Matt Damon and Water.org co-founder Gary White are on a mission to solve the global water crisis

By: Gibson Johns

Water.org co-founders Matt Damon and Gary White are on a mission. By the year 2020, the pair is hoping to bring long-term clean water to 3.5 million more people in developing countries. But, beyond that, Damon and White want to make their generation the one that solves the global water crisis.

Part of the issue, as they told me during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival last week, is that Americans aren't familiar with the aforementioned crisis, despite the fact that it affects billions of people worldwide. To combat that ignorance to the lack of clean water access that riddles the lives of over 600 million people, Damon and White know that they have to "catch people where they are" in order to get their attention.

SEE ALSO: Sundance Film Festival 2017: Weekend 1 diary

And what's one of the most shared experiences that Americans regularly have? Drinking. Specifically, drinking beer.

That's why Damon and White so intelligently partnered with Stella Artois for the Buy A Lady A Drink campaign, which will help raise awareness about the global water crisis. Not only that, but it will also help provide wider access to clean water through the sale of limited-edition drinking chalices and direct donations to Water.org.

I caught up with Matt Damon and Gary White at Stella Artois' From Tap to Table event at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about setting ambitious goals, what some of their biggest struggles with the initiative have been and why the Sundance Film Festival is such a great place to spread their message.

See photos from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival:

Check out my full conversation with Matt Damon and Gary White below:

This is your second year in a row having an event like this with Stella Artois at Sundance. What makes this such a great place to spread your message?

Gary White: The audience that we reach in Davos is one thing -- one end of the spectrum -- and the audience that we reach here is very different, but they're so plugged in. Obviously, you have a lot of Stella drinkers here and, hopefully, there will be even more after this as the Stella gets sold in bars, people buy chalices and bring a month's worth of clean water to somebody.

What's cool about it is how much thought [Stella Artois has] put into activating this. When someone buys the chalice, that's five years of clean water for some folks. And, what it does is, it helps us get to this goal that we have of [getting long-term clean water to] 3.5 million by 2020. That's just kind of a weigh station along the route to getting everybody access to clean water, and it's great when we can do this and scale it up to use platforms like this to reach even more people.

During the luncheon, you talked about how it's difficult even for adults in the United States to grasp the idea of needing clean water, because we're so used to having unbridled access to it. Seeing as it's difficult for adults, is there any way to convey this message to children, too?

Matt Damon: Well, I think it's very hard to get it across to little kids. It's kind of like when I was a kid, and I didn't clean my plate, and my mother would tell me that there were people starving in the world. That's a very tough concept for a child to digest and internalize. My generation was completely out to lunch on stuff like this, but the millennials are really aware of this stuff.

We were in Davos with Stella, and we went to them and just said, "Hey, why did you guys do this?! This is amazing! It's a really big deal for us, but is it because this matters this much to your customer base?" And they said, "Absolutely! People are aware of this issue, millennials are aware of this issue, and they'll support companies like this." They'll really vote you out of business with their pocketbooks, and that's really exciting. If the bottom line for Stella goes up -- if this campaign works and is successful for them -- that's great for us and everybody. We're really hopeful that this kind of activation works and that their consumer base responds, because it's really big for us.

How has Water.org changed from your initial idea of what it would be?

Gary White: It's evolved quite a bit! Initially, it came from this perspective of, "People need water, let's build wells and give the wells away." It was very much a subsidy, philanthropy-led approach, and what we've discovered over the years is that people are already paying a huge amount for water. They're paying these water vendors who come through their neighborhoods selling water, they're paying with their time because they're walking hours every day [to get the water] -- and the insight that we had was, "What if we could give people access to a small loan, so they could a water connection at their home and buy back all of that time?" Then they can pay back the loan and be really far ahead.

So, that was what we did with WaterCredit. The whole evolution of going into a new area where we could really scale with private capital and loan capital, so when those loans get paid, they get recycled and another person gets water. It's very different from straight charity, because we can really scale this up.

Matt Damon: And do a good thing for the world!

See photos of Matt Damon throughout his life:

You talked a little bit about the struggle of getting people to donate without having to donate directly --- through the purchase of the Stella Artois chalices, for example -- because people aren't always willing to do that. Why does that struggle exist?

Matt Damon: Well, look: I think it's easier for people to donate to something that they can relate to. If you can personalize something for somebody, that's really one of the big hurdles we have had to clear historically. You know, if you're talking about something like AIDS or cancer, those affect all of us. We all have friends and family members who have been directly affected by things like that. So, it's easy to go, "Well, this makes me think of my friend, I want to donate to it."

What's harder is when you have something like [Water.org] that your donor has never met any of these people before and doesn't have this issue in common with them. That's why the film that they showed tonight is very helpful. Films like this are very helpful because, when she spoke and said, "I just want to grow my business and raise my kids," it's like...

We all know people like that.

Matt Damon: Yes, exactly! And suddenly she's just like me or the person that lives next door to me. And, you know, to answer your question: It has been a struggle for us.

Gary White: But, it doesn't have to be either or: It doesn't have to be just either making a straight donation on a website or coming at it from this route. Our website makes about 4 - 5 million dollars a year. It's about intercepting people where they are. If they happen to be in a bar, it's like, "Wow! I can buy a round of drinks, and we can buy somebody safe water?" And then you can go to the website and learn more about it. They're going to come back [after that]. It's about casting a wider net to catch people where they are and bringing them in to get them to know the crisis and understand how it can be solved.

You have also mentioned this goal of helping 3.5 million people by 2020. Do you also look beyond that, or are you focused solely on that goal right now?

Gary White: That's what great about the partnership with Stella. We're going to be out there getting water to people today because of these campaigns, and we can quantify that. But there's no way charity alone is going to solve this problem. It's just too big: 663 million people without water, 2.4 billion without sanitation. We've got to come up with innovations in order to make this happen. Not only does their funding help us to get water to people today, but it also helps us to find those new game-changing solutions like WaterCredit, because we've got to match this to the magnitude of the problem. That's the only thing that's going to allow us to be the generation that does solve this water crisis.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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