In 2015, Scott Harrison nearly quit the organization he spent almost a decade creating. For eight years, Charity Water, a non-profit organization that provides drinking water to people in developing nations, had consistently raised more and more money, but in year nine his business brought in less than it had the year before. Harrison was devastated. "We went from getting one million people clean water to 820,000," he said during a recent interview at the Inc. 5000 conference in San Antonio, Texas. "I had an existential leadership crisis." He was so shaken up that he seriously considered stepping down as Charity Water's CEO. 

But, instead of stepping down, he took a month off and moved to Northern California where he lived in a picturesque house on a cliff that overlooked a lake. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned. "It rained harder than it had in the previous 20 years," he says. "It was like a metaphor for exactly how I was feeling."

Still, he was able to take the time to think, and he realized that he needed to stay and re-imagine the charity's fundraising model. Instead of asking for one-time donations every year, he took a page out of Netflix's book and started signing people up to "subscriptions," where they could automatically donate month after month. It made a massive difference: five million people will get clean water this year. 

While Harrison is thrilled that he's helping more people, that one bad year gave him a new perspective on what it means to run a business--and make a difference. He shared three of the most important things he learned.

1. Don't Focus Exclusively on Growth

Entrepreneurs are often hyper-focused on growth, but, as Harrison realized, just because revenues are flat one year doesn't mean you've failed. It's more important to run a company in the right way and be proud of what you've done. "My dad gave me some great advice," he recalls. "He said, companies don't always grow--his own didn't grow for 30 consecutive years. He then asked me if I compromised my values in any way during that down year and if I did anything I wasn't proud of. The answer was absolutely not."

2. Don't Forget about Family

One realization Harrison made was that to make a difference in the world, it's important to remember that there's more to life than business. He had been on the go for so long that he never sat back to enjoy his accomplishments or to truly focus on the parts of his life that really mattered, like his wife and two kids. "I learned that it's healthy to have a little bit of separation between my identity as a person, a husband and a father, and my identity as the leader of an organization," he says.

3. Don't be Afraid to Try Something New

Up until that year, Charity Water only asked for one-time donations. People would generally donate birthday gifts once a year and they would then have to convince those same people to give money again. That model wasn't sustainable, but, at the time, he didn't think about doing things differently. Now, he's always thinking about what to do next. "One of the big realizations I had was that what got us here is not going to get us there," he says. "We looked around and asked 'what else can we do?'"

For Harrison, the difference he made was stopping to think about how he wanted to run his company--and that made a difference to the people he was trying to help. "We realized that we built the wrong organizational model," he says. "(Now) more people are getting involved and that allows us to help more people get access to clean water."

Published on: Dec 12, 2018