Nonprofits Telling Awesome Stories: charity: water (Part 1)

Woman drinking pumped water.
A woman drinking water from a charity: water well in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia. (Photo credit: Sacca)

I scroll through nonprofit websites and Facebook pages quite a bit hunting for stories that immediately grab and keep my attention. (Again, when I use the word story, I’m talk­ing about a true tale, nonfiction). I don’t usually find too many. Some are ok. But many are full of links to donation pages or press releases poorly written. Others don’t tell enough of a story and link nowhere. But a few are amazing.

Despite this, I strongly believe organizations have countless stories about the people they serve. They just have to dig them out (more on how to do that in previous posts). As I’ve said before, it can be difficult, and it’s time consuming.

The next series of posts focuses on nonprofits that are telling some amazing stories online. A few of the stories are older but good stories are timeless. This list is not exhaustive; please let me know if there are some great nonprofits stories I have missed.

Short Fundraising Posts on Facebook

So many people have written about charity: water as a model nonprofit in terms of online outreach that I hesitated to write about it again. But many of these posts are about its fundraising, which it does well. I’ll point out a couple of storytelling, fundraising posts that I liked, then I’ll move into some longer pieces.

Simple, yet impactful, here are a couple of posts from its Facebook page last year.

“Students of Balkumari School in Nepal used to get their water from a tiny stream 20 minutes away. When it dried up, the school was forced to close. But now that they have a tap station with clean water, there are no interruptions, and these kids get to spend a lot more time in the classroom. When you give clean water, one of the things you really give is education. http://www.charitywater.org/

It’s a very short story, but you know from the first sentence that this nonprofit gets to know the people they are serving. Somebody on staff found out the stream is 20 minutes away. There isn’t room to expand, but for a fundraising story it doesn’t need to. It links to its website, and includes a fabulous photo.

Here’s another short story from the same series.

“The people of Sikedi village, Malawi, heard that a drilling rig was building wells in their area but couldn’t reach them because there was no road. They began working instantly, carrying sand and rocks by hand. Together, they built a road in two months and made clean water a reality for themselves. For these people, water will forever mean community. Give community: http://charitywater.org/

This is a great short fundraising story because it also communicates that the people of Sikedi are hard workers. They will do what they can to make their lives better; sometimes they just need help.

I’ve seen tons of fundraising emails and campaigns, and many of them fall flat. Unfortunately, I still think that nonprofits have spent a lot of time working on the ones that fall flat. Many are written like a form letter and don’t stand out. Sometimes they stress urgency, or a reason why you should donate (all good reasons), but there’s still something missing. These stories, on the other hand, seem so heartfelt.

Let’s look at a few longer stories by charity: water.

“On the Walk for Water”

“It Happened on the Walk for Water” by Tyler Riewer is a story about two sisters who were raped on their way to get water, each on separate occasions. Each ended up pregnant.

It starts at the beginning of 14-year-old Grace’s story.

“It was an unseasonably warm summer night, and 14-year-old Grace was rushing down the narrow and secluded path from her village to Lake Victoria.”

Details: the “unseasonably warm summer night.” It starts like any story might, yet unlike in fiction where you can just create an “unseasonably warm night,” here, it’s true. That that little detail is there clues you into the fact that the author talked to the girls for a long time. It’s a horribly sad story, and, as you learn, not uncommon.

A group of four men attacked Grace. Three held her down, while one raped her. The perpetrators were not caught, and, in general, are not.

“The first thing you notice about the Namayingo District of Uganda is its beauty. Lush with green, tall grass, fields of maize and vibrant rolling hills. It’s how you’d imagine Hawaii in the 1950’s — a less-modern kind of paradise.

And it feels like a wonderful place to grow up.”

Mr. Riewer doesn’t just focus on the bad. He wants you to know this beautiful, less developed, dangerous place, is also a place worth saving. Focusing on solely the bad can be too much for people. (I mention what a toll it can take on you to focus just on the bad in my last newsletter. Let me know if you want a copy!) It probably also doesn’t make people want to give money to help fix a water problem in a place that’s not fixable, that doesn’t have some good qualities.

The article goes on to say that if villages near here lack clean water, women make up to six trips daily to collect it. They’re all familiar with the risk. It implies that if they had water wells, it could be paradise — hence, donate now. It’s so well done it doesn’t have to say that directly.

Grace and her sister Sarah had hopes of becoming doctors. They were both good students and liked school. But for now they had to drop out. To support their children, Sarah has a garden and sells vegetables and Grace sells shoes. But they’re saving some money, and they still have hope.

Mr. Riewer mentions at the end that thanks to charity: water’s partner, Grace and Sarah’s village now has a well. Note the author says “our partner” not the nonprofit’s name. I think this is much more friendly to the reader than using third person (“charity: water’s partner), which you sometimes see. If the reader has forgotten the nonprofit’s name, on Medium, it’s on the bar that scrolls down the page with you (on a larger screen) or mobile (in the url). It’s also at the top and bottom of the page.

Mr. Riewer adds further background at the end about how women and girls around the world face danger every day to collect water. I think this is a bit misplaced; I would have put it higher up to let the reader know it’s happening around the world, not just in Uganda. He also includes a paragraph about one of the reasons charity: water does what it does. I would probably also have placed this higher and said “our,” not “charity: water,” but can understand why he did it.

