Empathy for Edwin: From Data to Stories

I grew increasingly agitated in our board meeting. 200 million children dewormed last year. 4.9 million East Africans who now get safe drinking water. We made such an impact last year, which makes our struggle to fund the water program even more aggravating. For years I’ve been telling myself that water’s just not sexy. But after two years at Square, I have a different hypothesis: we’re not great at storytelling.

Evidence Action is an organization for nerds. Grounded in rigorous research trials, tested by economists and impact-oriented minds (we were named a top international charity for cost-effective impact by GiveWell, and by Peter Singer’s Life You Can Save), we should be a slam dunk for donors who want to make an impact. In doggedly pursuing improvements for tens of millions of people, we speak in big numbers and data.

We’ve told ourselves that storytelling is in the realm of anecdotes, at odds with evidence and scale.

After two years at Square as a product manager, I’ve seen another method of winning hearts and souls other than impressive numbers and delivering on the plan (yes, you need those, too). It’s telling the story.

When I talk to our engineers at Square about a new product feature we want to build, we discuss it in the context of a specific customer who is struggling to manage some aspect of their business because this feature doesn’t yet exist. We all know we’re not building the product for one individual (or else I should be fired), but having one person’s specific needs in mind helps motivate us towards the goal.

So I’m going to tell Evidence Action’s Dispensers for Safe Water story a bit differently.

Beatrice is a vibrant young woman with an infectious laugh who makes ends meet by growing sweet potatoes and selling them at the market on Saturdays. She pops Edwin, her 16 month old son, on her hip so we can walk.

We weave through the patchwork quilt of small farms about a quarter mile down to the stream. Beatrice points to the stream, and explains that everyone she knows has gathered water from the stream for as long as she can remember. When her eldest daughter, Dafina (now 4), was toddling around like Edwin, she’d get diarrhea every few months and listlessly lay on the mat for hours. The elders told Beatrice that diarrhea was just a normal part of childhood. But when the village councilmen welcomed a curious blue plastic tank last year and planted it in cement next to the water source, Beatrice learned otherwise.

Beatrice walked me through her new routine when collecting water: after filling her jug with water at the stream, she twists the nozzle of the blue tank, adding a measured dose of chlorine to her jug. (Adding chlorine to water makes it safe to drink, a strategy employed in U.S. cities over 100 years ago to dramatically reduce death rates.)

Beatrice rubs Edwin’s head and proudly announces that Edwin has never suffered from diarrhea, and that the children in the village all seem much healthier. He giggles and squirms, ready to be let down to toddle after a squawking chicken.

Diarrhea is the 2nd largest killer of children under 5 years old, taking half a million children each year. Dafina’s listless spells of diarrhea weren’t normal. They were life-threatening. And they were caused by the contaminated water of the cherished village stream. Beatrice and her family are only a few of the 4.9 million people who now have access to safe water thanks to Evidence Action. Our last mile chlorine distribution is the cheapest way to save lives from diarrhea — it only costs $1 per person per year to run.

We desire to make the world a better place, but we lack the daily empathy to connect with those in need. We need the story of Edwin. A real boy, a real story, and a real opportunity for us to draft a new future for him. Simply reading this infers you have the luxury to assist. Whether it be a donation, your time, or simply feedback, I welcome the helping hand.