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The following is a conversation between Scott Harrison, Founder and CEO of charity: water, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: We often hear of people who enter a new field from outside of it, coming from a completely different discipline. They can either have a hard time adjusting, or on the other hand, they can bring a fresh set of perspectives to it. And this new way of thinking can help revolutionize a sector for the better, and do so in an exponential way. It would be the latter that best describes my next guest, former nightclub promoter, Scott Harrison, who went on to become the Founder and CEO of charity: water. Good evening, Scott, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Scott: Thanks so much for having me!
Denver: So much to talk to you about. I really looked forward to this. But let’s begin by having you tell our listeners about charity: water and the mission and purpose of the organization.
Scott: Kind of like it sounds. We are on a mission to help bring clean and safe drinking water to people in need around the world.
Denver: And to really fully appreciate charity: water in the way you operate and the way you go about your business, it would help to understand the road that you took to get here from a pretty self-absorbed, if I might say, nightclub promoter, to a social entrepreneur leading this exceptional organization… And if there was a pivotal moment in that transformation, it may have occurred over one weekend in Uruguay. Tell us what led up to that moment and where that moment subsequently led you.
Scott: Sure! The decadent lifestyle that I lived for 10 years was actually almost a betrayal of the way that I was raised. So I had been brought up in a very conservative Christian home. My mom had been very sick when I was 4—there was a carbon monoxide gas leak in our home that almost killed all of us—It deeply affected her, and she just became an invalid from this point on. I grew up in a caregiver role. I just did everything right. I mean, I cooked, I cleaned, I vacuumed, I played piano on Sunday in church. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t have sex. I was the good kid until 18, and then this active, utter rebellion came over me, and I moved to New York City. I grew my hair down to my shoulders and had this moment where I said, “Look, now it’s my turn. I played by the rules. I took care of mom. Now, it’s my turn to have some fun.”
The way to have fun and also make money that I stumbled into was a nightclub promoter. I learned that you can actually get paid to drink, and your friends would drink for free, and you would only have to work a couple of nights a week. Working was actually partying. So, from the age of 18 or 19, I started at a nightclub called Nell’s here on 14th street– probably worked at 40 or 50 nightclubs over the next 10 years– promoting these parties. And as you mentioned, 10 years later, I found myself in Uruguay with a 2-pack-a-day cigarette habit, a gambling problem, a pornography problem, a strip club frequency problem, cocaine – pretty much anything short of heroin. I was just this mess, but my life looked amazing on the outside. So I was jumping into limousines; I was flying to Paris for Fashion Week. My girlfriend at that time was on the cover of Elle Magazine. I drove a BMW; I had a Rolex; I had a grand piano in my apartment – all these things that I had coveted that I thought would make me happy.
So I begin to apply to a bunch of humanitarian organizations to be a volunteer for them. The World Visions and UNICEFs and Save the Childrens – all these respected organizations. Peace Corps! No one would take me.
Denver: The full package.
Scott: I realized I had somehow become the worst person that I knew – the most selfish, sycophant human being. I was emotionally bankrupt; I was spiritually bankrupt, and if I continued down this path, I would probably die by 40. And if I did manage to live out my life, my legacy was simply going to be a man that got people wasted for a living.
So, I had a pretty radical cathartic moment. I began to rediscover faith in a new way as an adult. I’d been completely disinterested for 10 years. I came back to New York City, kind of struggled with a new value system. I returned to my old value system in morality and spirituality, and I wound up selling everything that I owned that summer. I remembered putting up about 2,000 DVDs on eBay. This was when DVDs were worth something. I sold everything, and I wanted to explore the opposite of my life. I wanted to see what the 180-degree turn might look like. So I begin to apply to a bunch of humanitarian organizations to be a volunteer for them. The World Visions and UNICEFs and Save the Childrens – all these respected organizations. Peace Corps! No one would take me.
Denver: Looked at that resume and said, “Uh-uh”.
