‘Do not be afraid of work that has no end’: Scott Harrison Explains How He Reinvented the Model for Charity



Harrison opened up the #SMWNYC conference discussing how he’s pioneered a new business model for non-profits through a radical commitment to transparency, bold storytelling, and commitment to work that has no end.


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“What would the opposite of my life look like?”

“What if I gave one of the 10 years that I wasted as a club promoter, in service to others?”

“What if I could tell a different story?”

These are the questions CEO and Founder of charity: water, Scott Harrison, asked himself before embarking on a journey to transform himself in order to transform others.

Harrison came up with the idea for charity: water after completing two tours with Mercy Ships, an international charity that operates the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world that provides free lifesaving surgeries for people where medical care is nearly non-existent.

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After becoming aware to some eye-opening statistics—including the fact that 663 million people (or 1 in 10) today are drinking unsafe water and 52 percent of disease throughout the world is caused by people who have dirty water—he knew there had to be a solution. And thus, the challenge of providing clean water to more people became his new life mission.

At #SMWNYC, the best-selling author walked attendees through this journey sharing his key learnings about work ethic and fundamental strategies for storytelling that have fueled the success of his organization.

Reinventing Charity

Per Harrison, there is a substantial “cynicism and skepticism” when it comes to institutional charities. In fact, according to a recent study by USA Today, 42 percent of Americans don’t trust charities and a whopping 70 percent of those polled by NYU say they believe that charities waste money.

Harrison’s organization aims to change these perceptions. In fact, he founded charity: water based on a desire to reimagine what it means to give. “Charity means love; it means helping your neighbor in need and getting nothing in return,” Harrison said.

Harrison pointed to Nike’s advertisements, which celebrate the pursuit of personal greatness and triumphs of overcoming adversity as opposed to America’s obesity issues, to explain why charity: water strives to do more than simply raise awareness for its cause. He explains that his organization is centered on hope and opportunity, and represents an invitation into a community that’s dedicated to giving the world access to clean drinking water.

“It isn’t our story. It’s is the story of our community.”

When it comes to marketing strategy, Harrison wants charity: water to feel markedly different than other brands in the non-profit sector.

“I saw anemic brands,” he said. “I saw poverty mentality when it came to design and branding, I saw shame and guilt being pedaled. The great brands don’t do this.”

Key to this model was for this work to be culturally appropriate from the onset, which would allow local partners to more effectively raise awareness and earn trust.

The organization has also tapped into creative partnerships with brands like American Express, Saks Fifth Avenue, and emerging brands like WeWork, Quip and Away all as means of getting people to care by thinking of water in ways they hadn’t before.

Innovation Through Radical Transparency

When people donated to charity: water, Harrison wanted them to be immediately aware of the impact. This business value originated from a simple birthday party he threw for himself in which every attendee donated $20 in exchange for open bar access, which became $15,000 by the end of the event. One-hundred percent of the proceeds went to efforts at a refugee camp in Yuganda.

When party-goers learned of this and expressed excitement about giving again and learning about the impact of their small donation, Harrison quickly learned the importance of closing the loop of virtuous connection.

This continued with efforts like shutting down the organization to devote time to thank you videos on YouTube one-on-one for the donors—including a three-minute video for a child who had raised $9 from a lemonade stand—and carving out Twitter and Instagram presences.

“Charity: water was the first charity to get a million Twitter followers and the first charity to use Instagram,” Harrison said.

Fast-forward to today and these efforts have enabled charity: water to scale across 27 countries and build the largest data set of rural water supply in the world. Thousands and thousands of wells are connected to the cloud where people can decipher not just where the well might be or see a satellite image, the organization can show daily flow rates 5-7 years out from now.

Bridging the gap between givers and outcomes boils down to transparency and an organizational appetite for taking risks, as opposed to idly standing by. For Harrison, this means embracing tall new tech platforms from a test-and-learn mindset and seeing what works. Not all are successful, but as Harrison says, you don’t know if you don’t try.

Embrace Work That Has No End

To date, charity: water has raised close to $400 million and supplied clean water to nearly 10 million people worldwide (put into context this is enough people to fill Madison Square Garden 480 times over). This far-reaching impact is the result of a million people banning together as a community who collectively reject the outcome of people dying from lack of clean water.

But the work is far from done. Harrison says that the progress to-date only represents 1/69th of the work that still needs to be done, and so he continues to invite people into the organization.

Summarizing his motivation to move forward, Harrison quotes a friend, “Do not be afraid of work that has no end.” Leveraging your time, your talents and your money to end the injustices and suffering around you in the local community and global communities is an endless pursuit, but this is our responsibility and the underlying inspiration that sustains and propels the work.

To close his #SMWNYC keynote, Scott offered the first 50 members of the audience a signed copy of his book Thirst in exchange for joining charity: water’s monthly subscription community while challenging us: “How can your life be useful to others? That’s where you’ll find the greatest joy.”

In honor of Scott’s opening #SMWNYC keynote, join the charity: water movement by signing up for a monthly subscription to Social Media Week’s dedicated page on The Spring.

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