The Charity That's Reinventing the Nonprofit Business
Can one man solve the world's water crisis, reinvent the nonprofit business, and build an Apple-worthy brand in the process?
Last year Scott Harrison took the stage at the Inc. 500|5000 Conference to tell attendees how he planned to accomplish exactly that. His story was so moving that many conference-goers were inspired to shout out pledges to donate to the cause during his talk.
Harrison, who founded the nonprofit charity: water, returned to the Inc. stage Thursday to re-tell his powerful story--and explain how the Inc. community has helped move the needle.
The Back Story
Harrison spent the better part of his twenties rebelling "in style." That meant he spent his evenings working as a nightclub promoter "getting people drunk for a living," smoking and drinking incessantly, developing a gambling problem, and generally making a mess of his life.
He came to his senses while traveling abroad. He had spent years living only for himself; now, God was calling him to turn his life around. He decided he'd serve the poor for a year.
He wound up in Liberia on a humanitarian mission to offer surgical services to poor. One year serving the poor quickly turned into two. During his travels he discovered one of the major sources of so many of the health problems he was seeing in patients: They didn't have access to clean drinking water. More often than not, the African villages he visited relied on a hole in the ground filled with brown, contaminated--and sometimes leech-filled--water.
He returned home to New York City but "I couldn't get that swamp out of my head," he told the Inc. audience Thursday.
Harrison knew one thing: "Water is a serious, serious problem--and it's 100 percent solvable." Building wells isn't rocket science, after all. But the problem was two-fold: How do you get people around the world to care enough to give money to build the wells, and how do you build a nonprofit that gives 100 percent of its money to the cause?
The entrepreneur, who was $30,000 in debt at the time, threw himself a birthday party in New York and asked attendees to donate $20 each. He raised $15,000, which he took to a Ugandan village to build three wells and fix three wells. When he was done, he sent photos back to the party attendees to show them where their money went.
They loved it, and charity: water was born. Now all he had to do was repeat the experiment on a bigger scale.
Through a combination of clever advertising and social media campaigns, Harrison quickly won over celebrities and national brands. Michael Birch, an entrepreneur and co-founder of the social media site Bebo, stepped in and donated $1 million to pay for operational costs so that Harrison could continue to funnel 100 percent of donations to water projects.
And he gave donors the tools to become emotionally involved in the act of donating. Via the website, they could "give up" their birthdays and instead ask friends and family to donate in their name. Charity: water tracked where the money went and used its website to update donors on the progress of well projects.
What a Difference a Year Makes
After hearing Harrison's story in 2011, the Inc. 5000 crowd was eager to help. In fact, attendees raised $120,000 to help pay for a drilling rig. But several businesses followed up and wanted to do more. One company offered to ship the rig to Ethiopia for free. ClearCorrect, a company that makes invisible braces, raised $84,000. Asset Plus, a property development and management firm, raised $25,000.
Harrison hasn't yet solved the world's water crisis. But he's well on his way to making a big dent in the problem. In six years, charity: water has raised $74 million from 400,000 people. That money has helped fund more than 6,600 water projects in 20 countries. Those projects have provided more than 2.5 million people with clean drinking water.
Those are the kinds of results most for-profits would kill for.
"When you can bring clean water into a community, it dramatically changes everything," Harrison told the audience.