says. "We transported guests into the middle of Ethiopia, surrounded them with a 360-degree LED screen the size of a football field, immersed them in stories of life without clean water, and connected them with a community on the other side of the world. It was a powerful evening that enabled us to raise a record-breaking $7 million for clean water, powering the new drilling rig for the next six years, three weeks, six days, and nine hours. It's an investment that's going to change everything for thousands of families in the Tigray region."
In addition to blowing Charity Water's goals out of the water, the event also scored record attendance, as past New York events typically attracted 400 attendees. The funding generated by the event also provided the gift of time to communities. While Charity Water hoped to give back 7.5 million hours (in the form of time not spent retrieving water), the Charity Ball actually returned 10.5 million hours to villagers.
Not surprisingly, Corporate Event Awards judges were awash with praise. "Everything about this event was sincere, and it managed to quickly create emotional connections with attendees," one juror said. Another touted the event's storytelling capabilities. "Organizers clearly focused on storytelling, which is critical for an event like this. I can only imagine how impactful it was to actually experience this in person."
It appears that Charity Water hasn't only mastered the art of transparency and accountability. Pairing storytelling with technological prowess, it devised a best-practice exercise in invoking empathy as well. According to actor Max Carver, "Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It's the impetus for creating change." For Charity Water, the power of empathy doesn't only create change; it changes lives. E