Scott Harrison, Founder and CEO of charity: water, Joins Denver Frederick

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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.


Scott Harrison

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? (more…)

The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of DoSomething

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Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social businesses and nonprofit organizations.

DoSomething CEO Aria Finger and Denver Frederick

DoSomething CEO Aria Finger and Denver Frederick


Denver: And we’ll now travel to West 21st St. in Manhattan into the offices of DoSomething, which is the largest global organization in the world for young people and social change, is consistently listed as one of the best places to work in either the profit or nonprofit sector and you will soon find out why. We’ll start with their CEO, Aria Finger, in celebrating and learning from failure, and then hear from the members of the staff.

Aria: So, twice a year, we hold a FailFest, and you are nominated by your manager to present— but when you do, you must wear a pink boa, and you must give three learnings that you had from this failure… and three learnings that the organization had.  Each of these learnings must be accompanied by a pop culture corollary. This is to keep the afternoon light and fun and in a mode of learning…as opposed to feeling ashamed and sweeping that failure under the rug. It’s been a really excellent way to both normalize talking about failures that we’ve had in the past, but also to really spot talent… to really see, “Oh, wow….that  employee analyzed the failure, thought of new ideas, and really has a plan for the future.” So instead of being a bad thing to present at FailFest, it can actually turn into a positive.


Greg: One of the stories that really embody our culture in my mind is how we celebrated when surpassed the 3 million member mark. So we’re a nonprofit, we don’t have a ton of resources for big celebrations or big parties, but the leadership team gave every staff member $100 to spend in a way that would benefit the organization or prank the organization or just contribute to this celebratory atmosphere. We had people do everything from pool their money to buy a foosball table for the office to one of our teammates who hid 100 $1 bills all around the office so that people we’re finding them for weeks and just being excited to find money under a cabinet or something like that. It was a great way to celebrate. It empowered everyone to feel like part of the accomplishment and it got us really excited to keep moving and keep recruiting more young people to take action for social causes.

Kayla: One thing that we do is every Tuesday, we have something called “Toto Tuesday.” How that works is at 5:30 on the dot every Tuesday, on the Sonos speakers for everyone to hear at a very loud volume that is inconvenient for everyone is Toto’s Africa, and the point is to try to get people to leave the office on time on Tuesdays. I think specifically, too, with the nonprofit world, you’re working later hours than usual, so it’s just a push to get people out on time to go live their lives; and nobody wants to listen to Toto’s Africa on repeat, so it’s very effective.

Adam: Every three to four months, names are thrown into a hat and they’re drawn out at random, and that’s important because the order your name comes out of that hat is the order in which you get to choose where your desk is. We have an entirely open office, which means the CEO sits next To associates which  means directors sit next to managers. In fact at my pod, at my seat, I sit right across from our chief data officer and right next to our CTO and right across from someone on our finance team.

So despite being on the campaigns team, I actually don’t sit anywhere near other campaigns team member. It actually encourages people to meet people and to get out of the bubble of their own department. Also some of the best collaboration that I’ve had here has come out of that.

when-you-see-people-at-the-directory-level-or-the-ceo-level-talking-about-their-failures-in-the-organization-it-makes-you-much-more-comfortable-with-making-those-big-risks-and-taking-those-leapsShae: One thing we do at DoSomething is we have a staff meeting every Wednesday and at the staff meeting, everybody goes around and says one thing they accomplished, one goal for the next week, and any requests that they have from the room. And then at the end of the staff meeting, we have the ritual of giving somebody the penguin, which is an actual literal stuffed animal penguin that the person who got it the week before gives to another member of the staff. The idea is to give it somebody who hasn’t gotten it in a while, not to give it to somebody who’s like a direct report or your manager. So people really reach across different teams and you tell them why they deserve it: it’s usually somebody who’s completed a really big project; it’s somebody who’s done something really cool; or who has, overall, been a really, really important asset to the team and has been performing really well. It’s just a really good way to have that kind of shout out and know that other people in the org recognize you for your work.

Adam: If there’s ever a conversation about which way we should go or what way we should run a campaign or what thing we should prioritize, something that will literally be said in meetings is, “We need to fight for the user. What’s the best thing for our members? What’s the best thing for the 5.4 million young people that we want to give to them to make their world a better place?” Everything else is secondary to that. I mean those words are now branded on my brain. “Fight for the user” is one of the first things I think of when I wake up in the morning, for better or worse.

Sam: I think one of the pieces of our secret sauce here that so many places underutilize and I’m almost hesitant to share it, but it’s really our interns. We have a phenomenal internship program, the best that I’ve ever seen. We actually treat our interns so well and they love us so much that a quarter of our staff is former interns and we try to keep it at that number, that sweet spot, because we know that our interns are the best in the game. We’ve crunched the numbers and it’s harder to get an internship at than it is to get into Harvard and we like to brag about that.

