Ben Affleck’searnest animated video about why he helps orphans in the Eastern Congo has been viewed a few thousand times since it was posted on YouTube last month. George Clooney’s video about the plight of South Sudan has been viewed more than 380,000 times since last year. Bono’s video highlighting hunger — which featuring celebrities saying the bleeped-out f-word “famine” — has been seen half a million times.
But Matt Damon tops them all: In just three weeks, his YouTube clip of a mock press conference announcing that he will not use the bathroom until the whole world has sanitation has been viewed more than 845,000 times. The clip was created to boost Damon’s charity, Water.org, which helps build water and sanitation systems in places like Haiti, Bangladesh, and Kenya. Instead of trying to arouse our guilt or sympathy, it uses humor. The clip features popular YouTube personalities, including Wheezy Waiter and ShayCarl, asking Damon questions about his toilet protest. It’s brilliantly engineered to go viral.
What remains to be seen is whether all those views will translate into results on the ground for people in poor countries. In 2011, Water.org spent $2.6 million on salaries and compensation for its staff and directors, the vast majority of whom are American, and only gave away $2 million in grants. The organization, which spent a total of $6.5 million, says 59 percent went to activities such as facilitating community microcredit and research and development, while an additional 12 percent was spent on advocacy, which the group considers a part of its core mission.
Public affairs officer Rosemary Gudelj says the group welcomes questions about its program and finances: “That’s the whole point of the campaign — to get people to look more closely.” Everyone who laughed at Matt Damon’s toilet video ought to visit Water.org to evaluate the group’s work firsthand. It’s up to all of us to make sure that charity campaigns accomplish more than publicity for stars and fleeting entertainment for YouTube buffs.