charity: water’s Origin Story

This week charity: water celebrated its 10-year anniversary. In that time they have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, which has funded 21,118 water projects providing clean water to 6,400,000 people in 25 countries. Did you ever wonder how an organization that has such a big impact got started?

This is the surprising story of how social entrepreneur Scott Harrison went from a club promoter to running a global social enterprise.

Every social enterprise has a founding story. If you’re interested, click here to download Discover Through Curiosity, a chapter from my book Profit & Purpose that details the founding story of Warby Parker, Method, Embrace and Burt’s Bees as well as gives clear actions to apply to your own social enterprise.


Success Without Purpose

Scott Harrison grew up an average kid from a church-going family in an average New Jersey suburb. Like a modern day prodigal son, at 18 he grew his hair out and started partying. Then he moved to New York City to join a band They played a few gigs around the city, but it didn’t take him long to realize that the guy booking their band was making more money than the band members. So when, after a year, the band broke up, he asked the booking agent if he could work with him, and he started a new career as a club promoter.

The next 10 years went by in a blur; chasing better clubs, prettier girls, and the next best party.

Promoting came naturally to him, and he steadily climbed the ladder in the club scene. Eventually, he found himself at the top of the scene. On any given night there are eight night-club promoters running the biggest gigs in the city, and Scott and his partner were two of the eight. Scott was living some people’s dream, being paid $8,000 per month by alcohol brands just to drink their product in public, dating models, and dining out on expensive comped dinners. But he wasn’t fulfilled.

On an epic party trip to Puta Del Esta Uruguay, after the bottles and models and $1,000 fireworks, he got up in the morning and sat on the beach, hungover, reading a book called The Pursuit of God that his dad had sent him. Something awakened inside of him. He asked himself what kind of legacy he wanted to leave: would it be purposeful? He knew he didn’t want to be 60 years old, divorced, and spending his time chasing after 20-year-old models. He hadn’t prayed in years, but he decided to give it a shot and ask God for a way out of his unfulfilled life.

About six months later, he saw his chance to escape. He rented a car and took off on an uncharted trip, ending up in Maine. While on the trip, he made a deal with God and decided to devote a year of his life to doing volunteer service somewhere. From an Internet café, right then, he applied to all the big humanitarian organizations including World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, the Peace Corps, and Mercy Ships. But he was rejected from every single one of them, because what does a humanitarian organization need with a club promoter?

As his luck turned out, though, Mercy Ships, a hospital on a ship that sails from port to port to conduct medical operations for those in need, had a ship that was about to set sail from Germany that needed a photographer and, when they went back through their rejected applicants, they decided to give Scott a call. Even though he had no guarantee that they would take him, Scott booked the next flight to Germany to meet with them, and he convinced them that his heart was in the right place and got the position. Obviously one of his real talents is persuasion.

The ship was sailing to West Africa, where the team would spend the next eight months. The night before the ship was to disembark, Scott got completely wasted. He had picked up so many vices over the last decade—smoking two and half packs of Marlboro Reds a day, drinking heavily, drugs, gambling, pornography, strip clubs, you name it. He decided this was the last hurrah for all of that; he needed to go all in on this new stage in life and give all of that up.

Three days later, the ship docked in Benin, greeted by a stadium-sized crowd waiting for surgery. Many of the patients were stricken with grotesque tumors on their faces, which made a profound impression on Scott. The ship was staffed with amazing doctors, but they couldn’t see all of the people needing surgery. Those in the most dire situations were operated on, but many were turned away.

The next stop in Liberia was more of the same. The country was in a shambles after a prolonged civil war, and there was one doctor for every 50,000 people, with no electricity or running water in many places.

Every port of call was in similarly dire circumstances. Scott took 50,000 snapshots of the suffering, and he started blogging about the experience, sending out mass emails to the huge list of New Yorkers he had put together from promoting.

When he returned to New York, Scott was full of a new passion to help those in the developing world. But was completely broke and had to crash on friend’s couches, living off the $100 here and there that friends would give him. He even sold his cherished DVD collection and camera gear. Before long, he decided to dive back into the club life, but this time to spread awareness of the devastation he had witnessed.

Scott convinced a high-end Chelsea gallery to host a nine-day exhibit to feature his photographs from the trip, with the highlight being powerful before-and-after images of the patients operated on. He also came up with a fundraising idea to support Mercy Ships. One of the Mercy Ships initiatives was to dig wells to provide clean water to villages, and Scott decided he would try to sell $20 bottles of water at the exhibition to contribute to the water project. He had no idea if anybody would buy them, but it turned out they would. In the nine days, the exhibition raised a total of $96,000, mostly from the sale of Scott’s photographs, but $15,000 was from the sale of the water.



The Problem Comes Into Focus

After that success, he flew back for another mission with Mercy Ships. This time around, he made friends with the guy who was managing the water project. Scott visited villages in Liberia and was shocked to see people drinking filthy water from swamps. His eyes were opened to a horrible reality that over a billion people on the planet have no access to clean water.

