Charity Water: Making Trade-Offs

One of the most crucial issues affecting the globe is something you encounter every day.  It’s in your home, your place of work; it makes up most of your body and most of the earth, yet a billion people can’t access it.  Yes, it’s water, and thanks to organizations like charity: water, it’s finally reaching our collective radars as an issue to which we must pay dire attention.  In the past two years, charity: water has done a remarkable job in not only raising people’s awareness, but getting people to feel connected to lives that could not be more different from their own.  We sat down with Director of Design and Branding, Viktoria Alexeeva, to learn how design and communications can ignite people’s passion for a cause.

charity: water is a grassroots non-profit  based in New York City, working to bring clean and safe drinking water to some of the 1.1 billion people on the planet without it.  In two short years, they have funded freshwater wells and basic sanitation projects in 14 countries.  Conducting most of their fundraising through online campaigns, photo and video installations, and unconventional public awareness initiatives, creative communications are a key to their success.

Viktoria explains, “When we started, we knew we wanted to do charity a little differently.   We wanted to ignite people’s passion for helping through photography, design and creativity.  We’d seen charity appeals that didn’t work, that were made to guilt people into helping instead of stirring the kind of connection that arises when a person sees something differently for the first time.  When they finally get it. Perhaps it’s something they’d seen 100 times before, but the 101st time it was presented to them in a different format, in a different light or context, and unexpectedly, they were fundamentally moved.  And this is the true power of advertising.”Of course, a non-profit environment is a far cry from a big advertising agency, and everyone must adjust accordingly.

As Viktoria describes her new role(s), “When I left the conventional world of advertising, my focus was narrow.  I knew storyboarding and design.  And I knew it well.  Everything else was done by someone else and our trendy penthouse design firm was a well-oiled, Henry Ford assembly line.  The designers designed, the editors edited, the producers produced and the 3D guys 3D’d.  The day I quit my job to come work for charity: water, I remember buying a pair of black pumas that were as versatile a shoe as you can get.  The point being: I knew I’d be doing every job under the sun.  In my first few weeks working here, (back then it was just three of us), I helped put on an event, carried boxes around the city, edited a video in Final Cut, made a webpage in Dreamweaver, went to Liberia, West Africa for the first time and ended up in Lenox Hill Hospital three weeks later with malaria wondering what in the world did I get myself into? Right now, I’m the designer, web, editor, project manager, producer and creative director.  And I clean the dishes on Fridays.  Doing jobs we are in no way qualified or trained for has been our greatest challenge.  Every week brings new and exciting problems that we have to just figure out, do or die. But in this constant state of growth, it’s amazing how competent you become when there’s no one to help you figure it out.”

You really have to know the rules first to be able to break them, or else your work will always look like an accident.

Of course, such versatility demands a supreme level of organization to stay functioning.  Viktoria tells us, “The demand at charity: water is enough for 30 people easily, and there are 7 of us on staff.  We often get distracted doing things that are urgent, but not critical to our overall mission.  And if you’re not careful, those things can consume your entire day.  Many people, especially at startups, spend all their time reacting to demands that are not important but always feel urgent.  A printing job gone wrong that consumes your entire morning, or tracking a package that’s been lost in the mail.  So, we’ve kept to-do lists, priority lists, and tried to create systems and processes just to keep sane.  But when it comes down to it, there are only 24 hours in a day and a billion people without water.  You have to make trade-offs.  It’s really useful to create a purpose statement for your role in a company or an organization.  Write down two-three sentences about where you want to go in your professional career if the sky were the limit.  Then, evaluate your daily tasks and ask yourself what are the things you do each day that get you closer to that goal, and which in fact take you farther away.  And then you can start wisely choosing which projects to take on, and which ones to pass off  – if you have that luxury.  If not, try asking your boss if you can find an unpaid intern to help – someone who can learn from you, and free up your time so you can pursue the big picture.  For others, a purpose statement can reveal some sad truth as well.  Perhaps you are in a limiting position that’s stunting your growth, and its time to go.”

In such a small, intense environment, healthy collaboration is key to moving ideas forward.  Viktoria describes their process, telling us, “In this office, we’re constantly yelling ideas across the room.  About 80% of them get shot down the second they’re uttered, and the other 20% make it to execution.  Sometimes the best ones get stolen and claimed by people other than their creators. And I have a piece of advice regarding that: Don’t’ be upset, because giving away your best ideas ensures that you continue to create new ones. Collaboration and group brainstorming provide a sounding board for your thoughts and the sooner you let your ideas be heard, the sooner you can know whether they’re worth pursuing or should be let go. But most importantly, you can’t allow your feelings to get hurt when your idea is rejected.  There’s no room for that in collaboration, and picking your battles is key.  There’s a time to fight for your idea, and there’s a time to let it go.  Once you realize that delicate balance, collaboration can truly be a productive exercise.”

Viktoria strongly believes one must be brave, both within collaboration and idea generation: “I know it’s scary, but get your idea out there. Don’t worry about having all your pieces in place – that will come with time.  Many people wait years to prepare the perfect pitch, the perfect website and the perfect brand before letting anyone see it.  This kind of thinking can intimidate and overwhelm you, and can sometimes cause you to abandon the project all together.  I’m not saying make promises you can’t keep, but get your feet wet and test your idea on friends, relatives and co-workers.  When there’s no one to hold you accountable, it’s easy to let other priorities get in the way.  Let others see your idea when it’s just a sketch on a napkin, and it will create a sense of accountability for you.  I know it’s scary, but knowing that there are people out there waiting to see your idea executed will force you to follow through.”

That being said, forward-thinking endeavors require a strong foundation.  Viktoria explains, “When it comes to design, rules were created to be broken. But you have to know them to break them.  It has to be intentional, not accidental. My first intern was terrible at creating a layout, but she was genius at the big ideas.  So I got her a book on grid systems and composition.  Eventually she began to understand the fundamental principles of the invisible grid in layouts, and her work became professional, intentional and put together.  The point being: you really have to know the rules first to be able to break them, or else your work will always look like an accident.”

At the end of the day, perhaps ideas are more likely to happen when you are motivated by a truly worthy endeavor.  Viktoria’s passion for her work shines through when she explains what she’s working for: “In America, we’re among some of the most fortunate people on the planet.  Food, clothing and water are abundant and always available.  But in villages all across the African continent, mothers wake up before daybreak and walk two, sometimes three hours to kneel in an almost dry riverbed and scoop disease-infested water, knowing it will make their kids sick.  They have no other choice.  We, as Americans, use an average of 150 gallons of water per day to cook, clean and drink.  The average person in a developing nation will struggle to find 5.”

Hearing these troubling but inspiring facts, we are so grateful that talented minds like Viktoria’s are working every day to raise awareness and generate ideas that will make the world a better place.

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