Scott: They didn’t want to touch me with a 10-foot pole or let me anywhere near the humanitarian workers. I might throw parties. I might get people drunk. So I had stepped out really in faith, and there was no one that would allow me to serve. So I was very fortunate; finally an organization called Mercy Ships said if I was going to pay them $500 a month and go live in Liberia, right after this 14-year civil war had ended, then I could volunteer. And I dusted off an NYU Journalism degree that I’d never used and said, “Hey, I can come and be your volunteer photojournalist. And by the way, I have 15,000 people on my list that I have gotten drunk over 10 years. So, I can tell them a new story, and maybe they’ll give some money. Maybe they would even want to volunteer as well.”
That led to an extreme transformation. I quit everything the night before I boarded the gangway of this 500-foot hospital ship that was going to sail into Liberia with the best doctors and surgeons in the world, who were giving up their vacation time to operate for free on the poor. And I just saw poverty for the first time. I saw leprosy. I saw people with cleft lips and cleft palates. I saw 8-pound facial tumors. I’d never seen anything like this before. The country had no running water, had no sewage, had no mail system. There was one doctor for every 50,000 citizens.
Denver: No electricity, nothing.
Scott: Nothing. So among other things in the two years that I wound up volunteering, I came across the water crisis. And I saw children drinking dirty water from swamps. I saw mothers losing their children to diarrhea because more than half the country didn’t have clean water to drink. And I think the irony, or the contrast, was I was selling $10 bottles of water to people in nightclubs that wouldn’t even open the water. They would just order a bunch and put them on their table because that’s what you do. And at the time, there were a billion people worldwide without access to clean water. I came back to New York City at 30-years-old and wanted to take that up as a mission. I wanted to try to use the rest of my life to bring clean drinking water to everybody on earth and be a part of the solution.
Denver: And what you did is: you threw a birthday party for yourself, correct?
Scott: Well, I did. In some ways, we had some challenges in the beginning just setting up the charity. As you could tell by the name, I wasn’t very creative – charity: water. Which stuck. I came up with a bunch of ideas of just how to do things differently, and one was to throw a birthday party and use my birthday… which I had use previously… to make money – give my friends an open bar, charge them a lot of money at the door, throw a big party. Really took that same model. Got 700 people to come to a nightclub, give $20 on their way in. But this time, instead of pocketing the $14,000 or $15,000, took 100% to do a few water projects in Uganda. And then we sent the photos and the GPS back to those people so they could actually see where the money went.
Denver: And that was the start. You were 31 years of age, if I recall.
Scott: In September.
Denver: Tell us, Scott, … What is it like to not have clean water available in the community? I mean, what’s the impact? What do people go through? Mostly women and girls, what do they have to do to get any kind of water for themselves and their family?
Scott: As you said, it’s a women’s issue. So culturally, we worked across 24 different countries. It is never the job of the men to get the water. It is the women and the girls, and it’s shocking and it’s outrageous, but it is the job of the women and the girls to get the water. The water quality in some of these countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, in rural India, in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, these places where we work — it is water you wouldn’t let your dog drink. It’s water you wouldn’t step in. You wouldn’t walk barefoot into the water. It’s often brown. It’s viscous. Often the water is far away. I lived in a village in Ethiopia where women were walking 8 hours a day with 40 pounds…once they had collected the water… of water on their back… to just a little murky seepage of water coming out of the rock. In fact, one of the girls in this village had walked eight hours one day; at the end of her walk, she had slipped and fallen and she spilled the water that she spent all eight hours fetching, and she winds up hanging herself… just committed suicide in the village. Said, “I can’t go back for water.”
So it’s in such extremity. It’s so hard for us to imagine. We hear a statistic like a billion people without water. Now it’s about 700 million people… and we just numb out. But it’s 13-year old girls named Letikiros Hailu who have hopes and dreams. She wanted to be a nurse, but she was stuck in this 7-day a week cycle to go get the water for her family that then made them sick.
Denver: And I know you went to that village subsequently and really tracked her footsteps. Number one, to just check out that story.
