08 May Clean Water Advocacy for the CAR
Chasing Passions & Keeping the Cause Close to Heart: Founding The Water Movement on my University Campus
Filling out college applications, moving your tassel from right to left on your graduation cap, moving out for the first time, landing that perfect internship – these are all quintessential milestones for any ambitious young adult. We recognize these events as important, and worth posting about on LinkedIn; and we can all look at those older than us to learn how to portray these events on social media. However, there is no LinkedIn post you can find about the evolution of passion… and for me, it was all about The Water Movement. The story of my evolution throughout college is inseparably connected with an organization I started on campus.
So allow me to tell my story, as I’m doing this for myself but also for those of you who are facing the same dilemma I had: blindly building an organization based on passion.
Let me begin by sharing my connection to the water crisis. Whether or not you agree with me on giving resources to the less fortunate internationally, we can all agree that the physiological need of water is essential for all of us, in order to survive on this planet. Right now, 783 million people don’t have access to this very basic need. This fact alone drove me to ask the big question, “Will you join me in this?” to my roommates (who soon became co-founders in this chaotic cause). Passion then drove us to gather friends and family together, to ask a bigger question: “Will you become passionate about this with us?”
Over the next four years, we gathered people together, asked them to take part, and were able to advocate for clean water. I’ll never forget the first fundraiser we hosted on campus, where we threw cold (freezing cold) water balloons across the courtyard at each other for a buck each. Our disorderly philanthropic event was the topic of the campus for a day. Not knowing anything more about philanthropy, we thought we did pretty damn good for ourselves with $100. (We delightfully continued throwing balloons on a quarterly basis).
But when our member attendance started to dwindle, or when we made $50 instead of our ‘considerable’ $100, or when other long-standing organizations on campus stomped all over our negligible water-balloon-tarped events, or when individuals would get us confused for a water sports organization, our passion reduced, and we mostly felt… defeated.
During one of these times of defeat, a new member, Ben, reached out to us and told us of his experience in India, fetching for water every day after school. He told us water access was the only way to really allow people to be successful. “If my classmates back home had sanitation, they would be able to focus on school, focus on having a normal life.” He brought a unique story, and stirred us towards trying this thing again.
I realized that we were spread too thin, and quite honestly too proud of something that was based on statistics. We were too small to tackle the 783 million and our story became harder and harder to tell across the broad spectrum. We needed to hone in on our strengths of storytelling and maximize on those who had the power of speech.
With this in mind we had to collapse part of the team, reform our sporadic roles into established leaders, bring in fresh criticism, and most importantly, focus on one country. When we recognized our issues, we experienced tension for the first time, and then the magic happened; like the machetti-chopping-down magic.
When I discovered our partner, Water for Good, the team came to the conclusion that this was worth fighting for. We decided to partner with their one-country-focused philosophy. They had so much life to share with us, and so many stories that diminished our issue of defeat.
Speaking of amazing stories… Throughout our 4 years of machete-chopping, we found ourselves chopping down our own personal fears. I saw people come through our organization scared shitless of public speaking, asking individuals for money, and expressing themselves creatively. Breakthroughs happened because of the cause. It’s as if the expression of water was washing us clean of our fears.
We put together a silent art auction, donated solely from local art students that raised almost $7,000 in one night. I have no intention of characterising our worth in purely monetary terms, however, I strongly believe our greatest success happened when we were able to express ourselves through our own artistic strengths. Although unconventional, we were all able to tie it back to one cause, one mission; to bring those in the Central African Republic life.
All in all, staying humble was the most important part of this process, even when we were small. Our humility included thankfulness – and persistent communication with our members. We sent updates on how we helped those in need, and we thanked our relentless donors with gifts of clay MudLOVE bands (our staple to return the thanks on financial donations).
This thankful communication, known as stewardship in the 501 3(c) world, is and will always be a positive focus of the good work that is happening, regardless of what is blowing up on the news. Stewardship and more specifically, focused stewardship, grew our organization from a confused water sport organization to a quirky-life changing opportunity. We would never be who we are today if we didn’t connect with the stories on the field; If we didn’t tell the story of the child who walked for 4 hours every day just to gain bucket of water for his entire family, just to do it all over again the next day.
In my experience with this amazing team, the evolution was full of hardships and it took time to develop our own character. Excitement for too many focuses would have skewed us from our passion – and focusing on how to crank out more money would only have left us with a sales mentality. We never forgot the people we were working for…we remembered names…gained stories and built our passion all over again with focus.
Olivia Lehman graduated from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis with a degree in Tourism and Event Management. She currently works as a development specialist for the American Red Cross.