How to Do Charity Work by Selling Drinking Water
A project by ICEF student Evgeny Pasnyuk started out as a fairly unsuccessful attempt to collect money for charity, but now his water branded ‘Simple Good’ is available in shops, cafes, and food courts across Moscow. Evgeny is confident that social entrepreneurship in Russia is only starting to develop, and that it will get easier in time.
The desire to help, first steps
In January 2015 my grandmother Luidmila Alexandrovna died of cancer. She was the closest person in the world to me. Our family was able to send her abroad for an operation, and we did everything we could. But it was stage III when it was diagnosed, and she had just two years to live. Her death was a huge loss for me. Before then I never thought of getting involved in charity work, but right then I understood that there is no bringing people back, and I just wanted to help people who found themselves in similar situations.
I just typed ‘Foundation to Support People with Cancer’ into the search engine, and found the Vera (Belief) Foundation. It was night, but I phoned them anyway and their fundraising coordinator Artem Shalimov answered. I described my situation to him, said that I wanted to do something. He asked me to come visit the Second Moscow Hospice in Vladykino, where the foundation has a unit. I got there and for a while I just helped out, but I understood that what they really need is money. I didn’t have the sort of sums that were needed to have a real impact, but I did have this crazy idea.
It was summer, and a friend and I decided to start selling drinking water and give the proceeds to charity. We called the project Water for Life. We bought water we liked the taste of, and started selling it to people in traffic jams, even though that is really against the law. People who sell all kinds of watches or phones would come over to us and offer us protection. We told them we were collecting money for charity but they didn't believe us.
Then we moved from traffic jams to car parks, and agreed with the local authorities so we were doing everything above board. We bought the water for 17-18 roubles wholesale, and sold it at about 50 roubles retail, and half of what we got went to charity.
People go to the shops virtually every day, drink water every day, so that means they can help every day
We kept the water in a rented garage, delivered it to distribution points by taxi, and found volunteers via VK groups. We could barely pay them, although we had initially planned to. The rate of attrition was high and it was not a great project. It was a real pain. In three months we only made RUB 50,000 or RUB 70,000 for the Vera foundation.
Then I met Arkady Moreinis, who later became our business angel (private venture investor – Ed.). I described the idea to him, and said I want to carry on with it, and we decided to scale up.
The Simple Good project came into being in mid-2015. We started by spending three months planning, thinking things through, weighing things up. In Europe you often see notices like “all profits go to charity”, but that’s really not seen here. We decided to write “100% of the profit will go to charity” and opened an independent non-commercial organisation, which under the law has the right to carry out entrepreneurial activity. First we worked solely with the Vera Foundation, people there immediately did what they could to meet us half-way, although there were lots of teething problems.
Some people who saw our water would phone the Foundation and ask “Who are these people? Why are they saying they’re collecting money for you?” It quickly became clear that selling it on the street did not inspire trust, people didn’t see us as any different from people giving out balloons near the metro and collecting funds for dubious initiatives. That’s why we decided it should be sold officially through shops and that the website should explain it all clearly, to give people the chance to understand who they’re helping by buying a bottle of water.
HSE and the project
I heard about HSE’s business incubator after meeting Julian Spektor, who leads social programmes, and he invited me to be involved. I thought it was just an office where you can get together to solve current issues, but it turned out to be so much more than that. There is a constant stream of experts. You’re near other start-ups and have the chance to see their interesting ideas, talk to them, come up with something original, and it is so much more useful than just sitting in an office.
I already had a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), and the water bottle was ready. I found people in the business incubator who I work with developing the project. Now the team comprises people who work on it almost every day and who take home salaries, as well as those who work remotely and help out on the project from time to time. We are always on the look-out for volunteers and new members of the team, and we would be happy to take on HSE students who want to work with us full time or do an internship. We will teach them how to work with 1C, which is always useful, how to write content for social media, work with clients, and we can also open their first ‘work book’ (an official document in Russia that lists every official position an individual has had in their career).