Scott realized that this one guy digging wells was making a huge impact at a relatively low cost. Each well cost a few thousand dollars and would provide clean water for hundreds of people. The simplicity of the solution hit him hard. Was the problem this solvable?

As Scott continued with his blogging, photography, and videography, he started not only telling the story of the patients on the boat, but also the water story out in the villages, blasting his posts out to his large email list. Let’s just say he got a mixed response. Some didn’t want to hear about it and would send responses along the lines of “Take me off this list, I signed up for the Prada party, not the freaking tumor.” But he also received responses like,

“I’m sitting here at my desk at Chanel and I’m weeping reading this story and seeing the photos.”

Some people told him they were moved to take action themselves and start volunteering or giving money.

After Scott’s second tour with Mercy Ships, he decided to commit himself to fighting the crushing life conditions of the developing world. At first he thought the organization he wanted to found would take on multiple issues, and that he’d just start with water, which is why the organization is called Charity: water. The idea was that over time he would add other issues after the colon. But as all social entrepreneurs soon discover, tackling just one problem is more than enough challenge, and you can’t try to tackle a problem in its entirety; you’ve got to tightly focus.


Fixing a Broken System

When Scott Harrison developed his concept for charity: water he thought he could solve the water problem in five years, then he’d move on to the next issue, perhaps charity: Education or charity: Health. His ambition was huge; he didn’t just set out to solve specific problems, he thought the whole charity system was broken and he wanted to fix it.

He had identified three major problems. First, the non-profit world was generally horrible at storytelling. Second, the branding was mediocre at best. Third, there was little transparency about operations and results.

Many people saw charity as simply a black hole—you threw money into it and nothing came out of it.

His generation was particularly disaffected. They had grown up watching the famines in Ethiopia on TV and listening to songs like “We Are The World.” Millions were raised. But nobody knew where the money was going. Then a number of stories broke about the misuse of funds by a few poorly run charities. Scott believed that for Charity: water to be successful, he had to change how reporting was done about use of funds.

He decided that all of the money he raised for water projects, 100 percent of it, would go directly to the projects. None would go to the overhead for running the organization, and charity: water would be completely open with its finances. He wanted people to see where their money was going, so charity: water would photograph all of the projects and install GPS monitors on them, so that they would be easy to find on Google Earth. To keep the funds for the water projects completely separate from funds he would have to raise specifically for overhead, he would set up two bank accounts.

Then there was the organization’s look and messaging. He had learned the power of strong branding from club promotion. If you spent just a little more money and hired a graphic designer, you could have more beautiful invitations that would bring the right crowd to an event. He would apply that lesson to charity: water. At that time, most charity web sites looked like sites for insurance companies, and Scott knew there was no reason Charity: water’s branding shouldn’t be as stunning as that for a high-end fashion brand. He worked with his friends in graphic design to build an iconic brand.

His final secret weapon would be powerful photography to tell the organization’s story. He’d been able to tell a compelling story for Mercy Ships through his photography. Even his friends that he knew were easily bored had been powerfully moved. He compiled a set of photos and loaded them onto his laptop.

So he had a basic game plan. His ambition was bold, but he was still living on people’s couches when he came up with these ideas. He knew that if he was going to gain support, he was going to have to really hustle.



The Hustle

He started running all over the city giving seven to twelve presentations per day, sitting down with people, pulling out his laptop, and flipping through pictures to tell the story of the issue and of his vision for the organization. Fortunately, Scott is a gifted storyteller, but even so, it took a good deal of cajoling to get any momentum going. A first success was that one brave soul, a friend of his from his Mercy Ships-days named Laney, who decided she wanted to help out. She believed in the vision so much that she flew to New York and started working with Scott for no pay, also crashing on friends’ couches.

The web site was up and running and Scott decided to throw a big launch party to raise money, again drawing on his club promotion expertise and using his connections to get a club to give him the space for free. He scheduled the party for the day of his thirtieth birthday, September 7, 2006. The party netted $15,000, and the organization was able to dig its first well.

The next month, he and Laney staged an ambitious outdoor exhibition in Central Park. The exhibition featured photos of dirty water sources in Africa and invited the crowd to experience what it was like to lack access to clean water.

Scott recalls, “I got a friend to build these crazy tanks, and we hustled the printers to give us a great deal on printing the photo- graphs. I found out who I needed to make friends with in the parks department. Penske donated a truck, and we convinced hundreds of volunteers to help out.”

In just its first two months, charity: water had created a splash among a set of key influencers in New York A few more young and passionate people came on board then. Vik, a talented graphic designer took a pay cut and gave up her health insurance to join, and Becky Straw, fresh out of graduate school at Columbia, came on to direct the water programs. An ever- growing army of volunteers supplemented the team, and they began to run operations out of Scott’s Soho loft apartment.

They would work from early morning until 11:00 at night, sleep for a few hours, and do it again. Scott continued running all over the city for meetings. The volunteers cold called organizations to request donations of whatever they needed—printing, transportation, supplies for promotions. An organization couldn’t be more scrappy.

People found the work exhilarating and Scott worked relentlessly. One day when a group of volunteers was painting the walls of the apartment and had covered the floor with a drop cloth, Scott couldn’t stop his work just to get the office painted. So he just lifted up the cloth and sat under it working on his laptop while the painting continued.

He was not ashamed to go back to people again and again to try to get them onboard. At one point, he was trying to get the magazine Marie Claire to write a piece, but they kept putting him off, so he just showed up at the lobby, called the editor and said

“I’m downstairs in your lobby. Let’s talk.”

So, they finally gave him an interview and ran a piece on his fledgling organization. He would recruit anybody to help, people he encountered on an elevator, the servers at restaurants, anyone he could get to listen to him.

His first meetings came about just through random recommendations. A New York socialite who followed Scott’s emails hooked him up to meet with a friend at Swarovski. That friend connected him to the VP of Saks Fifth Avenue, which ultimately led to Sachs supporting a global campaign. It was an inefficient and nonlinear approach, but it’s what was necessary to get the money to slowly trickle in.

A key fundraising technique was selling the $20 bottles of water displaying the Charity: water logo. The bottles looked elegant. The branding wasn’t depressing. The message was direct and empowering: buying this bottle will help one person get access to ongoing clean water. The bottles sold well, and because the group had no office yet, volunteers were recruited to do the labeling. True to the mission, 100 percent of the cash went straight into digging wells.

A year later, after learning more about the environmental hazards of bottled water, the team realized they didn’t really need to sell the bottles. The concept of an average donor giving a tiny amount of money to provide clean drinking water for one person on the other side of the globe was powerful enough on its own, and they moved into digital promotions, starting with email campaigns and sending e-cards. Every holiday was an excuse to launch a campaign: Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. They found ways to craft a message for each occasion, and these campaigns were effective. The donor base grew and the flow of money increased from a trickle to a small stream, with all of the money still going to digging wells.


The Problem with the 100% Model

Scott was committed to putting 100 percent of the funds raised from the public toward water projects. But, obviously, they needed to pay for the operations of the organization, so they raised money separately for operations. They had also convinced a handful of donors to give money to the second account, toward operations to pay salaries and keep, and maybe get an office. Scott recalls, “To fund operations, we were just scraping $10,000 here, $15,000 here, from board members and friends.” But that wasn’t enough. About a year and a half after the launch, they hit a huge snag: they were almost broke. Though they were raising a good deal of money to fund the water projects, they couldn’t convince enough people to give to their operations.

The problem with the 100-percent-to-projects model, especially at the beginning when an organization hasn’t proven success yet, is that nobody wants to fund operations.

According to Scott,

“It’s almost impossible. This is why I don’t preach the 100 percent model.”

When an organization commits to the 100 percent model, it’s really committing to fundraise with two very distinct groups of donors. The group that gives to programs is that of the mass-market donors who will make generally small contributions. The second group, which gives to operations, is comprised of large donors cutting checks in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Scott hadn’t focused enough on this second group. As he recalls, “I hadn’t been able to get people to care about paying for staff and operations I was probably too focused on water projects.”

The result was that 18 months after launching, they had only five weeks of money left in the operational fund. Unless some miracle happened, it appeared they weren’t going to be able to continue with the 100 percent model.

Many trusted advisors suggested Scott borrow money from the water account to use for operations. Their argument was that as the organization’s reputation grew, Scott could bring in many more operational donors and the money could be paid back to the account for the wells. But Scott felt that if he dipped into the water fund even once and in a temporary way, that would be the start of heading down a slippery slope, and they would become like every other charity. More importantly, he had made a promise to his donors. His integrity was at stake.

He decided he would rather fail with a model he was committed to than succeed by compromising on it. He would keep hustling as hard as he could to raise operational funding, but he was prepared to fail. He recalls, “I was going to shut down and grant out the remaining money for wells. I thought we’d just have to do a reboot, and start over without the 100 percent model.”

Then, something happened that many founders will tell you saved them from the brink. Call it a lucky break or an answered prayer, but it saved charity: water from failing. These breaks seem to be a matter of sheer luck, but in fact they’re the result of all of the passion and relentless push that lead up to them.

Charity: water only had a few weeks of cash in the bank before they were going to run out of money and have to shut its doors. One day, very shortly before the operational funds would run out, Scott made a pitch to entrepreneur Michael Birch, who had just sold his company, Bebo, to AOL for $850 million. They sat down for two hours and Scott gave it all he had, but he didn’t think the meeting went particularly well. Birch hadn’t seem to be very that interested. At midnight that day, Scott was sitting in his bed checking his emails, stressing about how he was save the organization, when he received an email from Michael saying he just wired $1 million dollars into the operations account. Charity: water would survive. The $1 million donation gave the team 13 months of runway to hone their model, find more larger-scale funders and continue to grant 100% of grassroots donations to the field.


Learn More

Every social enterprise has a founding story. Click here to download Discover Through Curiosity, a chapter from my book Profit & Purpose that details the founding story of Warby Parker, Method, Embrace and Burt’s Bees as well as gives clear actions to apply to your own social enterprise.

Additionally, if you’re interested in seeing Scott Harrison tell his own story check out this video.



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