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400. How matters

I have been doing a lot of thinking over the past few weeks as a result of all the coverage of water issues in coffee media–not on water so much as the nature of international development work.  I am reminded that, in the words of a former colleague, the “how” of what we do may matter even more than the “what.”

Keurig Green Mountain and TOMS, the two corporations whose water investments have been the subject of the most discussion on this blog and elsewhere in the media, are both partnered with the non-profit Water for People.  The what of the work each company is funding, in other words, is similar. The companies are oceans apart, however in how they are communicating their respective commitments.

How Matters.

Jennifer Lentfer is a former CRS colleague and author of How Matters, a hugely influential blog on international aid whose tagline says it all: “Aid effectiveness is not about what we do, but HOW we do it.”

Her coverage addresses how international aid organizations relate to the people who participate in their programs and the people who work for them.  She doesn’t spill as much ink on the issue of how they communicate their work to external audiences, but the blog itself–as well as Jennifer’s “day jobs” as the editor of Oxfam’s Politics of Poverty blog and adjunct professor at Georgetown’s Center for Social Impact Communication–suggests that effective communication is an important part of getting how right.

My personal feeling is that international development, at its best, is not something that professionals like me, whose salaries are paid by aid organizations, go off and do in isolation in remote places around the world.  When international development is really working, the organizations that are funding it are are not just working on the ground, but also communicating broadly, thoughtfully and transparently.  About the challenges and opportunities they see through their work.  About both the successes and the failures of their programming.  About the kinds of investments likely to succeed and those likely to fail. Why?  Because truly transforming the conditions that inhibit human development in far-off places requires changes closer to home: changes to public-sector policies and private-sector practices that are informed by a nuanced understanding of what is really happening on the ground.  We may do great work in the field that really unlocks the potential of a small number of people who participate in our projects, but if we fail to communicate our experience, analysis and recommendations, we miss opportunities for broader impact.  In the end, what we communicate through and as a result of our programming may be more important to more people than the programming itself.

One approach, two communications strategies.

What does this have to do with TOMS and Keurig Green Mountain?  A lot, in my mind, since they have chosen similar whats but dissimilar hows.

Let’s start with the what. TOMS and Keurig Green Mountain have both partnered with Water for People, an enormously well-regarded non-profit organization working effectively around the world to empower communities to protect water resources and ensure the supply and quality of water.  The Water for People work that these companies are committing to fund with the profits they earn from your business will similar and have similar impacts on people and the planet.

But the companies have chosen very different ways to communicate around this work.


TOMS seems to apply a sponsorship approach that has largely fallen out of favor in international development work.  Instead of asking you to sponsor a hungry child through a monthly contribution, TOMS asks you to sponsor a thirsty one through your purchase of a bag of coffee.  The approach through which Water for People will turn TOMS contributions into water access is proven; the way TOMS is presenting its 1-for-1 on water doesn’t communicate the richness of that approach, and may raise more questions than answers.  I have fielded some of these questions off-line since I published my earlier posts on the TOMS water 1-for-1 model:

  • What does it mean to deliver one week of water to a person in need?  How do you produce a week’s worth of water?
  • What if a household has 11 people?  Does my purchase only deliver water to one of them?  Who decides which person gets the water and how do they decide?
  • What happens if I order the TOMS “Malawi Roast” and don’t like it?  If I stop buying it, does “my” person in need lose access to water?
  • How do I reconcile the TOMS commitment of one week of water for one person with its own language on “long-term solutions” or  with “Everyone Forever,” the visionary slogan of Water for People?
  • How do I square the TOMS idea of “local ownership” of water with the idea that its access to water depends on my purchase of TOMS coffee?

I am delighted TOMS is partnering with such a strong nonprofit to apply its longstanding 1-for-1 commitment to its more recent engagement in the coffee sector.  Its sleek communications and powerful 1-for-1 message have helped build a mighty brand and a considerable platform.  Could it use that platform to introduce a bit more nuance to the conversation, foster deeper understanding of water resource management and elevate the tenor of the discussion?

