Sometimes getting to higher ground requires reaching rock bottom. That, in a nutshell, is how charity: water founder Scott Harrison describes his journey from self-absorbed New York City club promoter to an entrepreneurial philanthropist set on changing the world. A decade in nightlife left the Philadelphia-born, New Jersey-raised Harrison a hollow, unsatisfied shell. He wanted to do something substantial, fulfilled, inherently good. A self-reflecting eureka moment led to a forsaking of the promoter business and a promise to dedicate a year in the service of others. Harrison soon found himself on a boat filled with doctors, traveling through Liberia and taking photographs of the facially disfigured. It was here that he was confronted with the incomprehensible conditions that much of the world grapples with every single day. Even the most basic of necessities seemed painfully out of reach for the thousands of people that Harrison came across. Water struck him as a particular concern. He came back to New York City with a mission. That mission manifested as charity: water, a non-profit designed to provide clean and safe drinking water to developing nations’ less fortunate.
A decade after its 2006 inception, charity: water has raised over $200 million dollars. Harrison and his team have funded 21,118 projects in 24 countries, changing the lives of millions of people. The non-profit’s impact has been considerable and broad. But, like many small businesses, charity:water started as a kernel of thought, very little money, and the consistent, relentless efforts of its founder. Harrison wasn’t selling a service or making a product, but he bootstrapped his dream for humanity into existence like other entrepreneurs. For Harrison, if that meant sleeping on the floor of his friend’s apartment, so be it. If that meant working alone until he could afford a bigger team, so be it. Harrison spent much of his life benefitting from the easy excess of New York City. It was time to give back.
And give back charity: water does. The nonprofit operates under a 100-percent model, in which every penny donated to the cause goes to the cause. Overhead is covered by dedicated donations that go into a separate fund, supported by angel investors keen on keeping the proverbial lights on. Knowing the inherent distrust many have for charities, Harrison has built charity: water on the premise of extreme transparency. On their website, you can access audit reports and salary surveys as far back as 2007. On Google Earth, every completed water project is denoted by a black and yellow pin with an accompanying photograph and story. In interviews, Harrison and his team are just as honest about their failures as they are their successes, readily acknowledging the hurdles they face. It’s an ambitious project, but one Harrison has dedicated himself to fully.
In our 6th installment of the Nitty-Gritty, Bond Street founder David Haber hosts a live discussion with Harrison to talk project sustainability, modernizing the charitable sphere, and scaling for good.