Interview with Scott Harrison
Scaling to $100 Million By Reinventing Philanthropy With Scott Harrison
Scott Harrison is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and bestselling author on a mission to bring clean drinking water to every person on Earth who needs it.
And he’s not just talking about it; he’s actually doing it. Scott is the Founder and CEO of charity: water, one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in history with more than 1 million supporters worldwide that raised over $700 million and funded over 111,000 water projects in 29 countries. Scott has provided over 15.5 million people with clean, safe drinking water through his charity.
After a decade of pure indulgence as a nightclub promoter, Scott fell apart physically and emotionally. He spent two years volunteering as a photojournalist on a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia and came back to NYC on a mission to bring clean drinking water to people worldwide.
He details his incredible journey in his bestseller, THIRST: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World.
In our conversation, we go over his journey from being attached to materialism to devoting his life to serving others, his innovative business model for scaling nonprofits that other organizations fail to use, and his vision for where charity: water is headed in the future.
Featured on This Episode: Scott Harrison
✅ What he does: Scott Harrison is the Founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. Through charity: water, Harrison has created public installations and innovative online fundraising platforms to spread international awareness of the issue. In seven years, with the help of more than 1 million donors worldwide, the organization has raised over $700 million and funded over 110,000 water projects in 29 countries. Those projects will provide millions worldwide with clean, safe drinking water. Before founding charity: water, Harrison spent almost ten years as a nightclub promoter in New York City before leaving to volunteer on a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia, West Africa, as a volunteer photojournalist. He was recently recognized in Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 list and Impact 30 list and listed as number 10 in the Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business Issue.
💬 Words of wisdom: “I think sometimes when you’re willing to give something away, it grows.” – Scott Harrison
🔎 Where to find Scott Harrison: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | LinkedIn
Key Takeaways with Scott Harrison
- The wake-up call that led Scott to abandon his luxurious lifestyle, sell all his possessions, and pay to volunteer in Liberia, West Africa.
- How Scott went from being broke and living in his friend’s living room to building one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in the world.
- The values and principles that make charity: water one of the most transparent and accountable charities worldwide.
- How Scott disrupted the traditional charity model and raised $700M to build 111,000 water projects across 29 countries
- Using his background as a nightclub promoter to raise $15,000 in a single night to help a refugee camp in Uganda.
- How speaking at early Twitter HQ (when Twitter had only 40 employees) inspired him to write his New York Times bestseller Thirst.
- The strategy Scott used to scale his charity to a $100 million-a-year organization.
Scott Harrison on Disrupting the Charity Business Model by Giving 100% to the Cause
Scott Harrison Tweetables“It's a simple mission. Everybody should have clean drinking water. We know how to solve it. Click To Tweet “If there's no water, there's no sanitation. If they've got to go get water that's 6 hours away from the home, which is very common, they don't get an education so it impacts women and girls. It impacts health. It impacts the local… Click To Tweet
- Charity: Water
- Scott Harrison on Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | LinkedIn
- Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World by Scott Harrison
- The Spring (film)
- Brad Lomenick
- Mercy Ships
- Living Water International
- Samaritan’s Purse
- Love Justice International
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Read the Full Transcript with Scott Harrison
Justin Donald: All right. What’s up, Scott? How are you today?
Scott Harrison: What’s up, Justin? It’s good to be here.
Justin Donald: Hey, it’s great to have you as well. And I’m just so excited, number one, that our mutual friend, Brad Lomenick, connected us and, number two, to share your incredible story and all the cool things you’re doing with my audience.
Scott Harrison: Well, thanks. Brad is a fantastic connector. He took a shot on me many, many, many years ago at a conference and we’ve been friends ever since.
Justin Donald: That’s awesome.
Scott Harrison: I just tried to not embarrass him.
Justin Donald: I love it. Well, Brad is incredible and I had him on my show for anyone listening that wants to check more out about Brad. He’s got a killer story and he’s doing amazing things in the world, too, so that’s awesome. So, I’d love to just kind of like dig in because you’ve done some really remarkable things. A lot of people run companies where they find like this niche or this opportunity for a huge profit. You’ve got other people that start companies and, more correctly said, organizations, right, where you are focused on filling a true need and it may not be profit oriented. Now, some may invest…
Scott Harrison: They have a term for that now. They didn’t when I started. Now, it’s called a social entrepreneur.
