Paull Young at heart: Having a positive impact on the world, one charity: water at a time
He’s the guy who, while working in a quiet office with you, on some tedious but essential deliverable, late at night, will start humming out loud the majestic Jurassic Park theme song because, he says, it “makes everything more meaningful” (it does—try it).
He’s that person who is so naturally great at dealing with people—clients and peers—that you can’t understand how does it seems so effortless. And he’s that colleague who’s way more mature than his years, and who can come up and execute great ideas because he understands what makes people tick. This interview will help you get to know him a little better. Take the time to read it— you’ll be richer for it. —Constantin Basturea, Manager at Accenture
Katie Sheppet interview Paull Young, director of digital at charity: water
Katie Sheppet (KS): Paull, in 2007 you became “Internet famous” when you left Australia and travelled/blogged your way through several countries and two continents. Along the way you met PR practitioners and academics and eventually ended up in New York City, where you were hired by a social media-oriented agency. How did you get from your birthplace (in regional Australia) to developing this “global mindset?”
Paull Young (PY): I think it started with a family vacation to Europe when I was nine. That trip, coupled with extensive backpacking after high school, meant that travelling across the world wasn’t scary, but extremely exciting.
It’s a distinctly Australian characteristic that our young people are so well travelled. I’ve found our approach to travel is one of the bigger differences with American society.
Personally, I place a really high value in life on connections and experience—and travel is one of the best ways to do both. I thrive on learning, and travelling to new cultures translates to a constant learning experience.
What made me up and move my life, though, was work. I’ve long been passionate about the opportunities the Internet provides for relationship building and communication, and for the last six years I’ve had the good luck to be living and working at the forefront of digital innovation.
My current travel goal is to visit 30 countries and 30 American states by the time I turn 30 in September, and I’m well on track!
KS: The NGO you currently work for, charity: water, is a global charity based in the USA. Does heritage play a role in working there?
PY: There are actually three Australians amongst our full-time staff—we’re taking over the office (through bribes of Tim Tams and Bundaberg Rum)! There are 50 staff members of which 46 are American and based in NYC with us Australians, and there’s one Kenyan staff members who works as a water programs officer in Kenya.
We’re a global organisation, and while our main donor base to date has been American, we think globally and know we’ll need to expand around the world to hit our aggressive goals as we scale. I’ve been very happy to see Australia be one of our larger international audiences already, and I’m excited to see our Aussie audience continue to grow.
KS: As director of digital, how would you characterise your primary role: is it strategic or more focused on tactical deployment through social platforms and digital storytelling?
PY: The nature of a startup is that you wear multiple hats and need to be able to plan for the future while also rolling up your sleeves and getting stuff done.
Strategic thinking is a strength of mine though and an important part of my role as a member of the executive leadership team of the organisation.
Typically for our web campaigns, my role is to define the strategy to achieve our goals. Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water, acts as our visionary on product, creative and marketing ideas, and then our talented creative team (led by Scott’s wife, Viktoria) makes amazing content that we share with the world.
I try to be the balance point between our freewheeling creative strength and the need for a strategic approach to communication. And not to forget, advocating the benefits of rigorous measurement.
One of the ideas I had at charity: water I was most proud to see executed was our thank-you videos to mark our fifth anniversary. We made 250 personal thank-you videos for donors of all stripes and engaged our entire staff. In producing the videos we had no direct-fundraising objectives—it was all about relationship building and showing how much our brand cares about our donors.
I still regularly see that mini-creative campaign referenced, and every time I do I smile.
KS: Speaking of relationship building, are the village elders/politicians and citizens, primarily the beneficiaries of this largesse of providing cleaner, safe drinking water or are they playing a role in the decisions being made? How do you balance the voice of the organisation itself and that of its recipients?
PY: Our model involves deep integration with local cultures and people. This is a big part of the reason we partner with, and fund, local implementing groups who lead the work on the ground. In the 21 countries we work in, there’s a network of local partners who understand the culture they operate in and work with the communities to bring clean water.
