Tragedy, silver linings and clean water

A terrible freeway accident; a young child dies; and in the aftermath, over $800,000 is donated to provide clean water to people in developing nations. Social media and the rapid travel of news via the internet have helped put a silver lining on an otherwise very dark cloud.

Rachel Beckwith was inspired by charity: water – an organization that provides clean drinking water to developing countries – so for her 9th birthday this past June, she asked friends and family to donate money to the charity in lieu of giving her presents. Her goal was to raise $300.  She raised $220.

In July, she was critically injured in a freeway pileup outside of Seattle. While her mother and younger sister somehow survived this horrific accident, Rachel died a few days later after being removed from life support.

Ryan Meeks (pastor of the church Rachel attended near Seattle) was just returning from Africa with charity: water when the accident happened. Meeks contacted his friend Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water and shared the news. Both symbolic and honoring of a little girl’s birthday wish, Harrison re-opened her account and donated the $80 needed to bring it to the original $300 goal.  But things didn’t stop there. News quickly spread through the Seattle community via local news reports and heavy Facebook and Twitter use by congregant’s of Rachel’s church.  People who had never met or known Rachel began donating. Over the coming days (and now weeks) Twitter activity soared. Celebrities like professional football quarterback Matt Hasslebeck (who attends Rachel’s church) and actress Alyssa Milano chimed in to spread the news. The story of a local Seattle traffic accident was now being heard by millions and millions of people all around the world. Major news outlets like CBS, Huffington Post, CNN and MSNBC carried the story. Donations skyrocketed. At the time of this writing, her campaign has topped over $801,000.

Rachel’s birthday in June provided 11 people with clean drinking water. Not yet a month after her death, she has provided over 40,000 people with clean water. Rachel has made a remarkable contribution to the world.It is encouraging to see social media being used for such good. charity: water estimates that for every $20 donated, one person will have clean water for 20 years. $5,000 will build a stand-alone well which will serve 250 people. As a charitable organization, they are unique and cutting edge. Wells are mapped on Google with GPS coordinates provided to show donors the various site locations. The PR has been brilliant. Harrison has mobilized celebrities and donors with a simple, clear message and poignant marketing. This no-gimmick approach has attracted celebrities like Will and Jada Smith and Jennifer Connelly and has resonated with thousands upon thousands of donors.  It’s even become chic to give a well as a birthday gift, as Ellen DeGeneres recently discovered. Also worth noting: 100% of all donations to charity: water are used in the field for clean water projects. No overhead or administrative fees thanks to funding from angel investors like Bebo founders Michael and Xochi Birch.  This group could potentially redefine the financial model for future charities. 

Dave WilsonOnPR – Seattle

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