Justin Donald: There it is. There it is. So, walk us through becoming a social entrepreneur and what that looks like, where this term come from, where were you beforehand. Because you were kind of down and out for a little bit, right?
Scott Harrison: Well, my first career was trying to make a lot of money and become rich and famous through the nightlife world in Manhattan. So, I moved to New York City when I was 18. You know, the classic rebellion story, Christian upbringing church kid. I’m like I don’t want anything to do with any of that. I want a drink, I want to have drugs, I want to have sex, and I want to party. And the best way to do all of those things I learned was to become a nightclub promoter. And this was a job where you could party for a living and make a lot of money doing it. So, I spent the first ten years of my career, I guess, if you could call it that, filling up 40 different New York City nightlife venues with kind of the rich and famous, people who didn’t mind spending $1,000 on a bottle of champagne that cost $40. Now, it’s probably $40 a cocktail. Back then it was 25 and it was profane. So, that was kind of the first career, I guess, and it was an asset-light business. We would build up a big guest list and we would bring the people to whatever the hottest club was at the moment. And then when that club wasn’t hot anymore, we would just bring everybody to the next one.
And, I guess, my life at 28 years old was I collected many of the markers of success that I’ve been after. My girlfriend at the time was on the cover of fashion magazines, and I drove a BMW. I had a New York City apartment with a grand piano in it. And it was a lot of, “Look at me. I’ve arrived,” and inside it was a very different story. I was morally bankrupt. I was spiritually bankrupt. I was living the most hedonistic, selfish, sycophantic existence that you might imagine. And I kind of hit a wall at 28 and realized that I was contributing – I was actually net negative for society. Not only was I not contributing anything to the benefit of others, I was really tearing down to kind of have success in this world. You know, the more money you spent on alcohol, the more you partied, the later I could send you home at three or four in the morning out of your mind, the more money we made. So, I had a radical change at 28 and I asked myself, I came back to a very lost faith as a kid with a different lens as a more mature adult. Well, not sure about the mature part, but as an adult and asked myself this question, what would the opposite of my life look like?
Would I be able to offer something to the world or to others? Could I be useful? And that led me to a humanitarian volunteer experience in the poorest country in the world, Liberia, West Africa at the time. And I joined a medical mission as a photojournalist after selling everything I owned. And that was really the start of, I guess, this hopefully a much longer chapter in my life. It’s been about 17 years and counting now.
Justin Donald: Wow. You know, Scott, there’s so much to unpackage in this. And I love this self-discovery that you had. And I’m curious, was there a moment where maybe business was failing or there were issues where you could see it coming apart or was business booming and you just felt like you had to get out of here, this wasn’t the right life for you? Like, what was kind of the impetus to this massive life change?
Scott Harrison: Kind of yes and yes and yes and yes. So, the business at the time I was – so I think it started with just this realization that I was deeply unhappy and really so was everyone else. And this happened in Punta del Este, Uruguay. It was New Year’s Eve vacation. We just had it all. I mean, there were servants waiting on us, picking up our towels as we moved from beach chair to beach chair. There was a yacht that came with the house, spending thousands of dollars on fireworks. It was kind of the epitome of success in the hedonistic world. And I just realized it was like the music stopped and for the first time, I didn’t have a chair to sit down. I was just kind of looking around. And so, that started a process of discovery, of trying to reclaim a lost morality, a lost faith, asking these existential questions like, if I died today, what was my purpose on the planet? I certainly didn’t make my parents proud. My tombstone might read, “Here lies a guy who got a million people wasted.” And that’s not really good for the world. So, it started there.
And then I remember trying to go back to church and trying to pray again and asking myself the questions, what did I still believe from the childhood the stuff that was kind of maybe force-fed a little bit to me as a kid? And then there was a moment in nightlife where I got a guy fired for stealing and he came after me with a gun. And you have to understand, in nightlife, you’re threatened all the time. I mean, you don’t let people into your clubs and they say, “I’m going to come back and kill you.” So, this was one in a long series of threats over a decade. But it was a really critical moment and I felt like this is the time to get out and never set foot back into this business. And so, yeah, we were doing fine. We were making money. We were offered a partnership in the new restaurants. I was going to finally become kind of an owner in something. But it was a really critical moment where, I don’t know, I mean, I wasn’t sure how seriously to really take it and that led to just this massive reinvention.