Today, five people form our core team. Varvara Morozova – our most experienced staff member, takes a lead on marketing, client interaction, and promotion. Vlad Smirnov is involved in operations, documentation, and interaction with our outsourced accountants. Nikita, a school-friend of mine from St. Petersburg, has also joined us. HSE student Alisa helps out with social media, and Zhenya Zhelezova is in charge of agreeing our participation in events including local food markets, Lambada Market, and Archstoyania. Zhenya took part in HSE’s first fun-run, and came up with the idea to supply that event with our water. The fun-run’s organizers responded immediately, bought the water, it was great – and it was of course great to get positive feedback from participants in the event, who said they liked the water.
Concert in the Hospice, organised by the Simple Good team «Простое добро»
How Simple Good is organized
Our water is sourced from an artesian spring in Kasimovsky region of Ryazan district, not far from the Meshchersky natural park. This is a protected area, and water from there tastes great, with a pH of 7.0-7.8 and a high oxygen content. It was important that the water was bottled at the right distance from Moscow – so the price wasn’t significantly raised. So we went for a bottling plant that wasn’t the closest, that wasn’t the path of least resistance, and placed the emphasis on the water. We were lucky with the plant management, because they believed in our project and that helped us start with small consignments of 3,000 bottles, whereas now we transport truck-loads.
We currently have four different bottle sizes: 0.3, 0.55, 1.2, and 5 litres. We carried out surveys, talked to buyers, and now we understand that people need to know who exactly they are helping by buying a bottle. So now each bottle explains where the money goes. Currently, funds go towards three particular programmes at different foundations. The first – assisting deaf and blind children, paying for rehabilitation and training at the Yaseneva Polyana centre through the Connection Deafblind Support Foundation. The second is a programme run by the Zhivi foundation that supports children’s wards in Tula Municipal Hospital and helps equip child-friendly spaces there aimed at children who are admitted for lengthy periods of treatment. The third is the Vera foundation programme to support terminally ill children and their families across Russia in Russian regions where the situation with palliative care is very difficult. Over the past year we transferred about 300,000 roubles and held over 10 events in hospices. For example, we brought students from Elektrostal music school to give a concert for patients, and put on a buffet. The hospice is chiefly home to elderly people, they liked seeing the kids, it was great.
We want Simple Good to become a household brand
We currently sell 15,000-20,000 bottles of water each month, but we want to expand and are in talks with major retail chains. We are currently working with shops, cafes, festivals, and you can order our water via Vodovoz, Utkonos, Ozon, and other sites. There is no fixed price for the water at events and markets, it usually sells for RUB 100 per bottle, when cost price is RUB 5. People don’t understand the concept of ‘no fixed price’, they come over and ask ‘What do you mean any price? Just a rouble?’ and we say ‘Yes, one rouble, but you know how much it costs in the shops.’ They usually pay in the region of the usual price for bottled water – RUB 30 to RUB 50, but sometimes they pay 10 kopecks, sometimes a rouble, and sometimes RUB 1000.
We want to see Simple Good become a household brand. We are currently looking at a number of options, and are planning to have some items at the tills. Further down the line we would like to launch a crowdfunding campaign and produce water-cooler size 19 litre bottles. It has been difficult to combine working on this with my studies. I enrolled in a double degree programme at ICEF when I was 17 and I am now 23.
I didn’t pass one of my London University exams in my second year, and repeated a class due to one subject, and then couldn’t pass macroeconomics. But this year I passed all those exams, received my London diploma and hope to successfully defend my dissertation in September. I am focused on social entrepreneurship and effective altruism – an ideology I live by.
The future of social entrepreneurship
Social entrepreneurship is in its infancy in Russia. It is just starting to develop, it is all about companies set up like non-commercial organisations, but engaging in business to benefit charity initiatives and cover all their related expenses: salaries, production cost, logistics, marketing. We want charity to be something anyone can do without spending a lot of time and effort. People go to the shops almost every day, they drink water every day – and so they can help every day, too.
Trust is paramount. We still find people who assume that charity means it’s just tap-water. It’s new to people, they think it’s just a marketing ploy to get the brand-name known. We get a range of comments, some both funny and sad. Sometimes people say ‘why should I help anyone else, who’s helping me?’ But you still hand over the same amount of money for water.
Things are changing now, there is more social awareness and responsibility. I think it will be easier in time. Many major charity foundations in Russia are only 10 years old, and it is a developing sector. Everyone can set themselves the goal of helping others. It’s easily done, even just by spending RUB 100 per month. I don’t think charity is grand – it’s quite ordinary.
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