Matt Damon shows how celebrity charity work should be done

Innovative is the result of patient homework and uncovering what really works.

AFP Photo/Stan Honda/File
Actor Matt Damon, cofounder of, at a press conference on water and sanitation at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in 2008.

Celebrities hardly have an unblemished record when they attempt to trade on their fame to benefit good causes.

A current case in point: singer Lady Gaga, is now touring in Japan. She asked her fans to contribute $5 toward Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief efforts and receive a wristband in return. Now she's being sued, with the plaintiff's saying she's profited from a shipping charge for the wristbands. A spokesperson has denied any wrongdoing and says the entire amount paid for the wristbands "is going directly to relief efforts" and that "nothing is being made on shipping costs."

As au courant as Lady Gaga the musician may be, she's still using an old Hollywood tactic of asking fans for donations based on her fame and not her deep knowledge of the problem.

The current issue of Fast Company magazine highlights the work of Matt Damon, who might be called the thinking person's celebrity do-gooder (Matt Damon and his global war for water: the intimate tale of an actor done good).

His nonprofit project is using some innovative techniques to attack a stubborn, pervasive, and utterly unglamorous problem in the developing world: lack of clean water and sanitation. According to UNICEF, about 1 in 8 people in the world lack access to safe water supplies. More than 3.5 million people die each year from water-related diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

Mr. Damon has traveled extensively in Africa and become a bit of a water-and-sanitation program "geek," the article says. "If you want to understand how this works," he says, sounding more like an anthropologist than a celebrity, "there is no substitute for going there and talking to people in their homes." expects to raise $10 million in 2011, up from just $4 million in 2010. But, surprisingly, the money won't be spent directly on drilling wells. That kind of rush-in, drill-a-well, take-a-picture, and walk away effort too often ends up a short time later with a nonfunctioning well and no one around who knows how to fix it.'s efforts center on involving the community itself in improving its water and sanitation facilities.

"There needs to be a water committee. At least 80 percent of the community needs to sign up and raise money for the project, participate in its construction and upkeep," says Gary White, who co-founded with Damon in 2008. "That's how a project turns from top-down charity to bottom-up sustainability."

The nonprofit spends much of its time in the laborious and unglamorous work of connecting lenders with local groups.

In 2009, while filming "Invictus" in South Africa, Damon went into the slums and visited people who had been able to take out a micro loan to put a water tap or toilet in their homes. "Their lives were changed," he says. He later spent an intensive 10-day sojourn in rural Africa that was like a "mini course in college," he says, studying AIDS, microfinance, education, and, water issues.

Damon's approach seems simple: He wants to appeal to logic, not emotion. He's letting people know what the problems are, what are some effective ways to make it better, and how they can get involved.

He shrugs off what he calls "the Sally Struthers approach" – ads that, he says, try to appeal to people's guilt "and they end up turning the TV off."

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