I think I realized, Justin, a pivot was not needed. This was not a small course correction that was needed in my life. It was just do and say and think the exact opposite and see where that takes you. So, that’s why it was an extreme situation. I actually wound up having to pay $500 a month just for the pleasure of serving this organization as a humanitarian.
Justin Donald: Wow. Big difference there. And I’m glad I asked that follow-up question because it just shines so much more light on what happened, the epiphany that you had, and what better place than Punta del Este. And for those that are unfamiliar, you kind of have these hot spots all around the world. I think most people are probably familiar with…
Scott Harrison: Saint-Tropez, right?
Justin Donald: Yeah, right. And that whole area like the Monte Carlo, Saint-Tropez like coast. You got Cannes. You’ve got all kinds of stuff right there. And then on the Eastern European side, a lot of people would say like maybe Budva is that in Montenegro.
Scott Harrison: Yeah. Buzios in Brazil.
Justin Donald: Yeah. But in Uruguay or I would say in all of South America, there are a few different hot spots but Punta del Este is one of the most spectacular places in the entire continent. And it’s cool to hear that that’s where it happened in this place that kind of was flattering from the standpoint of what you did as a profession, right?
Scott Harrison: Yup.
Justin Donald: So, there are some irony in that. And so, with your business, were you in a position where you were able to sell your interests or was the business yours? And without you, it collapsed. Like, what did that look like when you left?
Scott Harrison: Well, I will say that one of the problems with being a nightclub promoter, and I know this is not unique to my business partner and I, you are typically spending more than you’re making because you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses and the Joneses have orders of magnitude more. Because our clients are the people that could drop $10,000 on alcohol in a single night. So, we’re flying around in other people’s private planes. It’s other people’s Amex black cards, taking care of the $21,000 dinner at the fancy restaurant with all the models and the celebrities. So, we were, no, the answer is it was all about us and our list and the charisma of the promoter But we weren’t savers. I mean, when I kind of came to an end, I was a couple of paychecks away. So, while we made great money, we spent every single penny of it, which is very different, obviously, than the life I live now. And there was no giving, you know, as a component. I mean, now I’ve raised $700 million of charitable capital, and I get to work with some of the most generous people in the world. That was not me. I mean, that was foreign to me. To give a $10 or a $50 donation to a charity was something I would have never done over those ten years. It was all about spending money towards to make me happy.
Justin Donald: That’s a great realization. What are you getting from the spending of those dollars? Because there are a lot of people that do spend the majority of what they make. Some people they don’t make a lot. And so, it’s reasonable to say, “Yeah. You live in an expensive city. You’re going to spend most of what you make,” even though there are probably still some ways to mitigate that if you really get creative. There are other people that make a ton of money and we have people that have joined my Lifestyle Investor Mastermind, for example, that have made millions upon millions of dollars and have spent every single penny of it and are ready for a change, ready for something new, ready for just a complete restart/reset. And it sounds like you had that. And I’m wondering like, what are the growing pains and the struggles associated with the consumerism that you had to this place of like, “I’m not going to consume the same way. I’m not going to spend my money the same way?” That can’t just be an easy break. Or is it when you have set your mind to it?
Scott Harrison: That’s a great question. I mean, there are a few questions in there. You know, so just to continue the narrative, I volunteered for two years paying my way to do so. So, that’s kind of income negative. And I came back to New York City at 30, having seen people drink dirty water. There was a particular irony for me because I used to sell VOSS water for $10 a bottle in the clubs and people wouldn’t even open the water. They would just buy 20 bottles and let it sit there because they were drinking champagne or vodka instead. So, I came back at 30, a life completely transformed. I’d quit drugs, I’d quit smoking, I’d quit having sex. I’d quit alcohol. I mean, I was just completely different. I mean, I just kind of set down all the vices in one go in one night, going out with a bang, I will say. But when I came back, I didn’t have any money. I was living on the closet floor of a friend’s house and I started Charity: Water from his living room, sleeping on a walk-in closet floor because he didn’t charge me any rent at the time. I think my first salary months later was $48,000 a year in New York City.
