Saving the World, One Glass of Water at a Time

For years, Scott Harrison worked as a club promoter in New York, empowering partygoers and living the so-called “good” life himself. Until he found a better one. A decade ago, he gave all that up and joined a humanitarian mission to West Africa. While there, he quickly noticed that the solution to so many problems was so simple -- provide access to clean drinking water.

That sparked the idea for charity: water, Harrison’s initiative to establish clean-water projects across the globe and bring a new level of transparency to the nonprofit space. Since its founding in 2006, charity: water has become a global brand, enlisting more than 500,000 donors to raise some $200 million, funding more than 19,000 water projects in 24 countries. And it’s done that with an innovative fundraising model, an embrace of social media, and a focus on branding and design as clean as the water it seeks to provide. (It’s also what drew us in -- Soma has provided approximately 6,000 people with access to clean drinking water since our founding.)

We recently sat down with Harrison to discuss the values it takes to build a global organization and why nonprofits don’t have to be boring.

How would you describe the charity: water mission?

We’re an organization that brings clean and safe drinking water to people in need around the world, with a vision of a world where no human being, no matter where they’re born or live, drinks unsafe, contaminated water.

When we started, the mission was going to be simple -- work toward this world where no one had dirty water. But the core of the organization was to reinvent charity. We saw a hugely disenchanted group of people who didn’t trust charitable establishments. As we started talking to people, we realized some of the biggest issues were around money. We were able to build a model of hypertransparency, where 100 percent of money raised goes directly to our water projects. We put the projects on Google Maps. We could show the exact locations of the projects and where the money was going. We were the first charity to get a million Twitter followers. One of the first charities to use instagram. We’ve built a community.

Image by charity:water

Image by charity:water

Where did the idea come from?

I had led a pretty decadent past as a New York nightclub promoter. I jumped on humanitarian mission to Liberia. This was at a time when the country had come out of civil war. I went with doctors and surgeons to help pick up the pieces. I saw people drinking dirty water. I learned that 50 percent of disease was coming from drinking dirty water. I saw kids drinking from swamps -- water that would make them sick, kill them. In contrast, I was a guy in New York who sold 10 dollar bottles of water at clubs. Living for more than a year there and getting exposed to this and seeing the solutions, I came back thinking that providing access to clean drinking water would be the biggest help.

If you don’t have clean water, what have you got? At the time, it was a billion people without access. Now it’s 663 million. So a lot of progress has been made.

What do you consider some of your biggest accomplishments?

One of the most exciting things has been seeing over a million people join the cause. Charity: water has never been about me or the team -- it’s about the community. It’s about them bringing the best of themselves, donating time, money. That’s kind of the amazing thing. When I started this, I was living on a buddy’s closet floor in Soho. I didn’t have a philanthropic background. I’ve been to Ethiopia 27 times. When I was there the first time, I saw 2,000 kids drinking from a nasty swamp at a school. Now, seeing that school with clean water and toilets, it’s amazing. It’s been really gratifying. Before my son was born, I was doing over 100 flights a year. Now I’m down to 60.

With all that time on the road and in the air, have you discovered any travel secrets?

One thing, just from a values standpoint -- we only fly coach at the organization. We’ve raised over $200 million and I’ve never bought a business-class ticket. We believe in the stewardship of our dollars.

I think I’m fortunate that I can sleep in coach on planes, even though I’m 6-foot-1. Long underwear, three pairs of socks, and travel pillows are key. Carry-on only. And I’ve got a great solar backpack.

Image by charity:water

Image by charity:water

Charity: water is literally a global organization. How do you build something like that -- and how do you maintain it?

From a business-model perspective, it’s important to know that we really focused on raising money and awareness for this issue that people weren’t talking about 10 years ago and implemented it through local partners. We weren’t sending westerners over to drill wells. We found local partners and helped them scale. Today, that looks like 1,600 people that charity: water employs through our local partners.

We have a program and finance team of about 18 people and their entire jobs are flying around with clipboards and making sure the work is being done well -- audit, program strategy, quality control, capacity building. And being very transparent. All our audits have always been publicly available on our website. We have a marketing team, an engineering team, a team that works on product, office and operations. We have about 78 people in New York.

