NFL player Chris Long on advocacy and the role of influencers

Chris Long founded Waterboys in 2015 and has since helped raise funds to provide more than 200,000 people with drinking water. Photo by: Waterboys

WASHINGTON — Chris Long may be a celebrity himself, but he also knows a thing or two about trying to get other influencers to back a cause.

Long, a National Football League player who has won awards for his accomplishments on the field and for his philanthropy, has been working for the past several years to help raise attention to the issue of clean water and use his position to fund bringing safe drinking water to communities in Tanzania.

“We don’t chase influencers. People who are really interested and committed will come to you.”

— Chris Long, founder, Waterboys

In 2015, Long launched Waterboys, an initiative that aims to bring clean drinking water by building 32 sustainable deep borehole wells through a partnership with WorldServe International. When the initiative hit that target in February 2018, the goals changed, and now Waterboys is working to provide clean, accessible drinking water to 1 million people.  

“We've had a number of challenges and also a number of realizations over the past few years,” Long told Devex. “When we got into it I had a very specific idea of how we were going to do it. I was very confident that we would get a rep from each team, we were going to get the biggest names and it was going to be great.”

But that wasn’t the case — and he changed his strategy, deciding that chasing other influencers wasn’t effective. It’s a lesson he thinks others can learn from: “I don’t want to chase anybody because that means they're not interested, so we don’t chase influencers,” he said. “People who are really interested and committed will come to you.”

Bringing people to see the work the organization is doing and the conditions in some of the communities has been a powerful tool, though it hasn’t always been easy working around NFL schedules. Waterboys organizes an annual fundraising climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, which helps to create a deep commitment, he said.

Long is quick to add that influencers should recognize their limitations, and he describes himself as a “megaphone person,” whereas Waterboys partner WorldServe International is the working arm of the partnership.

He said he got involved in clean water because of “the efficiency, measurability, the ability to sell that to people who don’t understand the crisis.”

Long is looking to recruit champions from other sports; last year Milwaukee Bucks point guard Malcolm Brogdon joined the effort, which Long said was key to getting the message to new audiences.

For Waterboys, the choice of a partner was fairly straightforward. Long met John Bongiorno, the president of WorldServe International, by chance at a bar in Tanzania and it was him along with a few others already involved in the provision of clean water who convinced him to look into the issue.

Long is now partnering with the U.S. Agency for International Development and Coca Cola as part of the Water and Development Alliance to provide safe water access to 70,000 rural Tanzanians through community-managed, solar-powered water systems. The project will provide technical support to train local entrepreneurs to perform maintenance on the systems that are installed, with an emphasis on training women in those roles.

As for working with USAID, Long said it was “different,” but served as a great opportunity for Waterboys.

“With the help of partnerships like that, we can gain a lot of momentum, a lot of legitimacy, and I love the model, I love empowering women, I love the ownership component of it, the holistic component of it,” he said.

Moving forward, Long wants to engage more women in the fight for clean water and help draw attention to the link between women’s empowerment and clean water, expand into new countries including Kenya, and consider doing work domestically in the U.S.

Once Long retires from the NFL, he knows his visibility will diminish and the cause will need new champions. Long is already on the lookout.

“When we get the next big influencer, like some of these young players that I'm going to have to pass the torch to when I retire very soon, it’s going to be key to meet their needs and what they’re excited about,” he said.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.