Doing Well By Doing Good: An Interview with Scott Harrison, Founder & CEO of charity: water

Doing Well By Doing Good: An Interview with Scott Harrison, Founder & CEO of charity: water
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.


A new breed of social entrepreneur: that's the way I'll describe Scott Harrison. In a world where Philanthropy didn't change much in the last 20 years, he is trying his best to bring innovation to the sector. At Epic Foundation, we share a similar vision with charity: water - we want to disrupt the way people see/think/understand their giving... and it's not that hard in 2016 mostly because the timing works for us! The tools exist now, you can track and follow your donation, you can see the impact of your money!

Scott is a forerunner and an amazing story teller: he wants to give access to clean water to everyone and he is working really hard to make it happen. He was one of the first entrepreneurs I met with when I was doing my own market research before launching Epic. After our first meeting, we realized we were alike on so many points.

For his 11th birthday, my son decided to run a campaign on charity: water and managed to raise $1500. What an amazing learning tool for kids! I'm happy to interview Scott this week for charity: water's 10th anniversary. Congratulations Scott for your first decade running charity: water. Keep pushing the boundaries. We'll always be with you in the fight against poverty and inequality.

You founded charity: water in 2006 with a 100% model; two years later, the nonprofit almost ran out of money. How did you manage this setback, and what did you learn from it?

When I started the organization 10 years ago, I want to make a huge impact on the global water crisis and help bring clean drinking water to everyone on the planet. That would take a movement of will and generosity, and a huge amount of money. But as I began talking to my friends about this, I realized that so many people didn't trust charity. In fact, 42% of people in America don't trust charity. And the biggest problems people seemed to have were all around money. People would ask, "Where does my money really go?" "How much will really get to the people in need?" and I'd hear the expression "black hole" a lot... I thought the only way to solve this was through a business model that simply and emphatically removed this common objection. I wanted to be able to answer that question unequivocally by saying "100%". To do that, I opened up two bank accounts. One bank account where public donations would go and 100% would always only fund water projects. And a second bank account where we'd separately raise the money for overhead from a small group of unselfish donors.

About a year and a half into charity: water, we'd raised over $2M for clean water projects, and our 100% model was resonating deeply with people. We heard from some people that they'd actually made the first charitable gift in their life to charity: water. But the other bank account was suffering, and we couldn't raise the overhead dollars quick enough. In the summer of 2008, we were faced with a dilemma, as we had only a few weeks of burn left in the overhead account. Surprisingly, the advice I was getting from some, was to borrow from the money from the water project account ... They said "money was fungible" - "write an IOU and pay it back later." I remember being so upset by that idea. Our integrity was all we had, and we'd made a promise to our donors. If we ever touched a penny of that money for overhead, we might as well all resign in shame.

In that moment, as I was faced with the reality that we might have to wind down charity: water and concede a business model defeat, a complete stranger named Michael Birch walked into the office. We had a two-hour meeting, I told him about our vision to bring clean water to people in need while also reinventing charity and reaching disenchanted givers. He left the meeting, said he'd think about how he could help, and a couple days later, he and his wife Xochi wired $1M into our account for overhead - more than 13 months of burn.

We used that extra time to build a multi-year, multi-tiered giving program called The Well, and Michael and Xochi Birch were joined by people like Jack Dorsey, John Doerr, Daniel Ek, Sean Parker, Tony Hawk, Chris Sacca, Ed Norton, Kristen Bell, Depeche Mode, and many more. Today, 115 generous families from all around the world support charity: water's 100% model, and the Birches have continued to be our biggest supporters for the past 8 years.

What does "charity" mean to you?

To me, it means love. It means unconditionally loving others. It means caring for our brothers and sisters in need here at home, and in far-flung places around the world.

Tell me about your time in Liberia in 2004. How did the experience change you?

I had left a decade of decadence and selfishness in nightlife to volunteer in Liberia on a humanitarian organization. Before this experience, I got people wasted for a living, and was chasing all the wrong things. In 2004, at 28 years old, I realized I'd become the worst person I knew. I was spiritually bankrupt, morally bankrupt. I began to explore a very lost Christian faith, and wondered what the exact opposite of my life might look like - a life that was spent serving the interests of others. That led me to a humanitarian mission in Liberia on a hospital ship. While I was there, I saw people drinking dirty water for the first time - a sharp contrast to my former life selling $500 bottles of champagne and $10 bottles of sparkling water in nightclubs. I learned that more than half of the people in the country didn't have their basic need met, and that over 1 billion people worldwide were suffering because they didn't have this most basic need met. It changed me, and I came back determined to do something about what I'd seen. It seemed so simple - I needed to fight to make sure everyone on earth had access to clean water.

663 million people in the world live without access to clean water. How is charity: water addressing the water crisis?

Over the past 10 years, we've funded more than 12 types of water projects across 24 countries. Those projects will bring clean and safe drinking water to more than 6.4M people living in 20,000 villages. We've learned a lot about water quality, the implementation of solutions in harsh environments, sustainability and efficiency.

How does charity: water provide a new model for giving?

In addition to the 100% model that I referenced above, we've always taken a hyper-transparent approach to the stewardship of donations. From Day 1, we put completion photos and GPS coordinates of every water point we funded on Google Earth and Google Maps, so people could see where their money was going ... Later, we crowdsourced drilling rigs and gave them GPS trackers and Twitter accounts, so people could follow them in real-time. And perhaps most importantly, we always worked with local partners in these countries. We believe for work to be sustainable, it MUST be led by locals. Today, charity: water has also helped with job creation, and funds more than 1600 local salaries across our portfolio.

Last year, you introduced VR technology at the 10th Annual charity: water gala. What were the goals of the film? What was the audience reaction?

We've been fortunate to have more than 1 million generous donors support charity: water over the past decade. And while I've personally had the opportunity to travel around the world and see the impact those gifts have made (for example, I've been to Ethiopia 27 separate times now), we've only been able to take about 300 major donors to the field. 300 out of 1 million. Shooting our film, "The Source" in VR was an attempt to bring more people closer to the need on the ground, and the solutions. You know Alex, when people hear about 663 million people without clean water, they just kind of shut down emotionally. It's almost impossible for our brains to process numbers that big. But in those statistics are the lives of real people. People who are suffering without clean water. We shot the VR film to tell the story of just one of the young girls trapped in the water crisis - 13-year-old Selam... And through the 8 minute VR experience, you see her life change in a profound way.

We debuted it at the gala in a synchronous viewing for almost 400 attendees, and many people moved the headset 8 minutes later, visibly moved. We then gave everyone an opportunity to donate to help more villages get clean water, and more children like Selam, and people were so moved, we raised $2.4m through the night to help another 240 villages.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned so far as an entrepreneur?

Character is everything. So much more important than what you do, is how you do it.

Finally, do you think by doing good, you're more successful?

I think of success perhaps in different terms than most people. First, am I living a virtuous life? Am I a great husband and do I love my wife the way she deserves to be loved? Am I a great father to my son and daughter? Am I a great friend? And finally... am I bringing my very best to work every day, and running the organization with excellence? Those are the questions that I ask, and I think that if the answers are yes, then I'm successful.

Popular in the Community