Mr. Riewer includes a writer’s note at the bottom of the piece about how he, as a man, didn’t feel completely “comfortable” telling a story about rape.

“But both girls, whose names I’ve changed for their protection, said that if it means other communities in Uganda will receive access to clean water and girls can live without fear, that they want the story to be told.”

I think it’s important to include notes like this. It is easy to come across as if you’re trying to take advantage of a tragedy to raise money. Letting the reader into the thought process behind the article shows that you’re really thinking hard about the stories you’re telling, and telling them carefully.

“Last Walk for Water”

There’s another charity: water story on Medium (also published by The Huffington Post) under founder Scott Harrison’s name.

“The Last Walk for Water” is another sad story, but it’s also a reminder of one of the reason’s charity: water was founded.

Although I didn’t mention it above, there is summary text along with the story in “It Happened on the Walk for Water.” There is also a short summary for “The Last Walk for Water.” You are somewhat prepared for the story before you read it.

“It was still dark and cool when 13-year-old Letikiros walked out the door to get water. She never came home. At 4 p.m. a man found her lifeless body swinging from a tree, a rope tied around her neck.”

It’s chilling. With this in mind, the opening of the story describes the town Letikiros lived in:

“Meda is a large village of dust and rocks that sits on an Ethiopian plateau and sprawls from north to south over several miles. A steep gorge 100 stories deep cuts the village in half, with treacherous dirt footpaths snaking up and down both sides of the mountains, connecting the two sides.”

It sets the scene for the footpath women have to walk to collect water. The story then brings you back to when Letikiros’ mother moved to Meda (which is known for its water problems) for an arranged marriage. Her husband turned out to be brutal, and the village elders helped her kick him out of town.

Then you learn about Letikiros, who friends described as “visionary and unique.”  She still had to start “walking and waiting” for water beginning at age eight. Four mornings a week, she had to navigate a steep climb with a clay pot tied to her back. Once there, she sometimes waited eight hours.

An eight hour wait for water! It’s inserted in the middle of the story. There is no way you can miss it, and the author doesn’t and doesn’t need to point out how horrible it is. It’s obvious. Sometimes the water line would be so long she’d have to head to another river that was a steeper climb and a six-hour round trip.

Mr. Harrison quotes her friends imitating her so you get a feel for her personality. “‘Things will be changed for us if we work hard and fight to improve our lives,’ she would say.”

In order for Letikiros to attend school three days a week, her mother spent the money to rent a donkey to bring water back. When Letikiros married at age 13 (her mother selected a childhood friend), she continued to attend school as she was behind.

Now you know about Letikiros’ life. You know about the support of her mother and husband. As a reader you have developed a fondness for her. The author then tells you about May 19, 2000.

After 10 hours of waiting in line and filling up with water, Letikiros said goodbye to her friend and continued on her path home.

No one knows exactly what happened, but they believe she slipped, and her clay pot filled with water smashed. “Those who knew her well believed she must have been overcome with shame.” Her mother and sister were waiting for that water, and the clay pot was valuable. So Letikeros took the rope from the pot and hung herself from a tree branch.

The story continues, describing the horrific grief her mother, husband, and others felt after losing her.

This story also includes a writer’s note, which I think adds to the story. I’ll let you read the story and the note for yourself. The footnote also explains that charity: water, while already working in the region Tigray, where Meda is, they have yet to find a way to bring clean water to Meda (they haven’t found any groundwater in Meda and the river is more than 4.5 miles away). But they will keep looking for a solution.

Not all charity: water’s stories are sad (in fact quite a few are upbeat).

“The 15-Year-Old President”

Here’s the opening for “The 15-Year-Old President” by Tyler Riewer:

“By the time we arrive at our first village in Mozambique, a small crowd has already gathered around the hand pump, anxious to talk about the difference that clean water has made in their community.”

It’s a great opening because you know it’s going to give you a first-hand account of what people in a Mozambique village are thinking. And it sets the stage because you know if people are anxious, they generally have something interesting to say.

Members of the local water committee (the article explains what that is) introduce themselves. The last is the 15-year-old president. You find out the author has never met a 15-year-old president in the eight countries and 25 plus communities he has visited. So you know it’s unusual. The story moves along in the author’s footsteps.

He tells us she was chosen because she can read and write.

“It’s 6:10 a.m., and Natalia has already had an overwhelming morning. As the oldest of seven children, her to-do list is much longer than that of her siblings: sweeping up loose sand and dirt from their home, washing dishes from last night’s dinner, filling a Jerry Can at the borehole, boiling water in preparation for breakfast. She’s been hard at work since 4:30 a.m.”

But there’s a willing smile on her face.”

Detailed storytelling (with images) lets us see her personality. You’re getting to know this girl who is getting water because of your donation. Amazing.

Natalia is happy because she can get water in 20 minutes from the pump instead of the hours it used to take. She can make school everyday. And she is a great student, according to the headmaster.

At the end her mother tells Mr. Riewer she wants her daughter to be a teacher.

“Without missing a beat, Natalia corrected her, ‘I don’t want to be a teacher; I want to be the Headmaster!'”

Read more of charity: water’s stories (not sure why there’s no direct link to these great stories from the homepage).

Stay tuned for part two when I share more examples of amazing stories by a nonprofit.

What did I miss? If you’re out there read­ing, let me know I’m reach­ing you in the com­ments below.

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