Shae: One of the things I love about working on the tech team at DoSomething – I have previously worked at a for-profit organization, corporate organization as a developer, I’ve worked at another nonprofit – this is by far the most diverse team I’ve ever been a part of as a developer. Being in spaces where I’ve been the only woman of color, the only queer person in the room, it’s very isolating and it’s very hard to succeed. I get to walk into a room full of developers that is like half women, a bunch of us are queer. I’m not the only person of color on the team, and it’s really, really empowering for me to be a part of that and it allows me to be more comfortable with my voice and speaking up. It makes me feel like I’m going to be heard by the room.

Kayla: I think the culture at DoSomething and something that makes it so special is that everyone who works here plays a part in the culture of DoSomething. One way that we make sure that happens is every six months, we do a staff survey with very detailed questions, very specific questions to find out staff happiness, to sort of see what areas in office culture and office happiness that we’re lacking, and also just to see how we can improve on this.

I think every person who works at DoSomething has affected the culture in one way or another.


Adam: One of the great things about the rituals here at DoSomething is we don’t know where a lot of them came from. I mean that’s one of the strange, weird things about rituals. If you ask me to describe where Christmas came from and why we have a Christmas tree in the middle of our home every December – or most of our homes – I couldn’t tell you but there’s a certain weight behind them. I’m someone who’s been here for only a year and a half and has now experienced all the various rituals, but they work because they have weight.

Shae: I think one thing that I’ve always enjoyed about DoSomething is that from the moment you’re hired or being hired, during the interview process to the moment that you work here and to the moment you leave, you’re evaluated and you’re thought of based on who you are and what you can do. I think sometimes you work in organizations where people evaluate you based on your output, based on the work that you do but don’t think of you as a full person. I think what’s critical is that every employee is seen as a human who has a life outside of work, who has interests outside of work, who can bring that all to the room when they come to their job and they sit at their desk, so they’re not leaving parts of themselves behind.

Sam: Although we always want constant feedback to be given, it’s really nice to know that every three months, you have the ability to sit down with your manager in a room and say like, “This is what I really want to work on; this is what was super helpful that you did last quarter; and this is what I think I need some more coaching in,” and not going 11-1/2 months in between knowing how well you’re doing or where you stand in the organization, and so you always know what you should be working on and when to pivot. I think it just is a testament to how well we’re able to innovate and how quickly we’re able to move because we are constantly aware of kind of where we fit in the larger mission of the organization.


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6 and 7 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on I Heart Radio. You can follow us at bizofgive on Twitter and at

Perla Ni, CEO and Founder of Great Nonprofits

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In this podcast, Perla Ni, the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits speaks about her background and how it inspired her to build the organization. She discusses the importance of “beneficiary feedback” and how those served by nonprofits are sometimes best able to evaluate their effectiveness.



Perla Ni, founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Denver: Would you go away on summer vacation to a spot you’ve never been before without checking TripAdvisor or some other comparable site? And while you were there, would you just wander into any old restaurant for dinner before looking at the Yelp reviews on your phone? Or buy a new propane gas grill without reading customer reviews online to see what others had to say about it? Well the answer to all this, is of course not! So, does it make any sense to support a charity without reading a review from those who’ve been helped by it and others who were involved in some capacity? Well, my next guest didn’t think so either. That is why she started GreatNonprofits. It’s a great pleasure for me to welcome to the show Perla Ni, the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. Good evening, Perla, and thanks so much for being with us this evening.

Perla: Thank you. It’s been great to be here.

Denver: So, the year is 2005, and you are the publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, one of the premiere publications in the philanthropic and nonprofit management world, and Hurricane Katrina strikes. So people come to you and ask where can they contribute to make the most meaningful difference. After all, who’s gonna know any better than you? What do you tell them?

Perla: And that was the question of the day. Many of my friends and family told me they wanted to contribute and really make an impact by giving to local nonprofits. Could I recommend some local nonprofits in New Orleans or Biloxi, Mississippi that they could give to? I sat there really puzzled. Here I was at Stanford, one of the most wonderful publications here in the country focused on nonprofit management. But I did not know about local nonprofits in that area. One of my journalist friends went out there to volunteer, and when he came back, he told me of several fantastic local nonprofits that he had seen helping people get medical care, taking people to get registered for emergency housing. And he said these are organizations that often are not well-known to the world. That really inspired me to create GreatNonprofits– which is a way for folks to share experiences about nonprofits as volunteers, as donors, and as clients that have been helped by the nonprofit.


Charities with Higher Overhead Costs Are More Effective

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Caroline Fiennes, Founder and Director of Giving Evidence, discusses using rigorous research to improve nonprofit effectiveness, and dispels a common myth regarding the correlation of overhead costs and charity effectiveness.  In this segment, Fiennes (a trained physicist) explains why nonprofits “can’t be afraid of the math.”

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