So, there was nothing. I mean, I was in a way, in the early days, just existing off of the kindness of strangers who would take me out for lunch or dinner, you know, like, “Let’s feed the budding humanitarian or social entrepreneur.” So, it wasn’t even an option to go out and live the life of excess because there was no income. I mean, I’m starting a charity. I don’t even know if this is going to make it that we’re going to get our 501(c)(3) tax status. I mean, there were so many unknowns in the very beginning.
Justin Donald: Yeah. It’s probably helpful that you don’t have the money to afford the vices, but it’s really impressive that you can cut out all the vices in one fell swoop. And I know a handful of other people that have done it, and I know this could often be a challenge but it’s incredible that you were able to do that, obviously, probably with the help of other people, too.
Scott Harrison: There was a lot of Nicorette going on, I remember. I remember there’s one moment I’m in Africa, I used to smoke two packs of Marlboro Reds a day, so like 40 cigarettes a day without fail. You know, if Reds weren’t there, I would smoke the unfiltered Luckies. I remember having the patch on and chewing like four blister packs of Nicorette at the same time. So, yeah, it wasn’t just that easy but I really wanted my life to look different. And I’m in Enneagram 8 so just extreme is easier for me than, oh, I’m just going to dabble in all this stuff and slowly pare back the vise. I just needed to kind of say, “I’m done.” I should point out I do drink today. I love craft beer and good wine. That’s probably the only one that I kept. I haven’t had a cigarette in 17 or 18 years and haven’t touched any of the drugs we used to do or any of that stuff. I used to love gambling, so I made a vow that I would never gamble again, which I have to say, you know, I speak in Las Vegas a lot and it’s not always been easy.
Justin Donald: Yeah, I’m sure. Well, I mean, I love commitments where people are all in and I love when they’re big and when you have like the true BHAG, right, the big, hairy, audacious goal and what it is that you want for your life or what you want to build for others trumps the immediate needs now or the immediate needs you think you feel like you need. So, that’s cool. Like you, I love some good craft beer and fine wine. That is a blast to me. I’m a student of those things because it’s fascinating to learn about and there’s so much history, especially on the wine side of things. So, let’s dig in a little bit more on Charity: Water.
Scott Harrison: Yeah.
Justin Donald: So, when did you make the pivot or transition from being like a paying member to work here, right? $500 you were paying to where maybe you are actually making money and how you got into a position to run an organization to start and run one?
Scott Harrison: Yeah. Well, I came back and the short answer is I was working for this group called Mercy Ships, which operated a huge hospital ship off the coast of Africa. And I wanted to help them and potentially have a job with them. And they just weren’t really interested. I mean, I was this kind of crazy New Yorker. I think I was successful in that role on the ship and I got them a lot of media. I helped them raise awareness and money through kind of promoting them, really. But that door just shut. So, I said, “All right. Well, if they don’t want me, what did I see when I was there in West Africa and I’d spent a lot of time in dozens of villages?” And the one thing that I had seen that kind of was my holy discontent, I guess, was just people drinking disgusting water. And it was related to health because I was embedded with these doctors and nurses and surgeons, and we were doing these very expensive surgeries for facial tumors and flesh-eating diseases and all sorts of problems in a country without access to health care.
But I learned that really two things. Half the country didn’t have clean water to drink or said another way, half the people in the country I was living in were drinking dirty, contaminated, disgusting water. And then, number two, the World Health Organization had said at the time, half the disease is because people are drinking dirty water. So, for me, it was just kind of that jump to the question behind the question or the root cause of so much of the sickness and suffering we were seeing, which was the lack of access to clean water. And, Justin, I’ve now been to 70 countries. You know, I’ve been to Africa 55 or 60 times. The terrible irony in so many of these areas is that the clean water is beneath the feet. It is underneath these communities. But I saw that they just didn’t have the access to the drilling equipment or the resources, the money to get that clean water out of the ground. And I said, “Well, I think maybe I can do that.” I mean, when you see your first well drilled, it seems like one of the most simplest things like why are we not doing more of this for the cost of an expensive watch or a really good night out partying?