An example of this is a partner I will visit for the first time in April 2013, the Relief Society of Tigray in northern Ethiopia. I’ve heard remarkable things about the organisation, in particular the leadership of Teklewoini, who played a leadership role in protecting people in his region during the Ethiopian civil war. Since time he has devoted his life to 100 per cent water coverage for the region.
At the village level, collaboration is even more important. The typical model we see with partners involves the formation of a water committee where villagers are appointed and trained to collect funds from the community, lead training and assist with maintenance. It’s incredibly important that the community takes on ownership of the water project as their own—not as a handout from an aid agency.
As far as storytelling goes, we’re very mindful of respect for the people we serve. We are conscious of the stories we present as a brand and will typically pour dozens, if not hundreds, of hours into creating one of our stories. As such, it’s important that our creative team in NYC lead the story creation—but we only get a great story by becoming deeply embedded with local communities and citizens.
KS: It is clear that charity: water is a game changer in many ways and lauded for its values, goals and successes, as well as ingenuity about using social media rather than conventional fundraising techniques. That having been said, I’m curious whether there have been any PR reputation or issues management hiccups along the way to overcome?
PY: The nature of international development work is that it is immensely challenging. Our partners work in some of the most isolated and difficult regions on the planet, and because of these challenges it’s rare things go precisely as planned.
Charity: water’s approach is to embrace this uncertainty. We place strong value on transparency, so much so that we’ll present the truth to supporters even if it’s not the glowing story for which we’d hoped. The best example I’ve seen of this was the 2010 live drill from Moale, Central African Republic.
Every year on our September 7th “founding” birthday we post a video from the field of the work being done. It’s an eagerly awaited moment for our supporters, and typically sees us posting a joyous video, filmed that day of a new water project being created and people celebrating their lives being changed.
But in 2010, it didn’t play out that way. The village we drilled in (which we knew was a risky location) sat atop what we later learned was 30-40 stories of sand. So instead of posting a celebratory video to our supporters, we shared a more authentic story of failure. We even titled the video, “Failure on our birthday.”
I was in our New York office executing the launch of this video, and must admit I was very nervous how our audience would respond. We were overjoyed (and relieved) to see an overwhelmingly positive response to this video, with our supporters using words like “authentic” and “transparent” to describe it.
KS: In the excellent October 2012 profile in Australia’s Marketing Magazine (prior to your appearance at the Global Alliance’s World PR Forum, proudly hosted by the Public Relations Institute of Australia), you said working for a “startup” NGO isn’t done for financial compensation. What motivated you to leave the more-flush agency world and move into non-profit work?
PY: I’ve always been a cause-driven person—my mum loves to tell a story about me as a seven year old, when I very seriously told her I wanted to be Australia’s Prime Minister one day to help solve the world’s problems.
When I started my program at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, I was asked what I’d like to do with my career in public relations. My answer was sports or cause marketing; seven years into my career and I’ve done both.
I loved the charity: water brand before I started working here. I first heard about it in 2008 when I “gave up” my September birthday to help fund water projects in Ethiopia. Over the years I got more connected to the organisation, and when a job came up I had to explore it. I feel honoured to work with a brand that does world-changing work, while also reinventing how people give, including pushing the edges of digital innovation.
If I didn’t work at charity: water, I don’t think I’d be at another non-profit, but I do know that whatever position, I’d be trying to make a positive impact on the world.
KS: It’s clear you’re driven to help others. I noticed your collaboration with friends on the #EatDownTipUp campaign, where you helped your local community by encouraging New Yorkers to eat at downtown restaurants and tip double after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Could you tell me a little more about how this came about?
PY: #EatDownTipUp was a rewarding experience; yet another proof point that people are good and want to make a positive impact on others.
My neighbourhood in NYC had a blackout throughout Hurricane Sandy, and many of the local businesses I frequent lost a lot of business and had severe water damage. Immediately—once the power was back—it felt like the right thing to try to support those businesses. While having my first meal back in the neighbourhood, I saw an Anthony Bourdain tweet about supporting local businesses by eating downtown and tipping heavily.
