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The Super Bowl Ad that Blew up my Inbox: Well Aware CEO’s Response to the Water.org and Stella Artois Claims

I admit that I did not watch Super Bowl LII last night, but I did start receiving messages about one of the advertisements that played during the game shortly after it aired. I’ve followed the work of Water.org over the years and was aware of their partnership with Stella Artois, but their new campaign and messaging leave me with some questions and concerns (as it does with many of you, based on my inbox).

I’ll get right to it. There’s a lot that can be dissected and questioned, but I’ve listed the top inquiries about the Water.org/Stella ad with my best answers here.

What is the claim that Water.org and Stella Artois are making for clean water for people without it?

Matt Damon states that the sale of every $13 Stella chalice will result in a $3 donation to Water.org. Matt states, also, that each donation of $3 will provide clean water to someone for 5 years and reduce the amount of time that women have to walk to get water in the developing countries where water.org works. (The ad’s focus is the time it takes women and children to get water - more on this below.)

Why didn’t Stella just donate the $5 million to water.org?

Stella paid an estimated $5,000,000 for the Super Bowl ad advertising their beer glasses and their water charity. Water.org estimates they will bring in $3,000,000 from the campaign yesterday. Most corporate support of philanthropy now comes from their marketing budgets. This is not inherently bad - it can be beneficial for both the business and the nonprofit. Additionally, awareness for water.org, beyond what they receive monetarily, could boost support of their work for months to come. That stated, it does seem disingenuous of the company to purport their main goal is clean water for people when they could have doubled their impact had they just written a check.

How does $3 give someone clean water for 5 years (as they claim)?

Water.org bases this claim on the number of people impacted and what they spent on programs to get this average. This is not uncommon, and Well Aware does this, too.

Well Aware also lets people know what the average life of a water system is so our donors understand how long their direct impact will last. Water.org states that your $3 will provide water to someone for 5 years. This is where it gets confusing. Because Water.org does not fund water systems - they make loans to people for water devices.

Where is your donation of $3 going?

As per their website, water.org “water credits” provide loans on microcredit. They give small loans (to mostly women, 90%) for “an opportunity to pay for water and sanitation improvements with [those] loans”. Examples of purchases with water credit loans are rainwater catchment containers, taps on a pipeline, and toilets. Based on the money they have invested and the number of loans they have granted to date, the average “water credit” loan is $329.

They do say that repayment rates are 99%, but so what? Do the devices work? Are they safe? Was the funding even spent on water access? Even if the answer to all of those questions is yes, how long is their water device going to last, and how much clean water is even being produced?

How much clean water is delivered to the person with their new water device?

I found no information on this.

How do they know it’s for 5 years?

I have no idea.

If they are funding water access devices, does this assume there is a water source available?

Yes. And, that’s a problem in a two main ways.

1. Water.org has dismissed clean water infrastructure as the most impactful investment for people without clean water, saying that is an “old fashioned” approach. They provide these small loans to access water - but with what source of water? The communities I have been fortunate enough to work in have no water - contaminated or otherwise - within miles. Water.org’s beneficiaries are people with a water source but no water in their homes.

Their website states, “The truth is that many of these families can get a water or sanitation solution in their home for a fraction of their annual water costs.” There is a big benefit to people to have water in their homes, but their general messaging does not qualify that this is their mission.

2. Water.org website: “Through WaterCredit, women who previously spent up to 6 hours each day collecting safe water have time to pursue education, work and keep their families safer and healthier. “ I can not determine how their water credits for in-home devices significantly decrease the amount of time women walk for water. And, this is the theme of their Super Bowl ad that disappointed me the most.

There are organizations who are installing the infrastructure (that these water credit projects presumably rely on and are tapping into) that truly do give women and children several hours each day to spend on something besides collecting water. Water.org, through this initiative, does not.

A note on their water credit rainwater “containers”...

This could be a good thing. But, who is seeing that these water devices are being properly installed? When we work with communities on rainwater systems (and all other systems), there is comprehensive training on usage and treatment. Raw rainwater that sits in a container will become full of bacteria in a matter of hours. While I love the idea of putting ownership of water access into the hands of the community, we can’t take for granted the lack of resources and expertise in these communities. There are ways to empower communities while still partnering with them to provide what they lack in expertise and education.

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Despite the misleading marketing, their efforts could be making a difference for people in developing countries. If I ever got the chance to speak with Matt (lol), I would ask that they clean up their messaging so that people understand where their donations (loans?) are actually going and how they are calculating their impact over time (I could not find this anywhere).

Misleading messaging is an enormous problem in nonprofit work, particularly in international development, where true measurement and evaluation over time is usually not conducted (less than 1%), and where impact reported by the NGO can rarely be confirmed by the donor. Deception such as this makes it more and more challenging for organizations like Well Aware building truly high-impact projects to raise funds and defend our important work.

I regret that I have more questions than here. But, I thank you for taking the time to give it a read to lean more about this hot-topic charity move.

You can read a little more about my thoughts on the failure of most “water charity” in my article on Wandering Educator. You can also comment here with any additional questions, and I will do my best to find an answer.

Sarah Evans is CEO of Well Aware, an international water nonprofit that maintains a 100% success rate and has served 49 communities in east Africa, Haiti and Texas. She is a Toyota Mother of Invention and member of the Truman National Security Project and Forbes Nonprofit Council. Evans is also the CEO of Well Beyond, the "Geek Squad" of clean water systems.

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