Three hundred people in a village can get clean water for the first time. So, really, that door shut and I just said, “Well, I’m going to start a charity that helps people get water, Charity: Water.” And that wasn’t a wildly creative idea at the time but it was clear and simple. And I had the advantage of being 30 and not knowing anything about institutional philanthropy, not knowing anything about how to run an international NGO or a non-governmental humanitarian organization. So, I was just asking my friends, “What do you think about water? Do you think people should have water?” And 100% of people would say yes. And then I started understanding why some of them were skeptical and cynical when it came to giving to charity. And then I really got excited about trying to disrupt, which is such an overused word these days, but it wasn’t back then, disrupt kind of the charitable business model, which if you’d asked a lot of people 15 years ago means we give money to a charity, we never hear anything about what happens to that money, and then the charity just keeps asking us for more money until we eventually tell them to stop.
Justin Donald: Yeah. And to take it one step further, I actually think the majority of charities out there are not very transparent with how much that money is actually going to the charitable cause, where a lot of it is gobbled up in administrative fees and salaries and just stuff that if you really knew the financials, you’d be disgusted. Like, I searched really hard to find charities that really they do the work they say they’re going to do. Their budgets are good. The percentage of money raised to the percentage actually given to these causes is very high and reasonable. Most people don’t realize like that’s a huge issue.
Scott Harrison: It is. And at the time, I remember Anderson Cooper was knocking on the doors of some terrible charity leader who hired his mothers and cousins and brothers and nephews and was sending $0.03 on the dollar, if that, and keeping 97%. So, the charitable trust was really low. In fact, I remember coming across a USA Today poll that found 40% of Americans just said they don’t trust charities. More recently, NYU did a study found 70% of Americans believe charities waste their money. So, you’re not alone in that. And I really had kind of like this really clear idea. Well, what if I could take the most common objection off the table through a new business model? And I said, “You know, I’m going to create a business structure where 100% of every donation we ever take in goes into a separately audited bank account and 100% of that money goes to the field to build water projects. I’m then going to open up another overhead bank account and I’m personally going to raise all of the overhead, all the staffing costs, the toner for the Epson copy machine, the office rent, all that is going to be separate from a very small group of donors or entrepreneurs or business leaders who understand there are costs to running an efficient charity, but it would never be the public’s problem.”
I said, “You know, just from a branding standpoint, I’m going to take it one step further. I’m going to promise in perpetuity to pay back the credit card fee transactions incurred on every gift.” Let me tell you, that sounded like nothing at the beginning. This year, I think it’s $700,000.
Justin Donald: Wow.
Scott Harrison: So, if you go online and give $100 on your Amex, I wish I got 100, but I get about 97. And we pay back the $3 that Amex took so we can send and track your $100 donation to the field. So, the first idea was this 100% model. And of course, at the time, Justin, everyone is saying, “This is a dumb idea. How will you pay for your staff? Nobody wants to pay for overhead.” I wasn’t sure it was going to work either but I thought if we could pull this double-audited bank account model off, it would be wildly powerful. And I could reach out to the 40% that didn’t trust charities or the 70% and say every single penny, pound, dollar, euro, krona goes directly to the cause. And then the second big idea was just using technology at the time to prove where the money went, where are these wells or other water projects we’d be building were located when they were completed.
And this dates me, but I started the same time as Google Earth and Google Maps. And it’s kind of hard to imagine a world without Google Maps but I met the founder and I was in six months into Charity: Water, maybe, and I realized that Google was creating a free place where we could prove to the public where every single well we built was and we could show a donor the satellite image thanks to Google Satellites of the well that they funded and the location. So, I think it’s hard if you’re running a huge organization now to do that but our first well was just on Google and then our next ten wells were on Google, and our next 40 wells were on Google. Now, we have 111,000 across 29 nations, and we just built that into the business model. So, those were kind of the two big ideas. You know, the third idea was just this belief that for our work to be culturally appropriate and sustainable, it had to be led by the locals in each of these countries.
