There were a few things that Scott Harrison thought he could change if he started his own charity. So at 30 he founded charity: water, which brings clean drinking water to developing nations. He set about doing things his way: Projects would be easy to track by donors who could follow progress by way of GPS information and photos on Google Earth. Every bit of public money raised would go directly to water projects, and operating costs for the charity would be raised separately.
Another thing: The marketing, branding, and design wouldn't suck. "To solve a problem as big as the global water crisis, we would need an epic brand of hope and responsibility," Harrison said. "Just because we were a charity didn't mean the materials had to look bad."
Charity: water has been known for striking ad campaigns, with ads that show baby bottles full of filthy water and a television spot with actress Jennifer Connelly walking to Central Park to stand in line and get dirty water for her family.
Harrison knows about selling stories. For 10 years, he was a nightclub promoter in New York. "Essentially I was selling escapism, selling the mystique of what was behind the velvet rope: Beautiful people. And that the association with them would make you feel better about yourself," Harrison said.
When Harrison was 28, he had the realization that he was a "selfish scumbag" while on vacation in Uruguay with friends. He thought he had everything he wanted: Model girlfriends, a Rolex, a BMW, and basically getting paid to drink. But he wasn't satisfied.
"I thought there would never be enough girls, enough status or money or fame—there would never be enough alcohol or partying to make me happy," he said.
It was time for a major life change. Harrison decided to volunteer for a humanitarian organization, and traveled with Mercy Ships, which offers medical care, and traveled to Liberia. After witnessing how treating medical conditions could change lives, he decided to devote his life to charity.
He returned to New York City and, shortly after landing, went to the Soho House where a friend bought him a $16 margarita. He launched into self-righteously telling friends that the $16 could have been used to buy rice that would have fed a family of four for a month.
"That had to be the last time I ever approached it like that," Harrison said. "Instead, I had to look at the $16 margarita as opportunity. If these people are willing to spend $16 on a drink, wait until they hear the stories of what is possible. I believed it hadn't been told in the right way yet to capture their imaginations."
Harrison decided to kick off charity: water on his 31st birthday on September 7, 2006. He charged 700 guests $20 each to get into a yet-to-open nightclub. He then sent the guests photos and information about wells their money had gone to construct in northern Uganda. "They couldn't believe someone told them where their $20 went," he said.
About a year and a half after starting charity: water and raising millions for clean water—Harrison had nearly run out of money to operate the charity—there was only five weeks of staff salaries left in the account. Panicking, he reached out to Internet entrepreneur Michael Birch. After a few hours of meeting, Birch wired $1 million into charity: water's operating account, giving the charity 13 more months of operating expenses.
Harrison then created a private giving program, The Well, to fund operating expenses. Charity: water is so committed to the idea of 100 percent of public donations going to water projects that they even reimburse credit card transaction fees from operating fund donations.
His approach to charity has gained traction. To date, charity: water has funded 3,962 water projects, providing access to clean, safe drinking water for 1,794,983 people in 19 countries. It works in ways that are easy for people to see the difference they are making. About $20 provides one person access to safe drinking water. A typical well costs about $5,000 and can provide safe water for 250 people.
Charity: water's growth rate has been at a breakneck pace—from 2009 to 2010, they grew 85 percent. In the first quarter of 2011, they grew 100 percent in funding for water projects compared to the first quarter of 2010.
They receive about 70 percent of water revenue from online donations—the vast majority coming from individual fundraising campaigns through mycharity: water, which allows anyone to create their own personal campaign, such as donating birthdays or eating rice and beans for a month to raise funds.
Harrison's goal now? Raise $2 billion to help 100 million people in the next 10 years. With nearly one billion people on the planet without access to clean water—that's about 1 in 8 people—Harrison thinks it is a start. More and more people are hearing about charity: water's mission, often through social media. Charity: water was the first nonprofit to have more than one million Twitter followers.
"The water story is a simple one. There are solutions, and we can show people those solutions," Harrison said. "It's a story full of hope and redemption."
Scott Harrison will be speaking at the 2011 Inc. 500 | 5000 Conference. To attend, click here.