I would say our biggest challenge is getting the word out, getting to scale. We have a very limited marketing budget, which is just our people. We’re not an organization that buys ads. We can implement about three times more projects than we currently have the funding for. We’ve built really robust systems.

You’ve made thoughtful design a priority in everything you do. Why is that important for a nonprofit?

The first person I hired was to help on the water projects. The second person was a VP of creative, who’s my wife. So I’m literally married to the brand. It’s been something I’ve cared about so deeply. When I describe charity: water, I first thing I explain is the 100 percent model, the second is proving it with photos and GPS tracking, and the third is brand and design.

When I looked at charitable brands, I didn’t see a Nike. There was no Virgin. There was no one inspiring creative. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof has said that people peddle toothpaste better than these lifesaving causes. We live in a world where a junk-food company can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing.

I didn’t think you needed a lot of money to build a great brand. You needed talented creatives. We have kind of an ism where we design everything. We design internal documents, we design presentations. We just care so much about how our stuff looks.

You’ve also run a nonprofit as almost a consumer brand, which is unique. Why?

The design certainly attracts a certain kind of person to take notice. But I think the values behind the organization -- what we stand for -- really invite people to almost reject apathy as they look at all these problems in the world and give them a safe and transparent place to make an impact, bring the best of themselves, share their time, talent, and money. And then restore their faith in the system: Your time, talent, and money really did make a tangible impact.

The brand wasn’t so much a strategy to get more supporters, it’s just who we were and what we believed. The stuff we cared about. We didn’t think just because we were a nonprofit, our website had to be ugly. We wanted to tell stories. Storytelling has been the most important thing to our organization.

Image by charity:water

Image by charity:water

You’ve drawn in many passionate and prominent supporters, like Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey. Why has charity: water resonated so much?

From Facebook to Spotify to Twitter, we’ve had a lot of support from the tech community and I think that’s because of the way we run the organization and the values that align with theirs. The quick adoption of social media and technologies. Trying to understand what’s working and what’s not. The value of a transparent charity has drawn people in.

There’s a lot of noise out there. But charity: water has had a lot of success in media. How do you get your story out effectively?

The innovation has been at the core of what the media has talked about these last nine years -- whether it’s the innovative business model or the way we use technology. We were one of the first to put our data sets on Google Maps. Social media. Interesting ways to thank our donors. For our fifth anniversary, we made 250 personalized YouTube videos for donors big and small. There’s a spirit of innovation, wanting to improve our work, as well as constantly wanting to churn out stories that are often moving.

How did you get to know Soma?

Mike [Del Ponte, Soma’s Chief Hydration Officer] and I met through mutual friends. I love everything about Mike’s heart, to really build a company that -- I hate the term “give back,” because it implies that companies have taken so much and should throw a few scraps -- but it’s a company that’s given back from Day 1. I remember he wanted to make an impact. He had a crazy goal of giving 1 million people clean water. I know a guy like Mike is more driven by that than becoming a millionaire.

I love that before Soma even launched, Mike got on a plane to a very remote part of Ethiopia to understand our work. I think he was really moved by the experience. A lot of people don’t take the time to do that.

For Mike, I know it’s been more than just the donation of product or the filters -- also spreading the word through his company and his culture. Soma donates a percentage from each filter to charity: water. Employees pledge their birthdays. Soma actually matches what they donate. And they donate when a new employee comes on board.

They have impacted more than 5,500 people with clean water in six countries so far. And they’ve done that through limited-edition product sales and the ongoing give built into the filters. They’ve literally integrated charity: water into the business model.

Image by charity:water

Image by charity:water

What have you learned on this adventure -- and what’s next for charity: water?

We really would love to see a world in our lifetime where no one drinks dirty water. What’s frustrating about this problem is that there’s no cure we’re waiting to discover in a test tube a decade from now. It’s a completely solvable problem. We know how to do it. The resources are there, the will is there. For us, it’s growing the movement. There’s no reason in 2016 that people should be drinking dirty water. We can eradicate this from the face of the earth.