A gift of life for a village in Togo: American business at its best

Tennessee's Advent, Texas A&M, demonstrate the real reason for the Season.

WASHINGTON, December 31, 2012 – For Christians the world over, Christmas commemorates the day that Jesus Christ was born. But in modern times, Christmas has also evolved into a time when gifts are exchanged in company offices and individual homes alike. Most, sad to say, are soon forgotten, often by New Year’s Day. 

But thanks to one innovative American business, a number of small villages in the countries of Togo and Haiti will long remember the Christmases of 2011 and 2012. In both years, Nashville Tennessee design firm Advent decided to forego the typical gift of holiday baskets to valued university and business clients. Instead, they chose to underwrite the digging of freshwater wells in two impoverished countries that desperately needed them, dedicating each well to one of its customers. 

“Around this time of year, so many people send typical gifts like fruitcake, cookies, and baskets of chocolates to business clients,” says John Roberson, Advent’s CEO. “All these gifts start stacking up. Some people consume them; what’s left often gets thrown away. All these gifts eventually go away and have no lasting impact,” he says. “We began to wonder if we could do something to change that.” 

Advent is the kind of design firm that creates “dynamic, inspiring, and engaging brand spaces” for clients ranging from government entities, to large corporations like Japanese automaker Nissan, and to colleges and universities as diverse as Texas A&M and Harvard. 

Advent helps its clients to personalize these spaces to harmonize with each institution’s existing brand, often by warming areas with thoughtful but snappy graphics, targeted message displays, and innovative uses for difficult or under-utilized public space. In turn, all these efforts help to tell, in large ways and small, the underlying corporate story of each of Advent’s clients.

“We design experiences that move people,” says Mr. Roberson. “If you think about what a brand is, in its simplest form, it’s a collection of perceptions in the audience mind that enables individuals to make a choice.” Advent’s marketing and creative teams “work together with folks who have known brands to try to guide audience perception of the brand,” he says. “We try to infuse each brand with the kind of messaging the client wants to communicate to make that brand memorable and different. At the heart of what we do: we create story line in graphics and design that bring each brand to life and anticipate what the audience walks away with. Whether the theme is academic excellence, track records of athletic national championships, or the aims of a corporate culture, our solutions help guide expectations.” 

Given that the heart and soul of Advent is its customary, intense creativity in communicating its customers’ brand messages and stories, it’s not surprising that the company eventually took a second look at the whole idea of holiday gifting and giving and what it might mean to both the givers and the recipients. According to Mr. Roberson, “in 2011, which was a very successful year for us, our company team looked at doing something different” with this tradition, “something with more of a lasting impact.” 

“We all wanted to come up with an idea that could make a real difference to a disadvantaged community or people really deserving of a chance, something that would be important in lives,” he continues. After lively discussions, Mr. Roberson, company President Todd Austin, and the team came up with a simple yet dramatic idea: why not underwrite the drilling of wells in remote locales that have limited access to clean water? When the idea was presented to the entire organization, it was unanimously agreed to move ahead. 

But now: how to do it? In their quest for ideas, Advent discovered the existence of a unique organization, right in Nashville, called The Living Water Project. It’s concept was as simple as it was startling. “They’re an all-volunteer organization,” says Mr. Roberson. “Leadership and management don’t take compensation. 100% of the proceeds they raise go to digging of wells in places that need them but could never afford them.”

Excited about the concept, Advent immediately engaged in discussions with Living Water, and together they developed a game plan. Advent would donate to Living Water funding to underwrite well-drilling projects that would lead to successful ventures with real impact. Research was conducted, including potential locations, cost per well, and social impact. In a unique twist, Advent arranged for Living Water to affix a plaque to every well, naming each of them to honor one of the company’s clients. 

Advent, via Living Water, fulfilled its 2011 Christmas goal by drilling one well in Haiti (where drilling costs are significantly higher) and five wells in the small African country of Togo during 2012. This activity has been all in keeping with Advent’s “corporate tagline, ‘designing experiences that move people,’” says Mr. Roberson. And in Togo, for example, Advent is literally “moving” the “Togolese people from a state of unhealthy and underserved water sources to clean, fresh water and a spirit of hope,” he says.

Young villagers in a remote Togo village celebrate their new well, a gift from America. (Photo courtesy Advent.)

Making the project more meaningful to Advent’s clients, however, is the fact that all the new Advent-funded wells were dedicated to its corporate and institutional customers. In conjunction with the project, “we promised to keep our clients informed” on their well’s status while the company attempted “to capture video and photographs of these projects in process” in 2012.

One of Advent’s 2011 dedicatees is Texas A&M University, where Advent was involved in the renovation of that school’s Memorial Student Center. Advent has affixed a bilingual plaque to a new Togolese wells that was dug in Texas A&M’s honor, according to Mr. Roberson. “The well is there now,” he says, “and it’s up and running.” And Shane Hinckley, Texas A&M Assistant Vice President for Business Development, couldn’t be happier. 

Like most large clients, Mr. Hinckley notes that Texas A&M typically receives “numerous holiday cards and gifts each year from those we have done business with.”  But last Christmas, he noticed something different, when he “received a box from Advent and inside was a clear glass jar full of water.  Along with the jar of water was a note explaining that the water represented the well project,” he notes. “I was thrilled to see that instead of a gift,” he continues, pleased that, instead of a card or a fruit basket, “Advent had opted for service as a thank you for our business.”  

As a followup from Advent this year, Mr. Hinckley “received a beautiful glass frame with a picture of little boys and girls surrounding the well and pump that brings water to their community.  We also received a note that explained how the plaque had been affixed to the well on behalf of Texas A&M. This is the PERFECT way for someone to say thank you,” he continues.   

“Texas A&M has six core values that help develop leaders of character.  The Togo well project represents two of them in Leadership and Selfless Service.  One of the projects that Advent worked on for Texas A&M was to help bring to life our Memorial Student Center.  From our 7 medal of honor recipients to the focus on service by Texas A&M in the world, the Togo Well Project was completely aligned with our thought process,” he says. 

“Twelfth Man.” Interior, Texas A&M Memorial Student Center. (Texas A&M.)

Mr. Hinckley’s positive response was echoed by other Advent customers as well when they received photos showing their own dedicated wells. “People were so moved by this,” says Mr. Robson, “and we got such an overwhelming reaction, that we all thought, ‘people still need fresh water, so let’s do this again.’” Advent’s 2012 well project, to commence in 2013, anticipates that six to eight additional new wells will be drilled in the coming year. 

As for Mr. Hinckley’s original jar of water? It’s “half full now (evaporation),” he notes. “But both it and the glass framed picture are proudly displayed in my office. These are the kind of initiatives that we need more of in today’s world.  Advent certainly understood their client when they sent the items to remind us that in this country most of us are truly blessed,” he says. “I’m humbled that the well was done in our honor, and I’m grateful for the thought and effort Advent” put into this most unusual corporate gift. 

Mr. Robson, too, is pleased with how the entire project has proved to be a win-win for everyone involved. In particular, he and his management team have noted the enthusiasm of the company’s 20- and 30-something employees. “They have a global perspective,” he says. “They get it, they’re part of a larger landscape. They love the idea that, although they could never do a project like this on their own, they can do it with their employer, which gives the whole project more meaning. Some of them even wondered if they could travel to Togo or Haiti to help.”

“We’ve been fortunate to have Living Water as a partner. This all was simply the right thing to do, and we showed that anybody can do it,” says Mr. Robson. 

“We have to agree with Ghandi, who once said very simply: ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’”


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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