Many of us feel the need to serve a greater good in life, but turning a passion into a successful nonprofit takes serious business acumen.
Scott Harrison was 28 years old, sitting on a beach in Uruguay with a model girlfriend, a Rolex watch and a BMW waiting nearby—a life the nightclub promoter in New York City had been chasing after for nearly 10 years—when he realized (in his own words) "what a selfish scumbag" he was. His entire adult life had been geared towards serving himself and the club patrons, and when he had done nothing to help others, it made him step back.
Seven years removed from that day on the beach, Harrison is still in New York, heading up charity: water, a non-profit organization that has delivered clean drinking water to over 1 million underserved people in 17 different countries, and aspires to help more than 100 million in the next ten years. How serious of a problem is he tackling? In short, nearly a billion people on the planet don't have access to clean, safe drinking water (that's one in eight people). One of the most successful social entrepreneurs of our time, Harrison's visionary non-profit grew over 100% in the first quarter of 2011 (as compared to the same period in 2010), the economy be damned.
Success stories like Harrison's are few and far between for social entrepreneurs, defined as "someone who targets an unfortunate but stable equilibrium that causes the neglect, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity; who brings to bear on this situation his or her inspiration, direct action, creativity, courage, and fortitude; and who aims for and ultimately affects the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures permanent benefit for the targeted group and society at large," by Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg in a 2007 Stanford University report titled "Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition."
But how do you make it as a social entrepreneur, and why now? As Rupert Scofield, the president and CEO of FINCA International, writes in the recently released Social Entrepreneur's Handbook, "whether your mission is as ambitious as pulling millions of people out of poverty or as modest as feeding people in your neighborhood, now is the perfect time to get started. Social entrepreneurship has never been more needed, more valued and more achievable than it is today."
How to Become a Social Entrepreneur: Know Your Issue
What made Harrison's mission different? While in Liberia taking photos, he recognized the one item that was causing sickness and even death for most of his subjects was something many of us take for granted, clean water. He saw it (people walking miles to get clean water), photographed it (including emails to club-promoting friends) and found his calling. When he returned to the U.S., he knew what issue to tackle, and he has never looked back.
Regardless the issue, you need to be 100% in on it. "The biggest mistake I see most people make is that they're half-in, half-out," notes Harrison. It's great that you want to help others, but you need to know what you're doing. And it's not easy. So if you're not sure what to do, look into joining another existing non-profit until you find your passion.
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How to Become a Social Entrepreneur: Build the Brand
"Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times that any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than all the world's life-saving causes," says Harrison. "That really made me think: how could Doritos go out and spend hundreds of millions of dollars talking about chips and sneaker companies spending billions marketing shoes? But here we are trying to do one of the most redemptive things in the world, and bring clean water to every man, woman and child. To get the message out, we had to create an epic brand that people could trust to do that."
For charity: water, it was about re-creating charity. He built a 100% model (finding separate donors to fund staff and operations) and wanted to show donors all the work they helped to fund. The first employee Harrison hired was in operations, and the second a designer who helped to build the brand from scratch, differentiating it from other charity websites. And for the name, he simply thought of what he was doing as charity and added whatever the first thought he had was, which unsurprisingly was water.
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How to Become a Social Entrepreneur: Think of It As a Business
"The modern non-profit must adopt many of the same strategies, policies and best practices employed by successful enterprises in the for-profit world, but not at the cost of its soul," writes Scofield.
While it is important to function as a non-profit in legal terms, the most successful charities are well-run organizations, no different than for-profit companies but with a different business objective. Literally every element of your brand should be business-driven. For charity: water, their sleek New York office consists of donated goods but rivals any top creative agency, they employ sophisticated CRM software to learn more about their donors (like a salesperson would a client), and plenty more.
"I think of charity: water as a for-profit tech startup that has no profits," says Harrison. "We give away 100% of our profits. So the better year we have, the more people around the world have access to clean water. Our shareholders are people in 17 countries around the world waiting for a rig to drive into a village to provide clean water to a few hundred people living there. We use the word business so much more than non-profit, even though that's what we are."