Keurig Green Mountain

In comparison with the sleek TOMS campaign, the Keurig Green Mountain Water Policy is downright clunky.  And perhaps more illuminating about how its investment is harvesting water for thirsty people.

It talks about water challenges in the coffeelands in language that is more recongizable to the folks working in the field to address them.

Its describes its programming and partnerships with organizations like Water for People that in ways that tell consumers more about how water is actually delivered and how water resources are actually protected.

It takes a more holistic view of water work, identifying the integral link between improved water resource management and another thorny issue the company has wrestled with publicly–food security in the coffeelands.

Keurig Green Mountain has chosen a different how than TOMS.  In my mind, it is one that is more likely to enlighten and inform.

Or maybe I just identify with it more because it sounds more like the development jargon I am used to reading.


  • randy wirth says:

    I am always amazed at the many ways companies and individuals can support social justice and environmental stewardship needs at home and abroad. The problem of communicating a complex social justice or environmental stewardship initiative to the public (consuming public) is very difficult. It requires a lot of time and money that would be better spent on the initiative itself. Businesses are not the logical educators since they clearly have a conflict of interest (profit vs nonprofit). That is why businesses like the simple message that can be communicated clearly. That is why my business likes the independent certification model. That is why many businesses like to simply build a well for a village or buy a cow for a family and then spend many times the amount of the project on marketing to let the public know about it.

    While on one level I feel that anything someone does has value, I also feel that a greater impact can sometimes be made through cooperative action. In my view, it is better to have the farmer or cooperative actively involved in both the selection of a project and be vested in the project.

    On the consumer side, it seems that independent verification is valuable in instilling confidence that the price premium is actually tied to something real and not just marketing hype or project management fees. If we have 100 companies involved in 100 different coffee land projects it will be dramatically less efficient that if they worked cooperatively through a project such as Water for the People, Lutheran World Relief, Fair Trade USA, ……………and that is what excites me about Fair Trade USA model. They seem to be doing a good job of both listening to cooperative needs and identifying non profits on the ground that already have a presence and expertise. It also allows the consumer the ability to directly support the farmers and cooperatives through their product purchase along with having the confidence that transactional transparency and independent verification are engaged. While , clearly no certification model is perfect, if I and others are engaged with our certification partners, we can improve and evolve it to do a better job (as has just happened with Fair Trade USA). In the end, people will have a clearer choice and better understanding of their consumer vote.

  • Chris Treter says:

    Thank you Mr. Sheridan.

    Randy, I enjoyed your comments but must disagree. I think Fair Trade USA has set the bar extremely low and it is unfortunate that what they have conceived is considered a standard in the industry.

    Michael, I am enjoying the direction of your recent posts. When I learned of TOMS adventure into coffee, I was thinking along your lines of questioning and I also think they are participating in the early stages of the creation of a new wave (without realizing it most likely) that incorporates a more holistic notion of quality that inbeds concepts of quality of life into the business model. In my view, that is the next wave of coffee – whether it happens or not at a broad scale to warrent conversation is another question – but it is the only route to truly be authentically somewhat fair in the industry.

    In regards to Keurig – I think negative vs. positive impact is important to note whenever discussing a company whose waste in 2013 would circle the globe 10.5 times and only 5% of their product is recyclable (regardless of what their intention is for 2020). Here is a great article for anyone interested:


  • Michael – as always, I appreciate your thoughts and clear rationale from years of experience in international development.

    Chris — always love your clear vision, too, as one of Michigan’s top roasters!

    I would like to give a shout out to another company working hard in the area of saving and improving water resources — Portland Roasting Co. Mark Stell, the owner, has organized “Walk for Water” in Portland and this winter I got a message asking to sponsor him in a “Ski for Water” event. I liked how his “Walk for Water” in Portland hits squarely on the effort to communicate to the wider community as well as create change.

    Best regards,
    Ruth Ann

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