Scott: Yes. It really sounded too harsh to be true. Is a 13-year old girl really going to hang herself because she spilled her water? And what I found there was just… it really moved me. It angered me. It moved me. I met her mom. I met her friend that walked with her that day. I saw her grave. I met the priest who gave her funeral. I saw this frail little tree where they had taken a 13-year old girl’s body down with this little rope around her neck. It was a great reminder to me that in those statistics, they are just everyday people. And the terrible irony is that in so many of these villages, there’s clean ground water 200 feet beneath the village. Literally, the water that could save the lives of the women and children are right beneath their feet. What they don’t have access to is a million dollars of drilling equipment. They don’t have access to $10,000 or $12,000 to drill and construct a well, or a rainwater harvesting system or gravity-fed system. So that’s what we’ve been in the business of for 10 years.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about that process, Scott, if you would. I know that the organization is solutions-agnostic, and as you said, whether it be filtration or rain harvesting, it doesn’t make any difference. Whatever’s going to work. But let’s take digging of that well, as an example. What’s a typical process you go through in terms of selecting the village, engaging local partners, and the digging, and so on?
Scott: In the early days, when the organization was tiny, it was pretty haphazard. “Hey, we have money for 10 water projects.” We’d find a local partner and say: “You pick the best 10 spots!” Now we’re doing over 3,000 a year so there would be multi-year strategic plans using GIS data, using satellite coordination with other NGOs in the area. So there would be a plan in almost everywhere where we work for 100% coverage in a district. Sometimes it’s a 7-year plan or a 5-year plan or a 3-year plan. We’re actually a couple of months away from achieving success in a program we’ve been working at in Rwanda for seven years. So I’ll give you just one example in Malawi, a place I’ve visited a few times. There was a community that was actually cut off from the roads by this huge ditch in this huge gully. So we were giving communities on the other side of this big gully access to clean water. A community that’s cut off hears about this and says to our local partner, “Look, we realize you can’t get those drilling rigs into us, but give us a few months, and we’ll build a road.” And they spend three months, and every single household sent one person to fill in this huge gully by hand! This is moving rocks by hand. You know, small shovels… And they built a road, and the drilling rig got in. Local Malawians jumped out, and in about three days drilled a well, and clean water is flowing. I mean it’s one of the most extraordinary things.
I’ve now been at this for 10 years and had the fortune to be in some of these same communities before and after. I hear from women complaining about leeches in their water, complaining about the disease, complaining about the long walks, shaking their fist at the sky saying “We’ve been waiting for help. Will you help us?” And then I’ve been able to go back six months later with women that are smiling, that have given names to the well …calling it “Blessed” or calling it “Beautiful” and talked about they’re able to wash their faces, wash their clothes, prepare food that’s healthy… seeing the benefits of water.
And that’s the great thing about working on this issue because water is so much more than water. Water impacts education. It impacts health. A World Health stat that we came across a few years ago was: 52% of all diseases of all the sick people throughout the developing world — what some people might call the third world — is caused by bad water and lack of sanitation. So half of the sick people don’t need to be sick. It’s not HIV, AIDS. It’s water.
So, it’s an amazing thing to do. It impacts the local economy as well because you’re providing millions and millions, sometimes billions in aggregate, of time back. And people can turn that time– that they used walking for water– into productive work. Selling rice at the market, selling rugs… I was just in Zambia and Zimbabwe with women that were making rugs and selling them for $4 because they didn’t have to walk for water. It’s a powerful issue to work on.
Denver: Sure is. The impact can be greater than all the violence in the world, including war. You know, clean water does speak for itself. But is there any way that you’ve been able to measure the impact of the work you do– whether that be return on investment or a reduction in disease– for people who are now drinking clean water?
Scott: Sure. For years, we’ve really been using the sector data that’s available and not really spending our donor’s money on research. So the big paper that came out of the UN was by two people named Hutton and Hayler, an 88-page paper. They found that every dollar you invest in water and sanitation, or water and toilets, you get four to eight times back in that local economy. So imagine putting in a million dollars and getting $4 million to $8 million output in the economy, not to mention humans drinking clean water, like a human basic need met which everybody can agree on.
Recently, actually, we have been doing baseline studies before we go in. There was a clinic that our team just came back from in Nepal called The Ambote Clinic. And we saw, over less than a five-year period, an 80% reduction in disease at the clinic where the water point was put in. And it was actually thousands of cases. So imagine thousands and thousands of visits, and that’s just one village. We’ve been working in 23,000 villages now. So, it’s money people don’t need to spend on medicine, money people don’t need to spend just getting a taxi to go to the clinic. That could be a month’s wages for some people. So I remembered that surprised me so much when I first learned that, that the medicine actually wasn’t the cost when your kid get sick. It’s actually getting your kid to the faraway clinic. It could be a hundred times the cost of the medicine, and so many parents don’t have that money. They don’t go, and they watch their child die in their arms of diarrhea. This is unthinkable for us. We go to Duane Reade; we get the blue juice, and we hydrate our kids… the Pedialite or whatever it is, or we just give them clean water and they’re cured.