So, no dude from New York like me should be running around operating a drilling rig in Malawi or Cambodia. I could be a promoter. I could build awareness and a movement and create an efficient organization, maybe a fundraising machine that is the most transparent. I want to build the most transparent charity in the history of the world. So, that was kind of a stated goal early on. And then we would hire teams of Ethiopians and Cambodians in each of these countries to actually go and drill the wells or build the rainwater harvesting systems or construct these water projects. So, we’d be creating thousands of local jobs as we scaled. So, we just put those three simple ideas together and I threw a party in a nightclub for day one, and I invited people to come. I gave an open bar for an hour and they had to pay, they had to donate $20 to get in the door. And we collected $15,000 that night. We carefully photographed it and double counted it and triple counted and took photos of all the cash. And then we took it to the bank. And then we sent 100% of that to the field. And we did our first few wells.
Justin Donald: That’s incredible. I love hearing the story. You know, it’s interesting. So, my wife and I really believe in these clean water projects and for years we’ve been really involved in some way, shape, or form trying to bring clean water, whether it be through Living Water International or Samaritan’s Purse or many of these different organizations that are doing it. And I think most people don’t realize that, like if you’re living in a first-world country, you got clean water. It’s not a big deal but there are, what, over a billion people that don’t have clean drinking water. And so, like, this is a major, major crisis worldwide that most people listening to this podcast have never had to worry about. They may not even recognize that this is a problem, but it is. And I’m glad that you’re doing something. And I think there’s something really special about the fact that you’ve never been, I look at, politically, I never want to get into politics but there was once a time where there was no such thing as a career politician, right?
Scott Harrison: Yeah.
Justin Donald: You’d find people from the local area. They were doing whatever they did, whatever their profession was. And part of their duty was to donate some of their time. Now, it’s a lot different where you have these career roles. Well, there are pros and cons to that. And inside of like the world of nonprofit, if you are kind of just following the old playbook, then you’re going to do the same things that you’ve always done. Like for you, you weren’t involved in that world so you could come in and say, “Hey, why hasn’t anyone ever tried this? Separate accounts, raising money for overhead, raising money that actually 100% goes to the project?” And I think that’s incredible. And for me, in the financial space, I think because I never worked in corporate America, I never worked for corporate finance, same thing here is like I never saw the way that it just is and I was able to say, “Hey, this actually makes more sense but why are we having these situations where financial advisors make money but their people don’t? Like why does that even exist? Like, that shouldn’t exist. There’s a better model.” And so, you’ve been able to discover that in the charitable realms. I think it’s just so incredible.
Scott Harrison: Yeah. And just, you know, I know your audience cares deeply about business models and is interested in this stuff. So, the way that we run the organization today at scale, we raised $100 million last year in cash and stock donations. 131 families pay all the overhead. So, those 131 people love paying staff salaries. They love paying for all the flights to the field. They don’t mind paying for insurance or the phone bills or the Epson copy toner. That is allowed over a million donors to give in the purest way possible. So, I really just need to, you know, and those 130 people, I’d say 80% of them built businesses and they know that your business is only as good as the talent you’re able to attract and recruit. So, often, what I hear from that team is like, “Are you paying your people enough?” They’re not kind of nickeling and diming on the budget. They want to make sure we are competing with Apple or Twitter or Square or Google for software designers, for UI and UX designers that we’re having the very best people. And they’re kind of like our investors. So, it’s not that hard. They love giving to overhead. You know, they want an efficient, transparent organization, and that’s what they require.
Justin Donald: Yeah. I think it’s important to realize, like in the world of entrepreneurs and, by the way, my community is made up of all kinds of professionals. I’d say the majority are entrepreneurs but we have all kinds of different levels of professionals that are part of the lifestyle investor. And so, one of the cool things is when you run a business or you’re involved in a business, you recognize those needs differently than someone that doesn’t. So, for example, as an entrepreneur myself, I totally recognize that you have to pay like you need good incentives to attract really good people. Like, you could be on the cheap, but then you may not get the person that’s going the extra mile. So, it makes sense to spend more to get someone that’s going to go laps around other candidates for the mission. And so, I can see how the majority of people that are donating, you know, that are entrepreneurs that are donating to this overhead fund or overhead capital raise is because they get it. They get it at a high level. But the other thing to consider is there are a lot of groups out there. If you run a business, you have money that you probably have allocated as charitable dollars and it needs to go somewhere.
