Social Entrepreneurs

Scott Harrison | Impact the People, Planet & Profit

11 years. 1+ million donors. 7+ million people with clean water. 600+ million more who need it.

Scott Harrison and his team at Charity: water gave access to clean and safe drinking water to people in over 24 developing countries. Their ambition is to give clean water to the 600+ million people still in need and one day, they will achieve this impactful dream.

His Story

What is spiritual Bankruptcy for Scott Harrison? He made a living in New York promoting nightclubs and fashion events making thousands per month. Soon enough, partying and getting wasted became normal. He was feeling selfish, arrogant and unhappy. One day Scott asked himself: “what would happen if I lived in the 180 of my life?”

Unfulfilled with his life, Scott’s first move was to sign up, at 28 years old, as a full time volunteer with a floating hospital group called Mercy Ships in Benin and Liberia. Mercy Ships built a 25-year track record of astonishing results that you’d probably never heard of. Scott got his start as the ship photojournalist and captured the extreme poverty that people were enduring. He saw people drinking dirty water from ponds, rivers and swamps because they didn’t have access to clean and drinking water. Scott was in shock after spending 2 years in Africa, so he began to learn more about the world's 800 million people living without access to clean water. He returned to the Big Apple and started charity: water.

The meaning of being humble

Being humble for Scott was to trade his spacious midtown loft for a 150-square-foot cabin with bunk beds, roommates and cockroaches. Traded fancy nightclubs and restaurants for a hall feeding Army style. That resulted on living in a close community with more than 300 people.

Still, Scott was living and feeling like a prince, because a man with a bed, clean water and food is rich in his mind. He was able to see the value of human life and the struggle of more than 600+ million people trying to collect clean and potable water. With photography skills, Scott was able to put a face on the people living with less than $365 per year. Money he used to spend on a bottle of Vodka in a fancy club.

In those developing countries, Scott learned the real meaning of courage more than in any rich countries. Many of the patients he met had been slowly suffocating to death for years, with enormous tumors, faces eaten by bacteria and more. Thousands and thousands of patients would wait in line to be seen, praying, hoping, surviving. In the rich countries, many of the diseases existed, but were taken care of rapidly, so they never were allowed to progress in such a devastating way.  Scott was photographing those people and felt such an honor to do so.

Meaning of charity

It’s the core of the well being of every person in the world. Charity is always necessary, charity means using a position of influence and wealth to affect lives positively. Charity must be simply giving voluntarily to those in need. You should wear charity like you wear clothes, like a second skin.

There is a biblical parable Scott used: a man beaten near death by robbers. He's stripped naked and lying roadside. Most people pass him by, but one man stops. He picks him up and bandages his wounds. He puts him on his horse and walks alongside until they reach an inn. He checks him in and throws down his Amex. "Whatever he needs until he gets better." He did it because he could.

Creativity to create change

In the early days of your social enterprise, you must use creativity to gain traction. Scott, with his knowledge on marketing and promotion, organized a birthday party for friends and family, charging $20 for each attendee. With that party, he raised $15,000 and gave it to a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. Then, using GPS and his photography skills, he sent photos to every skeptical supporter present at the party. They saw the difference the $20 made for those people.

Even if you run an NGO, you could use technology and creativity to show donors the results of their denotation. The donors could use VR headset or web browser to be in the moment that water strikes and see the people celebrating the change in their village. The donors can also see on Google earth the proof of every Charity: water projects.

The peer-to-peer donation strategy was a home run. People, for their birthday, were not asking for gifts, but instead would create a fundraising page and ask people donations. Back in the days, Scott and his team first started that kind of strategy, so they built their own tool.  

With creativity, you must always design wonderful stuff. In Charity: water, leading by Scott’s wife Viktoria, they are making beautiful online design which people want to connect with, click on or watch video’s. Even keynote presentations given to small groups internally are well designed.

Trustworthy Brand

“More than 40% of Americans don’t trust charities” - Scott Harrison

In the social enterprise, social business and even in regular business, the trustworthy of the brand is one major key. Like Scott and Charity: water, 100% of the public donations go directly to fund water projects for communities in need. The overhead costs and other fees are fundraised separately, because he opened two separate bank accounts for transparency and accountability. He also asked for separate audits from KPMG to test the accuracy of the model. For Scott, a trustworthy brand is about one word, transparency.

Passion about never giving up

Scott has the desire and the motivation to never give up, because he has seen the amazing changes a single well can bring. He saw the impact on the life before and after the water was accessible to communities. That drives him to work harder to create a change in education, health, relationships and more. If you have a unique vision, you might struggle, but it gets more rewarding as you’re impacting people’s life.

Always room for improvement

Always keep in mind the fact that you’ll have room for improvement in every aspect of your social entrepreneurship journey. Improvement in your business skills, improvement in your business model, improvement in your social model and many more. Here is an example from the Charity: water subscription-based donation model. Scott regrets not having established this model from the beginning, because they had over one million generous donors, but most of them gave once. They could have had repeat donors for years, and less only one-time donors.

Storytelling to inspire the right people

Storytelling is such an important ability to inspire the right people in the social entrepreneurship field. Scott and his team love telling stories about optimism and hope. They are using storytelling in their business culture and brand to invite people to care about issues that they don’t personally face.

Scott has a story about a complete stranger who was inspired by their storytelling:

“back in 2008, we couldn’t raise the overhead money fast enough. At that moment, I had a meeting with a complete stranger who, after learning more about where we were at, went home and wired $1M into our overhead account. Since then, we never looked back.”

Live by your values

For Scott, you and your employees must bring the core values of your mission in their day-to-day life. You have to bring those values alive. For example, in Charity: water, they never pirate or use music without permission, they are giving of their money to other causes around the world.

Scott didn’t start his organization for fame or money, but to do something that matters. It’s the same thing for every single person who works at Charity: water. The main goal for Scott is serving others and helping as many people as he can with Charity: water.

Build a legacy

You should build a legacy beyond you and your employees or volunteers. It should be about the incredible people who are following you and are passionate about what you’re doing and how you do it.  For Scott, without them, Charity: water wouldn’t have been the social enterprise it is today. Scott said that the 10th anniversary video is probably the last one to really feature him, because now it’s the time to move to somebody else’s story. Now it’s much bigger than him and for him, that’s a great thing.


“We are living in the most remarkable time in history. If there’s ever a time when these huge problems can be solved, it is certainly today.” - Scott Harrison

Author - James Forbes

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