So we’ve seen a lot over the years. I think it’s amazing to me that this is an issue every single person can agree on, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, whether you’re an atheist or a Jew or a Muslim or a Mormon. It is one of the very few things everybody can agree on, and yet a tenth of our planet is still drinking dirty water. And we know the solutions! This isn’t like we’re looking for a cure in some lab in a test tube. We know how to bring clean water to every person on earth. We have not allocated the resources; we haven’t allocated the will, but we know how to solve the problem.
Denver: Well, that’s clearly what drives you. Let me turn to the business operations of charity: water. There are four things, Scott, that you do that really make your business model, I think, very distinctive from most other nonprofit organizations. I’d like you to say a word about each if you would. The first is the way you treat contributions and your 100% model. What is that? And what was your thinking behind it?
Scott: Well, I know some people don’t like that, but it’s been very, very useful for us. When I started, you just have to picture a 30-year-old guy who has come back from Africa– a little shaggy, crashing in SoHo, New York City on the closet floor of my old club promoter-business partner. And I have no money at the time. I’ve given all the money I had to Mercy Ships and people I met along the way.
Denver: Sold everything.
Scott: Sold everything, but I’m really passionate about trying to perhaps redeem the decade of decadence and tell stories for good and raise money to help people get clean water. So as I’m talking to the people that I knew at that point, I realized they were not giving to charities. They would never give to Oxfam, UNICEF, the Red Cross…
I saw a USA Today poll in one of the papers that said 41% of Americans distrust charities. An NYU study found that over 70% of Americans think charities either (a) waste money, or (b) really waste money, badly waste money.
Denver: The traditional ones, the big ones.
Scott: The big, traditional, the United Ways… they would have claims of opacity. “They’re just big black holes. I don’t know where my money goes. I don’t know how much of my money will actually reach these people. I don’t know what it does, if even it does reach…” And there was kind of the old business model of the late nights TV ads, the sad kids with flies landing on their faces in slow motion, the 800 number. Or you just buy a bunch of physical mailing addresses and send out paper and hope people will put a check in a self-addressed stamped envelope. Nobody I was talking to was in that demographic. That would’ve worked on none of them.
And I realized that there was this huge group of people who could be giving, who should be giving, who should find the joy of giving but couldn’t find a system. I saw a USA Today poll in one of the papers that said 41% of Americans distrust charities. An NYU study found that over 70% of Americans think charities either (a) waste money, or (b) really waste money, badly waste money.
Denver: Are not good at it.
Scott: Are not good at it. So, I was going to try and solve that by taking the how-much-money question completely off the table, just negating it, muting it. And I had come across Paul Tudor Jones who had started the Robin Hood Foundation here in New York. He was a very, very wealthy billionaire hedge fund guy and said, “Look, I can pay for the overhead of my charity with my friends as long as I live.” He had gone to the public with 100% model saying “Every donation here goes straight to the programs.”
So I wrote him a letter—he didn’t write me back—but I wondered if I could copy that business model with $200 and two distinct bank accounts. I went down to the Commerce Bank here on, at the time, on Broadway & Bond, opened up two accounts and made this public promise that 100% of every dollar that we would ever raise from the public would go straight to fund water projects, which we would then prove, and somehow, I would raise the overhead money separately from wealthy donors– maybe from board members… Didn’t know what that looked like at the time. We would go so far with the integrity to go 100%; we would pay back credit card fees. So if someone gave $100, and I got $97, we would make up the difference.
Denver: That’s fanatical, all right.
Scott: And we’ve never wavered from that model in 10 years.
Denver: Is it hard raising overhead money?
Scott: Really hard, yes! It’s really hard. We almost blew up…
Denver: At 18 months, you were on the respirator, weren’t you?
