Table of Contents:
- How charity:water has scaled over the last five years
- Scott Harrison on the moment he decided to focus on humanitarian efforts
- The complexity behind raising funds for a scaling non-profit
- The evolution of charity:water’s approach to storytelling
- How radical transparency has fueled charity:water to scale
- How charity:water continues to conceive new ideas around fundraising
- Inside Scott Harrison’s AI explorations
Remix: Scott Harrison & charity: water, 5 years later
BOB SAFIAN: Hi listeners, it’s Bob Safian, Masters of Scale’s editor-at-large, and host of Rapid Response.
Today is Giving Tuesday, which makes it the perfect opportunity to offer insights from one of our favorite nonprofit organizations, charity: water.
Founder Scott Harrison made his first appearance on Masters of Scale in 2018, and since then, he has returned to the show several times, even appearing at our inaugural Masters of Scale Summit last October.
Scott’s original episode with Reid Hoffman remains one of our all time favorites. And so today we’re inviting Scott back to listen to key moments from that episode, reflect on the stories he told, and share new lessons he’s learned over the past 5 years.
This is Masters of Scale: Remix.
How charity:water has scaled over the last five years
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian, and I’m here with Scott Harrison, the founder and CEO of charity: water, which has an incredible entrepreneurial history. Scott, you first came on to Masters of Scale in 2018. What’s different for you and charity: water now, than it was five years ago?
SCOTT HARRISON: 2018 feels like so much longer than five years ago. My gosh. It feels like 50 years ago, Bob. A lot has changed with the organization. So, as of right now, we are down to 703 million people living on Earth without access to clean water. That’s still an astonishing number of humans drinking dirty water every day. It’s two Americas full of people, but that is lower than five years ago, so we’re making some progress.
Our impact is now up to over 17.5 million people with access to clean water, across about 137,000 communities around the world. That said, you take 17 million, you put it into 700 million, it’s about 1/40 of the work that needs to be done. So I think we are probably more than ever, focused on growing our impact. How do we go faster? How do we scale? How do we actually solve this problem in our lifetime? I mean, it is crazy that we are looking for water on a planet 140 some million miles away. And as we go to space, and as we look down, 10% of the people living on earth are drinking dirty water every day. So we really want that number to be zero. And I’d like to see this happen in my lifetime.
Scott Harrison on the moment he decided to focus on humanitarian efforts
SAFIAN: On that first episode of Masters of Scale, you told Reid the story about your life as a club promoter in New York. Every night out drinking until the wee hours, the substances, drugs that helped you get through the next day. And you told the story of the moment when you made the decision to turn your life around. Let’s listen.
HARRISON: There was this one night … I remember I was out with the new restaurant partner. And I remember I was fantastically hammered and came out of the bathroom of this private members club and saw a bouncer talking to my new partner.
And they had a heated exchange and my new business partner says, “Hey, this guy is harassing me. You know the owner, why don’t you do something about it? You got my back or what?” And I stumble out onto the street and I dial the owner and say, “Hey, you know, bad behavior going on here.” And she winds up terminating the employee.
And the next night, I typically left the party at the club I was working at at three, and I left at 2:50 a.m. And on my way home, I get a text from my doorman:“Hey that guy that you just fired, he just turned up with a gun looking for you.”
And I said, well, I’m going to take a couple weeks and get out of town. And I remember renting a cobalt blue Ford Mustang on a one-month rental and I grabbed a Bible. I grabbed a carton of Marlboro Reds. I grabbed a bottle of scotch. And I was just going to head north and take some time to lay low and to think about things. And as it turned out, I never, I never came back.
It was at the very end of this journey that all the things I thought would make me happy, I just realized they wouldn’t.
I actually asked myself this question: “What would the opposite of my life look like?” And I thought, “Well, if I’m this selfish hedonistic drug-addled nightclub promoter, who’s done nothing for anyone else, what would it look like to actually help people in need?” And I thought, “Okay, what if I quit and did one year of humanitarian service to the poor?”
SAFIAN: So you made this decision to give a year of your life to humanitarian service, which set your life on a path that led to charity: water. It was a 180 degree change in your life to find more happiness and more meaning. But running a business, even a nonprofit, that’s plenty hard. It’s stressful.
HARRISON: Yeah. It’s a slog.
