It seems that Matt Damon is still hunting for good will. In a piece in the Daily Beast today, the famous actor brought attention to the water crisis, and made the case that non-profits should be more disruptive and use innovation to make an impact. Matt Damon co-founded Water.org with Gary White to foster new innovative, community-driven and market-based solutions to ensure all people have access to safe water and sanitation.
On the World Water Day, Matt Damon was featured in a catchy and educational video. "What is the invention that saves the most lives in human history?", he asks. Wait for it… the toilet. Yet, more people have access to cell phones than toilets. It should not be the case. Still today, 10,000 people die every day of water related diseases. Can Matt Damon and his partner Gary White save them?
Of course not, but he can inspire entrepreneurs and social activists to look differently at the problem, and use their imagination to solve it. Matt Damon used March 22 to bring awareness on the growing water crisis with a video that got 6 million views. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly, in 1993, declared March 22 the world day for water.
What has changed since the last 20 years? Levels of fresh water, especially aquifers, have decreased. Global warming is making the situation worse. That is that bad news for all of us. The good news is that Innovation has tackled the problem of desalination with some success. We know now how to recyle water efficiently with membrane and other technologies. Places like the Australia and Israel are leading innovation in that space.
What is less known is the devastating impact of lack of access to clean water and sanitation. It kills more than gun violence or guerilla wars according to Matt Damon. The situation has not changed for the 780 million people still do not have access to clean water.
"Would it kill you to donate a few bucks?", challenges Mr. Damon in his video. That is not the only issue. As he points out in his Daily Beast article, after attending TED this year, it is also what non-profits do with that money. They should integrate disruptive innovation also, not just start-ups, to make a bigger impact.
Matt Damon is not the only celebrity to call for more innovation to solve big social problems. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tried to tackle the sanitation problem. Bill Gates announced last summer the winners of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, an effort to develop “next-generation” toilets that will deliver safe and sustainable sanitation to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have it.
Unlike other celebrities who advertize the non-profit causes that they support, Matt Damon discretely first went to Zambia to educate himself about the water crisis. He accompanied a 14-year girl in rural Zambia who has to walk one hour to find clean water. The experience was organized part of a 10-day tour that introduced him to the enormous challenges that Africans face every day. Water was only one issue among others like AIDS epidemics.
Yet, water stuck with him because it was what got in the way of the girl’s dream: to move to the city and be a nurse. Without easy access to basic water necessities, education becomes a very difficult obstacle to get out of the spiral of extreme poverty. Solving the water crisis in his lifetime became the way to unlock dreams for others, 780 million of them that is. That is more than any movie can do.
So why not using viral video campaign to increase fund-raising? That is the easy part for Matt Damon. The difficult part is to get the most "bang", in this case clean water, for the "buck". That is why he partnered with water expert Gary White, three years after touring Africa. Water.org was born of Damon's H2O African and White's WaterPartners.
Water-org is watching the growing micro-credit market carefully. Matt Damon will not bring clean water to Africa, but he can help local entrepreneurs who can. Fast Company, the tech magazine that innovated years ago with a social entrepreneurship award, ran a full story two years ago on the actor... and his partner Gary White (picture below, courtesy of Water.org).
If the actor made the headline to draw attention, it is Gary White who is the social entrepreneur genius who developed ways to get a bigger impact on the ground by mixing local community involvment, micro-credit and innovative solutions.
Gary White received the 2009 Skoll Award for his innovative work as social entrepreneur. Before his work on water credits, virtually all water and sanitation programs were charity driven. The benefits of micro-cedit is to work as a catalyst and to leverage capital to have a larger impact if it was a simple donation. The side benefit of water credits is to keep some working capital to help the dire situations that really need charity.
Most of the loans go to women who are critical actors of change on the ground. 97% of the loans have been repaid. As of August 2012, there have been more than 64,000 water loans made, affecting the lives of 378,00 people. Water.org could not do the work without a network of active partners. It is important to work with existing organizations on the ground because all the benefits of water access cannot be captured without providing education or work during the freed time.
Both Gary White and Matt Damon want to get the next big idea quickly to the ground where it is most needed. That is why they founded Water.org lab, which is a kind of an accelerator for water innovation to the world. It could be a new financing scheme, a new sanitation technology, etc. Who knows. But they don't want it to sit in dust.
Matt Damon has the ears from the public in developped countries who have the means. Gary White knows the people on the ground who have the needs. If you do know who Matt Damon is, you should get to know Gary White. Like for his break-out movie, Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon is not alone.