Scott: We were on the respirator. We were almost a victim of our own success. The 100% model had resonated so deeply with people that we had raised a couple of million dollars in our first year and a half, just straight out of the gate. I remember having $880,000 in the account that was on its way out for the water projects, but I was about to miss payroll and we had nine employees at the time. And the advice I was getting at the time was “Hey, go borrow from that $880,000.”
Denver: Oh, that’s not going to happen. No, no, no.
Scott: But, you know, you can see how people would make that case – “Money is fungible. Write an I-owe-you. You’ve got to pay your people.” I was going to blow the whole thing up and shut it down. I was going to send out the $880,000, build as many water projects as possible, and cry business model failure. I remember I’d been praying a lot at the time with very little faith, and I was really winding the thing down in my mind. A complete stranger walked in the office, had heard about what we were doing, and after a two-hour meeting, wired $1 million into the overhead account. And we went from—
Denver: Michael Birch, a Brit. Unbelievable!
Scott: Michael Birch, a Brit – a Brit in the internet business.
Denver: And he’s become a great, great supporter of yours.
Scott: So that kind of kept us alive. And then with that extra oxygen, with a year of capital funding, we then started to build a much more sophisticated giving program that was multi-year and multi-tier called “The Well.” So today, there are 117 families that support all the overhead of charity: water at levels from $60,000 a year, up to $ 1 million a year. They’re from all over the world. They’re from Europe. They’re from Britain. They’re from Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. And it’s an amazing group that includes senior executives at Apple, the founders of Facebook, the founders of Twitter, the founders of Spotify, the founders of WordPress. It’s an amazing group of business leaders from American Express or Saks Fifth Avenue. Depeche Mode helps support us. Football quarterbacks, actors and actresses…
So I’m not after the big charities’ donors. I’m after these disenchanted donors. I’m after the people that aren’t giving, and I want to bring them back to the table.
Denver: Well, you got a lot of guys from Silicon Valley and gals from Silicon Valley, and I think it’s because you operate like a startup. They kind of look at this as venture capital in a way, and it has been very reassuring for them and very comfortable for them doing something like this. It’s been interesting.
Scott: Sure. And those 117 families have made it possible now for well over a million people to give in a pure way.
Denver: That’s great.
Scott: So I’m not after the big charities’ donors. I’m after these disenchanted donors. I’m after the people that aren’t giving, and I want to bring them back to the table. The second thing is really proving it. Once we have the money, we don’t step on it. It’s not fungible. We can actually use technology to track it to its destination. So at the very beginning, we made a deal with the public and said we will put up every water point we ever fund, whether it’s a well or a rainwater system or a biosand filter on Google Earth or Google Map so people can see where the projects are. People thought we were crazy. I mean, seriously, why would you tell your donors where the 20,000 projects are? And we just believed that transparency wins! Transparency…you’re not going to be able to hide. And we just made an early bet on that 10 years ago.
We have now kind of doubled down there. We’re actually installing remote sensors on our water projects. We have over 3,000 sensors installed in Rural Ethiopia. That data is public as well. So we now know how much water is flowing daily across thousands and thousands of sites. It’s the largest data set of rural water supply in the history of the world. We have drilling rigs that you can track in real time. They have GPS units mounted to them. They even have Twitter accounts. So we really have just tried to find—the real theme there is connection. How do we connect a 10-year-old kid who’s going to go do five lemonade stands for charity: water with the $62 of lemonade sales? And how do we inspire her and show her that the $62 actually can make a difference?
Denver: Where and when?
Scott: It didn’t just disappear into a vacuum.
Denver: And one of the great byproducts of that, aside from telling your donors where their money is going, you can monitor how these wells are working. That’s one of the big problems you have in the developing world. So many of them break. Well, if yours should happen to break, you’re right there with this technology… getting the team out there and taking care of the problem.
Scott: That’s right. And you’ve heard this. We’ve heard that—I’ve heard people say, “Half the wells in Africa are broken.” Well, we know now definitively that 91% of our projects today are functioning in Ethiopia. Now, we have 9% that have issues. Some are in need of major repair. Some are just being repaired in an ongoing state. But the knowledge is power. Now, we know what to do about it, and we’ve been acting on that 9%.
Denver: The third thing that you’ve done is that you have really placed a premium on branding and design unlike most nonprofit organizations. Your attention to detail, your demand for excellence, the materials you produce, and this is both true internally as well as externally. Why is this such a priority at charity: water?