I immediately felt this could be a way to easily allow people to do good, while at the same time most volunteering options in the city were over subscribed. So that night (over dinner) three friends and I came up with the hashtag; the next morning we hosted a brunch for 20 people who wanted to help out, and suddenly people were jumping on it all over the city.
The next day I was in Boston for business meetings and when I came out of them learned Anthony Bourdain covered the campaign for CNN and the idea was going viral.
Salesforce Radian6 later did an analysis and found more than 3,500 #EatDownTipUp tweets in the week after the storm. All in all, while we knew this wasn’t as impactful as a lot of the other work being done to help people affected, we do think we provided a simple way to have New Yorkers help New Yorkers. At a minimum, we provided some positivity for hundreds of small business owners and workers hit by the storm.
KS: I was very pleased to meet you at the World PR Forum in Melbourne last November. Your presentation on charity: water and video story was incredibly emotional, in fact it moved other audience members and myself to tears. You have very powerful stories to tell.
What does it take to bring these stories to life?
PY: The powerful content that charity: water produces shows the value of working with a great team. Small and with miniscule budgets, we’re able to do remarkable work because of in-house talent that focuses on brand excellence. From our end, we put in blood, sweat and tears to make that happen. In my opinion our creative team is one of the best in the world.
My favourite story: I was a part of was a live drill we did in Moale, Central African Republic. We made this video with one videographer/editor, Scott and Viktoria’s storytelling prowess, and some input from donors on the trip and me. We shot and edited it in two days while travelling in Africa, and then the same day we finished the piece I uploaded it from very slow hotel Internet in Paris, so these donors could see the impact in real time. In 2011 it was a finalist in the DoGooder Awards for best cause content.
Fun fact: you might spot me dancing in the last shot of the film!
KS: What lies ahead for you, Paull? Can we expect a return Down Under at some point or have you forever become a citizen of the world?
PY: Right now I’m very focused on helping to lead charity: water to our goal of raising $100 million in 2015. As we travel towards that goal I know I’ll be blessed to be able to travel and meet amazing people who want to help change the world. Because I continue to value connections and experience, this is important to me.
I love Australia deeply and will definitely return home at some point. My ideal life would be split time between Sydney and New York, though I’m not sure I can make that happen. For as far as I plan forward, life revolves around New York and charity: water, and I have a very clear picture of owning a bookshop near a beach in Australia when I’m an old man….
Otherwise, I’ve got no idea what’s in store for me between those earlier and closing chapters of the rest of my working life!
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Katie Sheppet is an account executive at Edelman Melbourne where she has experience across marketing, digital and organisational communications. Katie is also contributing articles to the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management (GA) monthly e-newsletter on a volunteer basis.
On behalf of Edelman, long recognized for its sponsorship of PR education, Katie volunteered digital support to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), the GA member/national PR association host of the 2012 World Public Relations Forum (WPRF), which took place in Melbourne from 18-20 November 2012. Her efforts include initiating this earlier interview with John Paluszek from Ketchum PR, and formulating the questions for first-publication on PR Conversations. She also contributed an article about putting theory into practice for PR Conversations. Contact Katie by email, follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.
Paull Young is director of digital at charity: water, a non-profit devoted to bringing clean and safe drinking water to the 800 million people without. Recognised as a leading digital non-profit, charity: water was the first to have one million Twitter followers, with 75 per cent of its fundraising through digital channels. In the NGO’s six years of existence, it has brought clean and safe drinking water to more than three million people (and raised more than $90 million). Paull’s leadership in digital strategy for charity: water was lauded by the Australian Trade Commission as one of the “Global 50″ influential Australian expatriates and by the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation as an industry “Rising Star.”
Prior to this position Paull was senior account director with social media agency Converseon, leading award-winning campaigns for Fortune 500 clients such as Graco, Kohler, Telstra, the New York Times and Cisco.
Paull moved to New York from Sydney in 2007 as a well-known PR and marketing blogger and commentator. His has been featured on FOX News and CNN, in the Wall St Journal, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review. Read his blog or follow Paull on Twitter.
See earlier NGO communicator profiles on PR Conversations: