We all know Matt Damon.
We know him as one of Hollywood’s most multitalented leading men—he is an action star, a funnyman and a serious dramatic performer all rolled into one, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter and a gifted filmmaker. We see him at once as each of his title characters, Will Hunting, Pvt. James Francis Ryan and Jason Bourne.
We know him as a Bostonian, and we know that his best friend since he was 10 years old is Ben Affleck. We know that he was an amenable punch line in Team America: World Police, that raunchy puppet movie by the South Park guys—Maaaatt Damonnn.
We know he’s a family man, having recently renewed vows with the Argentinian-born Luciana Barroso, whom he originally married in a civil ceremony at New York City Hall in 2005, two years after they met in Florida, where she was working as a bartender and he was filming Stuck On You. We know him as a father to Stella, 2; Gia, 4; Isabella, 7; and Barroso’s child from a previous marriage, Alexia, 14.
In general, we know him as a pretty regular guy—a kid who made his own way to become a household name. But his out-of-nowhere rise to Hollywood fame isn’t what makes him a fit for SUCCESS. Instead, it’s his great passion for changing the world by helping to meet the most basic of human needs.
The boy next door with the beguiling smile, the man People once dubbed “The Sexiest Man Alive,” has taken on probably the least sexy cause ever: clean water and sanitation. And his devotion to improving the access to those essentials in the developing world goes far beyond lending his name to the philanthropy—it has become his life’s mission.
Perhaps only a performer with Damon’s versatility can charmingly joke about donning a bejeweled “mankini” for a recent role as Liberace’s lover in an HBO movie, and then as he did in our interview, seamlessly segue into an intense discussion about how to solve the globe’s water shortage and hygienic problems.
We know everything about Damon, but he just wants us to know about the plight of the poor in so many parts of India and throughout Africa. Across the globe, 780 million people lack ready access to clean water, and some 2.5 billion are without toilets.
“You know, a child dies every 21 seconds because they don’t have access to clean water or sanitation—once you know that, and once you see that, it is really hard not to do something,” he says, those piercing blue eyes revealing a passionate sincerity, “whatever you can, really.”
In his interview with SUCCESS, Damon expanded on the moment he realized his life’s work, back in 2000 on a trip to Zambia, when he went out to collect water with a 14-year-old girl from a village he was visiting. It was a long walk, and Damon talked to her about her hopes and plans.
She was going to go live in the big city and become a nurse.
“I realized that if someone had not possessed the foresight to sink a bore well near where she lived, she wouldn’t have been able to go to school and she would have spent most of her time scavenging for water,” Damon says. “It just hit me how profound an impact access to safe water has on an individual, a family, an entire community. I can’t think of a cause that has a larger impact than access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”
In so many ways, the same upbringing that gave Damon the guile to bootstrap his film career also led him to this ultimate philanthropic work, the creation of Water.org with co-founder Gary White in 2009.
Now 42, the actor grew up, along with his brother Kent “Kyle” Damon, in a progressive multifamily co-op house in Cambridge, Mass. He was raised by a single mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early-childhood education professor at Lesley University and an author who earned acclaim for her work on the impact of media violence on children.
Immediately after her divorce from stockbroker-Realtor-tax preparer Kent Damon, when their sons were 5 and 2, Carlsson-Paige moved her little family to Newton, Mass., where their next-door neighbor was the late Howard Zinn, a historian of oppression and cultural movements in America, whom Damon credits with helping to shape his worldview. Carlsson-Paige later moved to Cambridge, looking for a more progressive education for her sons. Damon, along with Affleck, went to Rindge & Latin School and later attended Harvard, although he dropped out to pursue his acting and writing career in Hollywood.
Damon began his movie acting career in 1988, when he spoke a single line of dialogue in the Julia Roberts film Mystic Pizza. But it wasn’t until his move to California that he began getting substantial roles in the wake of his Oscar win with Good Will Hunting.
Through it all, the constant in his life has been his devotion to helping those less fortunate, which he inherited from his mother.
In one newspaper article centering on her, the writer noted a 1987 photo in her home showing Carlsson-Paige being dragged by officers into a police wagon. She was quoted in the article saying she tells her inquisitive grandkids, “I was trying to stop a war in a place called El Salvador. This was the way I was trying to do it, without being violent.”
Carlsson-Paige often brought her boys on her journeys all over the world.
“When I was a teenager, I traveled with my mom to places like Guatemala and visited areas where people live in absolute poverty,” Damon says. “When I grew older, I wanted to dive deeper into the question of how to make a difference. I sought to educate myself about the causes of poverty.” Part of Damon’s educational journey were a few trips in the early 2000s with ONE.org, a nonprofit group dedicated to eradicating extreme poverty. “I learned that access to safe water and basic sanitation were foundational to security, stability and economic growth. Since then, I’ve thrown my weight behind the cause.”