Scott: I remember coming across a quote when I started by Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times, and he said, “Toothpaste is peddled with more sophistication than all of the world’s life-saving causes.” And I thought, “How true and how sad!” A junk food company can spend $100 million marketing stuff that kills us every day. And the most important life-saving causes that are alleviating suffering in the world, that are providing basic needs, have anemic marketing campaigns. They have anemic websites. I’m still getting emails from billion-dollar organizations that are not mobile optimized. How is that possible? 40% of our traffic is mobile these days. How can they possibly… Not that much has changed in 10 years, but we saw that as an opportunity.
And as I looked across the sector, there was no charity that inspired. There was no Nike. There was no Apple. There was no Virgin. There was no Tesla. Nobody was leading from why it was inspiring, and I was really excited about trying to do that. And you don’t need a lot of money to build a brand. I think that’s one of the things people say, “Oh, well. We don’t have to spend all…you just need to recruit really talented designers and convince them to leave Apple or Google or Tesla and go use their design skills in the service of others, in the service of humanity.”
The first person I hired was someone out of UNICEF to help me work on water projects. The second person was a creative director, who I later married and I had kids with. So I literally am married to the brand. And there were many late nights where I sat up at midnight on laptops pixel pushing or choosing colors. We really cared about the way things looked and the way we presented ourselves in the world.
And I think the last thing I’d say is: we’ve been intentional about what we’re not. I think so much of the sector has been peddling shame and guilt. It works! Those photos of kids with flies on their face work. It moves people to action, but not in the way that I want to move people to action. So we are very much about opportunity, inspiration. We’re trying to tell stories of hope. We’re trying to find the heroic stories of courage and move people that way. Nike doesn’t advertise by saying “You’re so fat. You’re watching too much TV. Get up and go running, you lazy bum!”
Denver: You couldn’t be any slower if you tried!
Scott: They don’t do that! They say “There’s greatness within you. You don’t have legs? We’ll figure it out. You can run a marathon. You don’t have an arm? You can win the shot put competition.” They are constantly finding stories, and that’s why people want to wear the Nike logo. Nobody wants to wear the logo of a charity that makes them feel shameful and guilty all the time. So that’s been really, really core. And I think just rejecting the poverty mentality in charities. I’ve heard so many times: if our website looks too nice, donors won’t give us money. I don’t believe that! I don’t believe that. I think your donors will see excellence in what you do. And hopefully that excellence also carries through to your programs.
Denver: And they’re going to believe that if they see that. That’s what they see; that’s what they judge on. If you can do a website like that, these programs must be out of sight. Well, you’re absolutely right. If you’re looking for a long-term donor, you elevate that person. You don’t beat them down, and that’s what you’ve done. The final thing is, I mentioned before, you’re more like a tech company sometimes than a nonprofit, and what you do with prospective donors is create some extraordinary, extraordinary experiences that can make a profound difference in both their level of commitment and their level of support. And boy, you spare no effort in doing this. Perhaps one of the more memorable efforts was the one you did at your most recent gala. Tell us about that, Scott.
Scott: Well, I’ve got to go back two years to tell that story. Two years ago, we came across virtual reality and said this is going to be an amazing way for us to connect 400 donors at the gala potentially with a story in Ethiopia. I wish I could take all 400 of them to Ethiopia before the gala and then ask them to give, but I can’t do that. So we, in synchronicity, put 400 headsets on people after dinner, pressed “play” at the same time. All 400 people watched an eight-minute film of a 13-year-old girl named Salam getting clean water for the first time in Ethiopia. They were deeply moved. As people took the headsets down, we saw some mascara that was running; some people had tears in their eyes, and then we asked them just to be generous. And we raised $2.6 million.
So that’s what we were trying to come off of. And as we thought about the gala last year, we said, “Well, what if we connect all 400 people coming to the gala with a person living in a village without water? One for one. What if we could connect seniors with seniors and young pregnant women with young pregnant women, and couples that had been married for 20 years with couples that had been married for 20 years?”
