Ever wondered how you could support ethical, sustainable businesses? Welcome to a regular series highlighting products, services and organizations that are ‘doing well by doing good’.
In honor of World Water Day, we’re shining a spotlight on charity: water, a nonprofit that has transformed what charity looks like. charity: water’s 100% strategy and formidable brand partnerships have made it a leader in the nonprofit sector and the driver of a new era in philanthropy. Founder Scott Harrison may have started as a nightclub promoter, but today he’s a pioneer in the Good is the New Cool movement
How would you describe what charity: water does in just three sentences?
We’re a nonprofit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in need around the world. We’ve been working for a decade with local partners across 24 countries to build clean water projects that are sustainable and community-owned. We’re also on a mission to reinvent charity and change the way people think about giving, sending 100 percent of all public donations straight to the field and using technology to be hyper-transparent about the impact of donations.
What was the inspiration for charity: water?
A little over ten years ago, I was working as a nightclub promoter in NYC. After a hedonistic and selfish decade, I found myself morally and spiritually bankrupt and knew I had to drastically change course. I applied for international volunteer opportunities and was accepted as a photojournalist aboard a hospital ship through the organization Mercy Ships. I spent almost two years in West Africa where I saw firsthand what happens when people don’t have access to clean water. I witnessed parents who were left with no choice but to feed their children leech and bacteria-infested water from ponds they shared with animals. These two years truly changed my life, and I returned to NYC determined to find a solution to the global water crisis.
What is the deeper purpose that drives your work?
I believe deeply in the transformative power of radical generosity and compassion. That when we step outside of focusing on only our needs, when we take up the burdens and pain of others, it changes us for the better. I’ve seen the practice of giving bring joy and freedom to so many. And, as it pertains to our issue, I believe we can solve the global water crisis in our lifetime. Right now, not a single human being on earth should be drinking dirty water. No child needs to die of waterborne disease.
The water crisis is completely solvable, yet 663 million people live without this basic need. At charity: water, we’re constantly looking for new ways to invite everyday people to be a part of this story, creating a world where everyone has clean water to drink.
What are you proudest of?
The charity: water community is incredible. Well over 1 million donors around the world have shaken off the apathy that often accompanies issues and problems as big as this, and decided to give their time, talent and money to helping us solve the water crisis. Their generosity has allowed us to fund nearly 23,000 water projects for 7 million people. 7 million people whose lives will be changed because of this simple thing: clean water. I’ve been blown away by the support of children – giving up their birthday gifts and parties and asking for donations instead. I’ve been moved by the unselfish generosity of the 117 families who we call “The Well.” They pay for all office, salaries and overhead costs so 100% of the public’s money can go directly to work. And I’m proud of the passion and values that our employees and partners bring to work every single day. Giving deeply of themselves in the service of others.
What is the best feedback you get from your supporters?
The best feedback that we get from our supporters is hearing how much it means to them to see exactly where 100% of their donations are going. In the world of charity, so many people feel their donations go into a black hole and they never really know if it made a difference. At charity: water, we not only track every dollar, but we share GPS coordinates and photos of each completed water project along with info about the community it serves. We also recently developed and began implementing remote sensor technology on our wells, that report back how much clean water is being pumped and alerts us if the water isn’t flowing so we can fix them. These sensors provide an added level of accountability and transparency so that donors not only know where their well is, but know that it’s still functioning for years to come.
What is your favorite story about charity: water since it was started?
In the early days, I didn’t really understand how hard it would be to build charity: water with a true 100% model. We made a promise from day one that every public donation would directly fund clean water projects, with all operational costs like staff salaries and trips to the field covered by an independent, dedicated group of donors. The bank accounts are kept entirely separate and it’s one of the things I value most about the organization. However, there was a time when that separate operational bank account almost ran out. I had to decide whether to borrow funds from the water fund, which I wasn’t willing to do, or face bankruptcy. Thankfully, at the time when we were about to go under, we received a $1 million donation to the overhead account from a complete stranger who believed in our vision. We used that family’s confidence, and the extra time that transformative gift gave us, to build what’s now The Well program made of up 117 generous families. We never looked back from that day, and the 100% model is core to our organization, as is our integrity in maintaining it.
How is charity: water different from other organizations?
We strive to be hyper-transparent with our donors. When I was first building the organization, I realized that many people inherently don’t trust charities. In fact, I recently came across a study that found 70% of Americans polled thought charities wasted money (https://wagner.nyu.edu/files/faculty/publications/04_nonprofits_light.pdf). So I set out to make something different. I wanted to prove to donors exactly where their money was going. And I wanted to build a brand – something unique and recognizable, that would actually get people excited about giving. I realized that there was no Nike or Apple of the charity world that was using powerful storytelling and beautiful design to energize donors, so we decided to take that on.
In the same vein, we strive to be really innovative with regards to the tools and technologies we use to inspire our community and connect them with their impact. We created a VR film which transports viewers to Ethiopia where people can see a community receive clean water for the first time through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. We’ve live-streamed wells being drilled halfway across the world. But importantly, rather than use guilt and shame to coerce people into contributing, we are always trying to tell the stories of our work in ways that inspire hope and excitement for the mission.
Where can people go to support charity: water?
People can go to charitywater.org to learn more about the water crisis and join us in the fight to end it. It only takes $30 to bring one person clean water, and there are so many ways to help. People can make a difference by joining our new monthly giving community, The Spring, which is helping us reach more people in need than ever before. We also have an online fundraising platform where you can use your next birthday to help others, or start a fundraising campaign and share it with friends and family. And at the end of the campaign, everyone who gave will get a report showing the photos, GPS coordinates and direct accounting for where their donation was put to use!
What do you see in charity: water’s future?
We see The Spring as a big step for our organization, as it will enable us to better serve the communities we work with over extended periods of time. Right now we’re really focused on growing that program and engaging the community in new ways. We’re also constantly keeping an eye on advances in technology that allow us to further our mission and improve our supporter experience. Broadly, we will always keep innovating on ways to keep people excited and engaged in giving, to ultimately see a day when no person on earth dies from dirty water.