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How to Become a Social Entrepreneur: Hire Employees Smarter Than You
A problem that isn't unique to nonprofits, any well-run organization needs to employ this simple hiring tactic. For social entrepreneurs, it's often just as difficult to hire other employees who may have skills or experience beyond yours, but that's no different than a for-profit entrepreneur building a team. Once you get over that original fear, you will be able find and keep talented employees who recognize that your ego doesn't get in the way of success.
"Today more than ever before, human capital is what counts, not financial capital," Scofield says. "In the nonprofit sector, you probably don't have the ability to offer either the short-term big bucks or the whispered promise of future riches that equity provides. Some managers are afraid to hire people smarter and more ambitious than they are, thinking these new hires will knife them in their back and steal their job. You just can't do that and succeed."
Harrison adds that the sales pitch to potential employees, while often more difficult in terms of finances, is all about finding the right people.
"I've got to really inspire people to give their lives to something greater that are interested in legacy and making history as one of the greatest world problems is solved," says Harrison. "We're always looking for talent and that's often my ask—not for money but for talented people to join what we're doing.
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How to Become a Social Entrepreneur: Employ Transparency & Authenticity
Another of the principles for Harrison early on was being truthful with donors. He wanted them to know everything about his cause (hence the thorough website), but importantly the financial information. He didn't want any questions on where the money was going, so he made it personal. Annual reports are available for download to anyone visiting the website, and there is an updated counter on how many people charity: water has helped.
"It was really important to me to be completely honest with people where their money went," Harrison says. "So if you sponsored a well, we would send you back photos and the GPS coordinate of the projects, so you would know it existed and where it was, the community and the people you helped. We're trying to make that personal connection to make that tangible for people."
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How to Become a Social Entrepreneur: Develop Smart Partnerships
For many social entrepreneurs, success is dependent upon (or relies heavily on) developing effective partnerships. From a corporate perspective, you want to align your brand with organizations that have a good track record but also align closely with your ideals. Large organizations get so many proposals for charitable causes in a given week that you need to smartly target which ones make the most sense, and get it right the first time.
Beyond corporate partnerships, you can't do it yourself. Similar to hiring smart employees, you need to be watching for companies who can help you to achieve your end goal. For charity: water, that's the people that actually drive the rigs of clean water into the underserved towns, the people that build the wells, etc. Make sure the people you're in business with understand your goals and can relay that message, so it doesn't get lost in translation.
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How to Become a Social Entrepreneur: Make an Emotional Connection
Without a doubt, public perception can drive social entrepreneurs to success or failure, and rather quickly. Every organization (for-profit and non-profit for that matter) wants more media mentions and press coverage. But sometimes, it's as simple as going back to that original passion you had for the cause and developing your own ways to connect with individuals. Control the message and the medium, and never lose sight of what your ultimate goal is.
Harrison has had many big-name celebrities support his cause, from Will and Jada Smith raising over $100,000 on their birthdays to a viral video of Jennifer Connelly depicting the water crisis but in New York City terms. But all of that said, he is just as impressed with individual efforts like 8-year-old Ella Salerno of Austin, Texas, who started fundraising for her birthday.
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How to Become a Social Entrepreneur: Utilize All Available Platforms
"Visual storytelling has been really important to our success," notes Harrison. "We've made over 200 videos using new media and are on ten different social media platforms, because they're as easy as signing up. We're aiming to connect donors in as close to real-time as possible with the people they are serving around the world."
Perceived by many as one of the truly successful social media social entrepreneurs, Harrison and charity: water views it with a basic mindset: you need to be everywhere your donors are, and provide them value at every touch point.
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LOU DUBOIS is a Philadelphia-based Social Media Editor for NBC Universal's local news affiliate (WCAU-TV). He is an experienced writer, editor and marketer who has worked with and written about Fortune 500 companies and small businesses, focusing on social media, emerging technologies, small business success, entrepreneurship, sports business and corporate policy. Previously he worked for Social Media Today, Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and SOBeFit Magazine, along with various newspapers.