We sent our team out there. They spent two weeks in a village called Adi Etot, Ethiopia. We documented 400 stories. And this was not easy. I mean, imagine interviewing 400 people and then taking them to photo stations and then taking them to video stations. And then, we took all that content back home. We matched up the people, and we loaded them to 400 iPads. So every single person coming to the gala had a unique experience, matched up with a person. We then asked them after dinner, at 10:00 at night, if they would just give $30 to give their person clean water. We needed $12,000 to drill the well in this village. Of course, everyone said: yes. And then at that moment, we opened up a satellite to Adi Etot, where it was 6:00 in the morning in Ethiopia. The sun was just coming up. The 400 people at the gala watched as 350 people were there, gathered around the drilling rig. We began drilling; water shot out of the ground, and people were in tears. Some of them could actually see their person in the crowd, in real time, across an ocean in East Africa. And then we asked them to be generous again, and we raised $3.2 million.
Denver: That’s amazing! Good luck this year, by the way, Scott.
Scott: You got any ideas?
Denver: Another thing that charity: water does is: you pay a lot of attention to corporate culture… valuing excellence. As a result, between the mission of the work that you do, and the culture, you can post for any job there, and hundreds and hundreds of resumes are going to come pouring in.
Scott: Thousands actually.
Scott: I think there were 8,000 people who applied for 18 jobs last April.
We treat people like adults. There’s no official vacation policy. We expect people to get their work done, so we’re not tracking days. Some people will take two weeks. Some people will take four weeks. There’s a sense of optimism, I think. We really look to hire optimistic people.
Denver: Wow. That’s amazing! Tell us about the work culture at charity: water and what you think makes it really special and distinctive.
Scott: I think people aren’t motivated by money. So, that’s one. They’re really motivated by a desire to improve our world, a desire to serve, a desire to use their gifts– whether it’s in graphic design or accounting or hydrology– in the service of others. I think we’ve created a really fun place to work. Someone walked in recently and said our office is nicer than Facebook’s in New York. We got over a million dollars of gift-in-kind to build out a really extraordinary office. Samsung donated $50,000 of TVs. We have ping-pong tables and a pool table and a lot of the stuff that you might see in a tech company, except we’re not paying top dollar for it.
We treat people like adults. There’s no official vacation policy. We expect people to get their work done, so we’re not tracking days. Some people will take two weeks. Some people will take four weeks. There’s a sense of optimism, I think. We really look to hire optimistic people.
There’s an importance of generosity. I expect our team members to also be giving money to causes, not just their time, but actually eating our own dog food. If we are asking donors to contribute to the water crisis and to give of their hard-earned dollars, we have to be doing it as well. We have to be doing it radically. It’s a fun place to work. Very visual. There are 15-feet light boxes throughout the space and a lot of KPIs. You can see real-time data coming in from the field and from our website. It’s a cool place to be.
Denver: Absolutely! You know, having worked in many nonprofit organizations myself, Scott, I am only too familiar with that year-end rush of trying to get all those contributions in and feeling just so great when it’s all done. But that is invariably followed with this pit that I have deep in my stomach on January 1 when I say: “Oh my goodness! I have to do it all over again, and I’m starting from scratch at $0.00.” You’re addressing that not-so-good feeling we have in early January with a recent initiative that you call “The Spring.” What is it, and how does it work?
Scott: Well, it’s funny. I just saw recent numbers, too, to illustrate that for the listeners. December 31, people click the Donate button on charitywater.org and gave $299,000 in one day. January 1? $14,000. Ninety-five percent drop. So as you say, we simply just got too big to start over every single year. And we realized we primarily had a one-time donation organization. People come across the mission, they would drop $100. Some people would give $10,000 for a whole village. People would donate their birthdays to charity: water. Instead of having a party, instead of accepting gifts, they would ask for their age in dollars and they’d go out and raise money. And that helped raise over $30 million, just that simple idea. So all of that was great, but it was really…there was no repeat, there was no thing that kind of really kept you engaged. And sure, we would send e-mails, and sure, we would continue updating people. But some would move on to other causes: “Hey, I did a well. Now, I’ll do a school. Now, I’ll do health care.”
So for our 10th anniversary last September, we launched a new giving community called “The Spring,” and we just asked people to consider giving what they could every month in the same way that we’re subscribing to Netflix or Spotify or Apple Music or our cable company or the New York Times or whatever…all these different things that we are paying every month. This would be a subscription where all the benefit, 100% of the benefit, would be passed on to others. And we called it “The Spring.”