Damon has been involved in many charities, including OneXOne, a nonprofit foundation seeking to improve the lives of children in the United States, Canada and around the world. Damon, Don Cheadle and George Clooney have also joined with other well-known Hollywood actors to form Not On Our Watch, an anti-atrocity organization aimed at ending genocide in Darfur and other regions. But, Damon says, “I think a lot of people—meaning well—just end up getting spread really thin. I think that happens to everyone eventually.
“If there are one-off fundraisers, like for the Japanese tsunami, I’m always happy to help. You can’t do everything; that’s why I picked this one thing and really focus on that.”
Before Water.org, Damon created a foundation called H2O Africa. It was a learning experience for him. The organization, launched in 2006, needed exposure to bring in donors and venture philanthropists, and Damon was happy to use his celebrity to bring more attention to the cause, although he came to understand that amassing a war chest is not the same as possessing the ability to drive revolutionary change.
“We quickly realized that raising funds was a lot easier than deploying them effectively,” Damon says, going on to explain all the ways Water.org pushes far beyond asking for donations. “In order to make a real and sustainable impact, I believe an organization needs strong technical expertise, transparency and an entrepreneurial approach that focuses on correcting market failures and actually solving the problem.”
Still, any charitable organization needs funds to operate, and Damon is uniquely able to solicit attention and gifts because of his fame, of course, but also because of his audacity and total lack of self-importance. Recently, for instance, he launched a mock press conference video where he claimed he wasn’t going to use a toilet until the global water and sanitation problem was solved, driving immense traffic to Water.org.
There, inspired visitors are encouraged to involve their friends to join in the campaign. Damon did just that by enlisting his brother Kyle, 45, into the fight for clean water. An artist and triathlete, Kyle started an offshoot of Water.org, “TEAM.Water.org,” which has become a nationwide community of about 1,300 endurance athletes committed to raising money for the cause.
When Kyle was participating in a South African cycling tour in 2009 and Damon was simultaneously filming the Clint Eastwood-helmed rugby movie Invictus in that country, he wrote about his younger sibling’s fearlessness as a child, suggesting that one of Matt’s strongest traits is jumping courageously into whatever endeavor he chooses.
“When he was 5, I watched him tie a towel-cape around his neck, climb to the top of a jungle gym and before I could stop him, launch himself off the top, believing that he could fly,” Kyle wrote. “Despite the cape, he’d broken his ankle.”
Perhaps he is not a real superhero, but to those close to him, who see his everyday efforts on behalf of people less fortunate, he is quite worthy of such status.
He isn’t an action star in real life, either, but he’ll dutifully play the role if it helps his cause: Parodying himself in a February episode of Showtime’s House of Lies, Damon visits the series’ titular public relations firm complaining that that no one cares about water, and he needs to find a new charity that will allow him to capitalize on his macho Bourne identity—he envisions himself saving the world in a heated battle armed with an AK-47. So the House of Lies public relations company commissions a TV ad starring the faux-Damon, bloodied in battle, carrying a child to safety with a blazing automatic weapon at his side.
Of course, Damon made sure water bottles were in every scene, and the subliminal message became clear as he dodged gunfire to save the children. Cheadle, the show’s star and a well-known activist himself, believes there’s almost no such thing as going too far in attempting to spread a message for progress. “People can turn a deaf ear,” Cheadle says, “so if you just put it out there in this ridiculous context, you can get the information in.”
The idea for Damon’s House of Lies self-spoof came one evening at his Pacific Palisades, Calif., home, a Zen-inspired house on the same street where Affleck lives with his wife, Jennifer Garner, and their three children.
“His wife and my wife were in the other room talking design and colors, because my wife is remodeling their house,” Cheadle says. “So he and I are in our cups in the kitchen, and we came up with this idea. He said, ‘I’ll be the worst kind of me,’ and I said, ‘Oh, you’ll play yourself?’ ”
Cheadle laughs, admitting he felt the need to later call Damon to make sure he remembered the conversation, “He did. And the rest is drunk history.”
With another actor, Cheadle says, the story line might not have gone so well. Damon did a less drastic send-up of himself in a well-received episode of Entourage a few years ago. “I think there are a lot of actors out there who couldn’t play that role because the audience would think, I bet they really are like that, ” Cheadle says. “It’s only funny with Matt because you don’t smell that on him.”
Experimenting with comedy to generate new levels of awareness and participation in his cause is something Damon says he’s been toying with for a few years, since he learned the power of a viral video.
In early 2008, comedian Sarah Silverman produced a video for her then-boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel in which Damon sings and dances to a tune about sharing carnal knowledge of Silverman. It quickly spread across the Internet.
“If Sarah Silverman and I can generate millions of views on YouTube for something ridiculous, then we should be able to do better for one of the most important and solvable issues of our time,” Damon says.
As a direct result of Damon’s “toilet strike” viral campaign, the Water.org website had the greatest number of visits since its launch in 2009, when Damon merged his H2O Africa Foundation with White’s two-decades-old WaterPartners.
On a sunny spring day at Hollywood’s tony hotel Chateau Marmont, we sat down with White to discuss the innovative approaches Water.org had incorporated. Sipping tea in the celebrity-strewn rooftop garden restaurant, White had just returned from a TED conference, where he spoke of how Water.org differs from most other charities by using the power of the market to access existing resources.
“Charity is a very blunt instrument,” White says. “Some people need a handout, but most need the right tools so they can pay for what they need.” Water.org has found that municipalities across the Third World are piping water for businesses and those who can afford it right under the street, but little of it gets to the homes of people living on $2 to $5 a day.
“The upfront cost to get the water to their home is prohibitive, so they spend their days trying to buy it from water trucks or other sources,” White says. So Water.org’s idea is to provide access to financing—a microloan for $100—so people can connect and pay the water bill. Low-income Indians and Africans already spend as much as 20 percent of their disposable income to access safe drinking water.
“You give them a loan at an affordable rate, and then they have time to get a job and repay the loan,” White says. “It’s based on the concept by Muhammad Yunus, that poor women can generate income if given a loan to buy a sewing machine to make clothes or a cow to make cheese.”
Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker, earned the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for creating “economic and social development from below,” through his microfinance model. Water.org brought the concept into the nonprofit realm. The funding approach is more like a small business than a charity venture. “Digging well after well won’t solve the problem long-term,” Damon says. “We’ll never be able to dig enough of them.”
The innovative approach brought down the amount of money the charity needed to do its work. Instead of spending millions to dig a well, Water.org and its grant partners, such as PepsiCo and Caterpillar, have leveraged their money into more.
“The sustainability of Water.org’s model is really what drew us,” Caterpillar Corporate Affairs Director Jim Baumgartner proclaimed after donating to the charity. “This program will provide clean water and sanitation facilities to thousands of families… but the cycle of progress will continue as the loans are repaid and these funds are provided to others in need.”
Taking an entrepreneurial look at funding helps build long-lasting solutions and circumvents short-term fixes. Original estimates projected the nonprofit to be on the hook for about $36 per person reached, but additional capital has recently brought Water.org costs down to $10 per person. “That $100-per-person micro-loan is now filled with commercial capital as opposed to philanthropic capital,” White says. “Donors who are into venture philanthropy see this as smart philanthropy.”
“The real beauty in this model,” Damon says, “is that people are viewed as customers versus beneficiaries and are given the financial power to choose the solution that’s right for them, be it a household water connection, rainwater harvesting tank or a toilet built within their home.
“At our core, we believe there will never be enough charity in the world to solve the global water and sanitation crisis. Therefore, new and unique models are needed, approaches which segment the market, leverage new forms and capital and mobilize people, most importantly the poor, to participate in solutions.”
The millions of people who will benefit from Water.org’s efforts represent an economic market waiting to be discovered, Damon says. Addressing the specific needs of those living at the base of the economic pyramid can make all the difference.
The film star fights a constant and, surely, frustrating battle to make others aware of the gravity of the problem.
“It just doesn’t make sense to people because there’s clean water in nearly every room of our homes,” Damon says, explaining the difficulty of his mission to turn up the volume of the problem. He knows he has great power to raise awareness because of his fame, but the truth is he would probably be trying to change the world in some way even if he was just a regular Bostonian. That’s what his mother did.
“I think what you do is modeled after what you have seen,” Cheadle says of the style of upbringing he and Damon shared. “If you observed generosity and understand the grace of that, you realize how fortunate you are to be in the position you are in. You may not always have the bandwidth [of Damon] to pull off what you want, but the goal is to take the steps toward that and do what you can.”
Every drop in the bucket helps, as Damon would profess, in the fight to solve the world’s problem of water and sanitation. For him, the goal is singular—clear as a mountain spring.
“We try to be pretty bold at Water.org,” Damon says. “Our goal is to put ourselves out of a job.”
Craving more Matt Damon? Read "7 Things You Didn't Know about Matt Damon" on SUCCESS.com.