The complexity behind raising funds for a scaling non-profit
SAFIAN: Did you realize how hard it was going to be and how do you manage that stress?
HARRISON: It is incredibly difficult and in some ways, the more size and scale of the organization, the more challenges, the more complexity. We’ve worked now over 137,000 villages across 29 countries. So, mass amounts of complexity with inflation and the sourcing of materials, just fundraising. Fundraising is always hard. I mean, Bob, there’s not a day that goes by that we are not asking people to open up their hearts and show compassion for people who are suffering from a problem they have never experienced. I mean, 17 years in, I’m talking to people who have never once tasted dirty water in their life.
So it is extraordinarily difficult, but I think what has kept me going, what’s kept me energized or animated, as we come up on two decades of this work, is it’s unfinished work. I spend 99% of my time focused on how do we actually get this done. And that is by raising more money and getting more everyday people to care, to care. And to give generously and open up their hearts and say, look, I could embrace the apathy that comes with any of these paralyzing global issues that don’t affect people like me. Or I could do something, I could take an action. And there are still some no’s. And then someone will say, yes.
I had asked somebody a couple years ago, who I think has actually been a guest on this podcast. And I asked for a very large gift, actually, an eight figure gift, which would transform many, many lives. And after a couple months of consideration, this person came back to me and said, thank you so much for the proposal. Thanks for the invitation to help so many people. I have only one question. Why did you ask me for so little? And then they gave four times more than what I asked for. That takes a whole lot of no’s out of the picture. It is so energizing, because in that moment, 1 million lives changed. In that yes, in the 4x the ask, I didn’t have the guts to go for a million lives. I was going for like 250,000 people. But a million lives would be changed, and that gets me up out of bed every day.
The evolution of charity:water’s approach to storytelling
SAFIAN: All right, another clip here. You also told the story of your first trip to the developing world as a photographer. And you mentioned this idea that it’s your job to both show and tell, in order to communicate the needs of the people that you meet and that you’re serving.
Let’s listen to the exchange you had with Reid.
REID HOFFMAN: So tell me a little bit about what the experience was in taking pictures on this very first trip.
At that time, Liberia had come out of a 14-year civil war. There was no electricity, there was no water, there was no mail system. And I joined a group of humanitarian doctors, which really, eventually then led me to water.
HARRISON: It’s funny, I think the first time I met you, I opened up a laptop and I made you look at 100 pictures.
HARRISON: I’m just, I’m a visual learner and I’m a visual communicator. And for me, it was show, don’t tell. Now, I would say it’s show and tell. It’s both. There’s storytelling and there’s showing. I was given the role of photojournalist, so my job was actually to document every patient pre-op and post-op. And I was with a group of maxillofacial surgeons, operating on a huge 522-foot hospital ship.
HOFFMAN: It was harrowing work — coming face to face with the raw truth of needless suffering. But seeing how people could be helped was exhilarating for Scott. His storyteller’s instinct emerged, and he just had to share his experiences with people back home.
HARRISON: What was exciting to me was… first of all, I had never seen massive facial tumors. I had never seen any of the things that I was experiencing. And I’m taking these pictures and the cool thing is that I had 15,000 people on my club email list, and open rates were almost 100% back then. The only thing I knew how to do was to share these images and stories with the people that I’ve been getting drunk for 10 years. You can imagine what this looks like. You go from getting invited to a party at Prada headquarters in New York City, three weeks later you get a picture of a six-pound pink fleshy tumor in your inbox. My headline was: “Alfred is suffocating to death on his own face, click here to read more.” And people did.
HOFFMAN: Not everyone wanted to see these startling images in their inboxes. But a surprising number of Scott’s old friends were compelled to get involved. They had never been exposed to these brutal stories in such an unflinchingly honest way.
HARRISON: I remember meeting a 65-year-old woman in the bush with a cleft lip. And for her entire life, food and water had spilled out of her mouth, because she never had access to a $200 surgery.
The picture of her before and the picture of her after, being received back into her village like a celebrity, that says so much more than the ability to even just tell that story. So that first year, I took 50,000 photos and I was just blast… I was assaulting my club email list every few days, every week, with a new story, a new before and after set.
HARRISON: I think we believe even more firmly today, in the power of showing and creatively showing and finding different ways to immerse them into this issue. I got to give a lecture at a university. It was about 110,000 students. And I got an award after the speech, the commencement, from the university saying, the most slides ever used in a speech at this university. And I think I showed 188 pictures in 35 minutes. So that hasn’t changed. I think if anything, maybe we’re leaning into more visual images, maybe even less to say, and more to show, as we move into this fragmented attention world.
It sounds so cliche to say, “a picture says a thousand words,” but for me to talk about a child I met in Eastern Kenya, who was drinking from a muddy river, and would drink from this bottle of brown viscous water that she dipped into the river, and then she would kind of vomit a little bit. And then she would drink some more and then she would throw up a little more. And for me to watch this child poisoning herself, in real time, in front of me, feeling so helpless, that’s one thing. To show that photo of this little girl, with a bottle in her hands and a t-shirt covered in vomit, is a very different way to viscerally engage someone in a real problem for that child.
We live in a world where kids are throwing up on themselves because they have dirty water, and we haven’t reached them, we haven’t decided to help. So I think we’ve now made over a thousand videos at charity: water. We are on all the platforms now, trying to reach people with the mediums that they are consuming every single day and reach them with true stories, but also a brand that is aspirational and hopeful, not a brand based on shame and guilt.
How radical transparency has fueled charity:water to scale
SAFIAN: charity: water’s commitment to this idea of radical transparency is distinctive, and it all starts with your business model. Tell us about that.
HARRISON: charity: water has this distinct business model. A hundred percent of public donations go directly to the field to provide people clean water.
And then in this separately audited bank account, about 130 families pay the overhead. Well, all of our marketing dollars, all of our growth capital, has to come from those 130 families. So that constraint, I think, if we had more money on the OpEx side, we would grow faster, we would grow the movement. But we can’t take a penny of those people’s money, who are showing up every month or who are donating to the water projects, for growth. So I think as powerful as a hundred percent model is for so many people, and we continue to hear this 17 years in, time and time again, I am giving to charity: water because I know all my money is going to reach the people in need. It also continues to be a business model constraint at scale.
SAFIAN: On your episode with Reid, you told a story about when it almost all fell apart. Let’s take a listen.
HOFFMAN: Talk a little bit about how the mechanics of the first came together which is, “Well, we’re driven by getting these new donors, we want this transparency, and we want 100% of the money, but in order to do that, we need other sources of money too.” So how did you put that business model together?
HARRISON: I can’t even tell you how hard that was, and how I’d talk other people away from doing that now. But we just opened up two bank accounts. So there was this idea that the public’s money would never be touched, go in the water bank account. We called it the water bank account. Then there would be the operations bank account.
HOFFMAN: Sure, Scott could have decided to make an exception in those early days. A one off compromise, dip into the water account and keep the operations humming. But that was a slippery slope, Scott didn’t want to slide down. Even if that meant folding the charity.
HARRISON: So, we get to this point about a year and a half in, where we raised a couple million dollars and the game was up. There was a moment when there was $111 in the bank account for overhead. I’m skipping my paycheck, my staff, I’m like, “Don’t cash your checks, just wait another week, I’m working on it. I’m going to get another $5,000-10,000 to put in. I just realized, I can’t raise money for the overhead fast enough.
HOFFMAN: Scott prepared to close charity: water. He’d done everything he could think of. He’d even cold-emailed the founders of the three biggest social networks of the time: Mark Zuckerberg, MySpace founder Tom Anderson, Bebo founder Michael Birch.
HARRISON: So Zuck doesn’t write me back, Tom doesn’t write me back, Michael Birch actually wrote me back and said, “I actually like this idea. I’d like to stop by and see your office.” Well, we had actually just moved into a really greasy crappy office at that point. And he comes in and I remember, he’s very British, I think he hates me. He doesn’t smile for an hour, very dry, “Oh, I don’t like charity, I don’t get, I don’t trust charity.” I’m like, “Well, yes, I know. I built this thing for people like you.”
HOFFMAN: Scott’s commitment to transparency had convinced a charity skeptic like Michael to get involved. Scott set about bringing the charity: water story to life.
HARRISON: I do my thing on the laptop and I’m clicking through 100 photos and here’s my vision for a world with clean water for everyone and here’s the business model, but I’m kind of broke. He says, “Well, let me think about it.”
Three days later, I get an email from him saying, “Hey, it was great meeting you. I wired a million dollars into your overhead account.” So we go from insolvent to a year in funding, and you know in your business, this was a lifeline. And it’s funny, because at the moment, it was all about the money, it was, “I have another 12 months of runway to go and figure this out.” I think now, it was the confidence. Someone believed in me, they believed in this crazy business model. That was a third of a billion dollars ago. And had it not been for that one act of radical generosity, that one act of trust, that one person saying, “I see something in this entrepreneur and I’m going to fund it. I’m going to give him a little more rope.”
SAFIAN: You got a lifeline in those early days by being true to your vision, staying transparent.
How has radical transparency continued to be a mindset for charity: water? What does it do for the organization today?
HARRISON: Transparency — probably the thing I’m most excited about. When we started out, the first big idea was, Hey, let’s just put up all of our completed projects on Google Earth and Google Maps. And let’s show people the satellite images of these projects. The thing I’m probably most proud of since then, has been the advances that we’ve made with the sensor technology we developed in-house. And this was just a simple idea, Bob, of wanting to create a smart well.
I was inspired by Nest. If a donor can change the temperature of their Yellowstone Club home from New York, why can’t we monitor a well in Ethiopia remotely as well, and know if it broke, and then be able to send technicians to go and act on that. We created sensors that were viable. We installed thousands and thousands of them across our portfolio. Now we have the largest dataset in the history of the world of real time flow, through our sensors for rural water systems. And it is so cool to see a charity: water well that is just working, providing thousands of liters every single day, and then it breaks.
And then to see the repair call and to see the technician go out on a motorcycle, work with the community, make that small bit of maintenance. I mean, sometimes it’s a $5 part that is the difference between a water project working and it being non-functional.
We recently had the government of Ghana take our sensors and put them on government wells. What’s exciting about that is charity: water has never worked in the country of Ghana. We don’t have a single well in Ghana. So the fact that this tech that we have worked on could be exported and useful for a president of Ghana for the water minister to hold the people accountable there to a sustainable system of water always flowing is very, very exciting. And we continue to invest in that level of transparency, where we know if a project breaks. And we know how long it takes to make that functional again.
SAFIAN: Scott’s commitment to transparency is just one tool in charity: water’s entrepreneurial toolkit. After the break, you’ll hear more from his 2018 episode about creativity in fundraising and how nuance can drive engagement, plus more new insights from Scott, including blending analytical ROI with human emotion. We’ll be right back.
How charity:water continues to conceive new ideas around fundraising
SAFIAN: We’re back with Scott Harrison, founder and CEO of charity: water. Scott, on your Masters of Scale episode, you told the story of one of your most successful fundraising initiatives at the time, where people donated their birthdays to provide clean water. Let’s listen.
HARRISON: I launched charity: water in a nightclub on my birthday. It was my 31st birthday, and the only idea I had to officially launch was to get a bunch of people in a club, give them an open bar, and ask them for 20 bucks on the way in as a donation. And we raised $15,000.
HOFFMAN: Scott had taken the one day of the year, when people are encouraged to be selfish — to sit back and be showered with gifts and well wishes — and he had flipped it 180 degrees.
It was simple. It was invitational. It was something everyone could do. And it tapped into the fact that people built their strongest relations with other people, not brands or ideas. People started happily giving up their birthdays to support charity: water.
HARRISON: And then this idea just exploded, where 16-year-olds start giving up their birthdays, 89-year-olds start giving up their birthdays. I remember this woman, Nona Win, writes in her mission statement, she says, “I’m turning 89 and I’d like to make that possible for more people.” And we realized, this is a rich idea. Our birthdays can help people have more birthdays, can help children reach the age of five and not die from waterborne disease. Nona was…because of the privilege that she was born into, had lived twice as long as the average in some of these countries where we were working. So, you had this beautiful message that was fighting the materialism of the age.
HOFFMAN: More and more stories were being generated, prompting more people to donate their birthdays to the cause and bring their networks into the celebration.
HARRISON: We then also had this really nuanced message was, “Well, I can give out of the blessing.” I have been blessed with health care, I’ve been blessed with clean water. If my birthday can help other people, then I want to turn it into this redemptive generous movement. This spreads, then people start fundraising campaigns, they say, “Well, I can’t wait till my birthday, but I have this other idea. Let me go climb a mountain, let me go walk across America, let me sail across the Atlantic.” We had a guy listen to Nickelback for an entire week with headphones on, raise $30,000.
HOFFMAN: That man deserved every single dollar, and then some. We salute you for your sacrifices.
The birthday initiative went on to become one of charity: water’s signature methods of fundraising.
SAFIAN: Donating birthdays works great and I guess still works well for charity: water, but what new things can you try? How do you keep the energy going? Do you have to keep coming up with the next idea?
HARRISON: You do have to keep coming up with the next idea. Birthdays is a great example. It became very quickly commoditized. I remember when heifer.org, who was known for selling goats and sheep to people in a Christmas catalog, asked me to donate my birthday. I was like, that was my idea. And when charity: water started doing that, there was no GoFundMe. There was no Facebook causes. There were not the crowdfunding platforms that are ubiquitous today. So yes, it’s a constant challenge to reinvent, to reimagine, to come up with new campaigns, new ideas, new strategies, new ways to connect with your existing donors, who could get bored, if I’m honest, and ways to engage completely new people. One of the things we’re working on right now, we’re building a 7,000 square foot retail experience, where we’re going to bring people in who may have never contemplated the global water crisis before.
And we’re going to use cutting edge technology to lure them in — holographic technology, augmented reality, virtual reality. The idea, imagine stepping into a room and being able to walk for water in many different countries around the world. And as you walk, carrying 40 or 80 pounds of water, your walk is unlocking donations.
So, always looking for new ways to meet a community and understand the values that they care about and how would our work be seen through the lens of those values.
Inside Scott Harrison’s AI explorations
SAFIAN: I’m curious, a lot of people are talking about using AI to tell stories. Are you exploring using AI in your storytelling, or do you feel like it is counter to what the messages you’re trying to put out are?
HARRISON: I am fascinated with some of the image ideas. I’ve spent more time, probably with Dall-E and thinking about, how do I convey the uniqueness of this problem, just the vastness of the problem? I mean, Bob, imagine asking someone for a million people’s lives, by writing a check. It’s hard to imagine a million of anything. So I’ve actually been working with AI a little bit just to generate some of those ideas. I asked for example, well, if a million people were lined up in front of this family, and they just wanted to spend one minute thanking this family for clean water, how long would it take?
The answer is almost two years. So to get through that line, if you didn’t sleep, if you didn’t eat, if you didn’t go to the bathroom and you just received the gratitude of a million people, it would be two years of your life.
Ways to show the impact of donations… a well that somebody sponsors for $12,000 can pump a million liters. I mean, a million liters every year! So, you show someone a million bottles of water… it’s a very different visual. They say, well, $12,000 as a donation could buy that much water? I mean, that’s an extraordinary ROI. If I paid for that water at the deli, I paid a dollar each. I’m looking at a million dollars of water, and I can have that? I can provide that for others for $12,000? And then to see it. So that’s how I’ve been kind of experimenting with AI around, just maybe the generation of some of these nascent ideas that could turn into something really visual that I probably wouldn’t have a designer spend two weeks creating.
SAFIAN: I just want to ask you this last thing.
So, business people can be very analytically focused, focused on numbers and metrics and strategy and process and investment and ROI and all that. And you clearly do focus on those things, but sometimes in all that, the human impact gets lost. And for you and charity: water, it seems like that human impact and that human aspect always comes first.
HARRISON: It does. It does. And I think there are other guests that you’ve had on this podcast for sure, who will put the customer, who will put the person at the center of the story, being obsessed about that customer experience. We are obsessed about, really, two customers. We’re obsessed about the beneficiary, who is going to be on the receiving end, getting access to clean and safe drinking water for the first time, and ensuring that that access is sustainable and that clean water continues to flow in that community. And we’re obsessively focused on the donor, on the volunteer, on the supporter, on that kid who goes out and sells lemonade 12 weekends in a row, who sells lemonade in the rain, because she’s so passionate and turns in a few hundred dollars. We’re obsessed about her experience, connecting her to the impact of where that money goes and the people whom her sacrifice actually changed the lives of, and who she directly helped. So we go back and forth between high quality work for beneficiaries and high quality experience for our donors.
SAFIAN: A huge thanks to Scott Harrison for joining us to revisit his original episode and give us an update on where charity: water is today. I just love his energy and enthusiasm.
To hear Scott’s complete episode, search for “Masters of Scale: Scott Harrison” in your podcast player of choice. It’s episode number 32.
I’m Bob Safian, thanks for listening.