And it began to grow really quickly, and we’ve been sending updates, and we’re really trying to innovate in that experience. The old business model was a response from “sponsor a child.” I sign you up, $38 a month or so, and you’re going to be helping a child in Honduras who’s going to write you letters. We don’t have that business model. It just doesn’t work for us. So we’re really trying to innovate with content, with transparency. We made a great film that people could check out to launch this that really encapsulates the images from 10 years of charity:water. It’s at charitywater.org/thespringfilm, and you can learn about the program and really the first 10 years of work.
Denver: Very effective and very powerful. Let me close with this, Scott. You have had phenomenal success in this first decade-plus in providing clean water to some seven million people, which is truly staggering. Yet I know you’re really at the very beginning of this journey with still, 600-, 700 million people drinking dirty water every day. I know that you’re always looking around the next curve like nobody looks around the next curve. And what do you see as the next big opportunity for charity: water to further scale this phenomenal program of yours.
Scott: I think The Spring is going to be essential to us… having this base of people who will stand with us not just once, but month in, month out. And the dollar amount is less important. We have people giving $10 a month. We have people giving $100 a month. But actually people who will say: we are going to see an end to the water crisis in our lifetime. And we really believe that. We actually believe we can do this. We’ve seen the number cut from a billion to 663 million in 10 years.
Denver: That’s dramatic.
Scott: So we actually need to accelerate the growth because in the next 15 years, if we continue at status quo, it’s going to be down to 400 million. So we’ve got to go faster. But we want to do more. We actually think we have an abundance mentality. We really think it’s about inviting more people into the community. Right now, I could help three times more people. Right now, I could help three times more people get clean water this year than we will raise the money for. So, immediately going to that delta.
We also think some of the technology that we’ve developed can help the sector at large. So the sensor project, as a I mentioned, we open sourced the whole thing. It was a $5 million grant from Google to develop the sensor. It works on the Afridev pump. Now, we’ve installed 3,000, but there are a million Afridev pumps in Africa. So we’re starting to have some conversations with different governments saying “What if you outfitted your entire country? What if you were transparent about rural water supply? What if you, Mr. President, were able to hold your water ministers accountable? What if you knew what was going on 14 and one- half miles from the capital, six of it down dirt roads? You can have this for free. We don’t want to make money on this.”
So I think some of our innovations could spread far beyond charity: water, and we’ve seen a lot of interest in that already. So I think it’s going faster; it’s building The Spring community. It’s inviting everyday people to resist the apathy that is so easy when you hear about these big issues – world hunger, world peace, the water crisis. Like we actually know: every $30, we can give one more person clean water in a provable, measurable way. So it’s growing our community as well as trying to be generous with the things that we learn and the technologies to help others.
Denver: Well, it’s very exciting, and you have inspired all of us this evening. Scott Harrison, the Founder and CEO of charity: water, I want to really thank you so much for being here. Tell us about your website and a way or two– in addition to the Spring– that people who want to support this extraordinary work can get themselves involved with the organization.
Scott: That’s great. So the website is charitywater.org. As I’ve said, you can learn about The Spring there. But the birthday idea is a really extraordinary idea. I’ve done seven birthdays now, and it’s great thing if you’ve got kids as well. We’ve had 5-year-olds, 7-year-olds, 9-year-olds, 11-year-olds, and it just goes to the idea that we have enough. We don’t need more ties, wallets, plastic toys, belts, purses, handbags when so many people around the world don’t have their basic needs met.
So, it’s the idea of turning the birthday into a generous moment. And people love the idea of asking for their age in dollars. So we had an 89-year-old ask for $89 from everyone she knew, and a 41-year-old ask for $41 and a 53-year-old ask for $53. So if you want to learn more about that– even if your birthday is a year from now– you could go to charitywater.org/birthdays and just pledge. And a month before, we’ll send you the instructions. The average person raises $1,000 from 15 of their friends. It just works. They’re able to help over 30 people get clean water.
So you could join The Spring; you could donate your birthday; or just go and learn more about this issue.
Denver: Very cool. Well, thanks, Scott! It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Scott: Thanks for having me!
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving