I recently spoke to Scott Harrison, who is the Founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. In seven years, with the help of more than 400,000 donors worldwide, charity: water has raised over $100 million and funded over 8,000 water projects in 20 countries. When completed, those projects will provide over three million people with clean, safe drinking water.
Scott was recently recognized in Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 list, the Forbes Magazine Impact 30 list and was recently #10 in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business Issue. He is currently a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.
In this interview, Scott talks about the back story behind charity: water, the core values of his company, how he’s been able to distinguish the company, and his best advice to upcoming entrepreneurs.
Most people know you from charity: water but not about what you did before you started the company. What was your background and how did you end up starting the company?
I spent about a decade in New York City chasing the fast life as a nightclub promoter – basically throwing fashion and music parties for a living. I had moved to NYC to rebel against a conservative Christian upbringing, and did that with relish, living selfishly and arrogantly. At 28 years old, I had a crisis of conscience, and found myself to be spiritually, morally and emotionally bankrupt.
I began to re-discover faith in a different way as an adult, and decided to explore the exact 180 degree opposite of my life, and spend a year serving others in Africa. I volunteered aboard a hospital ship with a humanitarian mission to Benin and then Liberia, West Africa, and saw extreme poverty for the first time. One year turned into two, and while I was there, I saw people drinking dirty water from ponds, rivers and swamps – simply born into communities without access. It shocked and angered me, and I began learning more about the world’s 800 million people living without access to clean water. I returned to NYC to help them, and started charity: water.
What are your values (and your company’s) and how do you communicate them to your audience?
Our organizational values are probably not dissimilar to many other companies (Integrity, Respect, Excellence, Innovation, Generosity and Passion), but we created “ISMS” that help bring them alive. For example, there’s an Ism around never pirating software or using music without permission – another about telling the truth to a fault “no white lies” – and others around the importance of designing everything (even keynote presentations given to small groups internally), about embracing new technology, giving generously of our money to our cause and others (eating our own dogfood), and even one about working together to create a profanity-free environment that respects all.
We’re passionate, optimistic and hopeful people, and I hope that’s communicated through the images, videos and stories we share with our supporters.
There are a lot of non-profits out there. How have you been able to stand out in the crowd and get attention for the brand?
My wife Viktoria is the creative director at charity: water, and she and her team have been instrumental to our success. They are great at making beautiful things online that people want to click on, and videos people want to watch. I believe our focus on design has been key to our success, along with the 100% model and our tireless pursuit of connecting our donors with the people they are serving and the water projects they are funding around the world.
Have you run into any issues where you treated the water but it wasn’t effective? What do you put in place to make sure that the water is clean all of the time?
charity: water is solution agnostic, and currently funds eight different types of water projects around the world. Sometimes a 40-foot deep hand dug well is the right solution, sometimes our partners need to drill up to 1,000 feet to find clean water. In some environments, rainwater harvesting is the best solution, or protecting mountain springs and using gravity flow and pipes to connect communities. In some instances, biosand filters are appropriate, and in others, high tech filters that employ the latest in Carbon, UV and UF filtration. Our implementing partners test water at different locations, and measure them against local water quality standards.
What are your top three tips for young entrepreneurs trying to build a business?
1. Story. I think one of the most important things is being able to tell your personal story in a way that engages people, and then the story of your organization or company. Many people want to know what is driving the entrepreneur forward, and learn more about his or her character before they invest. Using photos and videos to “show” people not tell them is increasingly important in a new world of glowing screens and shortened attention spans.
2. Tenacity is so important as well. Being able to hear “no” and still press on, fighting through adversity and tough times believing that the perseverance will pay off.
3. Find a coach. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with a coach over the past three years who built a hugely successful business, and has poured his learnings into me. Being open to, and in fact seeking out negative feedback is key, especially when it hurts. The people that tell you how great you’re doing aren’t the ones who help you get better, it’s the ones who painfully expose your blindspots and challenge you to perform at a higher level.