Scott Harrison: And let me make the case, it cost $10,000 to build a water project for a community of 250 people. And my wife and I… Now, I wrote a book where the advance went to Charity: Water. We have personally committed over $1 million now to our own organization. I love funding water projects in the name of my kids, in the name of lost ones that we love. Like, it is such a compelling way to spend philanthropic capital because it all starts with water like life starts with water. If you don’t have water, you’re not healthy. If your kids don’t have water at their school, the teenage girls are dropping out because they’re staying home four or five days every single month. If there’s no water, there’s no sanitation. If they’ve got to go get water that’s 6 hours away from the home, which is very common, they don’t get an education so it impacts women and girls. It impacts health. It impacts the local economy.
There was a famous 88-page paper that came out of the U.S. that tracked the economic benefit of simply bringing water and sanitation into a community. And they found every dollar returned a minimum of $4. So, an average of $4 to $8, in some cases, a 20X economic return. And the big one there, Justin, is the time that was wasted walking for dirty water is reclaimed and turned into productive work or productive income. You know, I remember when I started not believing the stat that 40 billion hours are wasted by women walking for Africa every year. So, imagine the power. That’s more than and I do realize this is a slightly ironic example but it’s more than the entire economy of France. Every single human being working in the country of France doesn’t equal 40 billion hours every year. So, that’s one of the great things about water. And it’s a little better than what you said. We’re down to 771 million people without water. It was a billion when I started and it’s one in ten people alive. So, maybe something to consider.
This is a little gimmicky, but a guy that works for me was in the field once and he saw the water crisis. And he came home to his three-bedroom modest house in Tennessee and he counted every tap that he had in his house. And he had 17, 17 places where clean water came out in his very modest three-bedroom house. So, to your point earlier, I mean, there’s probably people listening that have 100 taps in their house and garden hoses and maybe pools and irrigation systems. We just take clean water for granted. We were born into the 90%. We were born into a world where we just have this thing. I mean, we’re never even thirsty. I mean, you go run a marathon and there are people with cups every 10 feet, right, making sure everyone stays hydrated. And that’s just not the reality or the experience for two Americas full of people, 770 million people. And, look, we just think that number should be zero. It’s a simple mission. Everybody should have clean drinking water. We know how to solve it. There’s not a single person alive who were scratching our heads and saying, “We don’t know how to get them water.” Now, it costs money.
There are myriad solutions for different environments but we can always solve the problem for every single human being. That’s not true with pancreatic cancer, for example, or A.L.S. or many of these kind of challenges that have mystified people. And we’re spending billions of dollars of research but we don’t have the answer. We do have the answer for water. And that’s why. So, I’m grateful that you and your family have been supporting this issue for a while. The money goes really far and it makes a huge, huge impact in lives. Do I still have you?
Justin Donald: Yeah. That is fantastic. I love hearing that. Not to mention that there’s also the element of safety when you’re sending people across, you know, in many cases this is like hours to get. It’s not even clean water but it’s the cleanest water that they can get.
Scott Harrison: Justin, I mean, I know this sounds far-fetched but I have heard dozens of stories from women that have either been attacked by hyenas or lions at waterholes or crocodiles and have narrowly escaped a crocodile. I’ve been in villages where they’ve named four women who were dragged off at the waterhole by crocodiles and never seen again into the river. But then they say, “Well, where else do we go? This is the only source of water. So, we’re careful and we’re scared.” And not to mention the rape that can happen on some of these long walks away from home. One of the things that I learned in Ethiopia that I’d never really considered before, many of the women are giving birth at that waterhole shared with the animals. They might be 6 hours from their home because you need a lot of water when you’re giving birth. So, it’s more than just bringing a jerrycan or two jerrycans, 10 gallons, home to prepare for that. So, imagine being a woman giving birth to your child at night when you know there’s coyotes and hyenas and other animals that are around. And that’s just the reality for so many people around the world, not just in Africa, through other parts of India and Southeast Asia as well.
Justin Donald: And for those of us in first-world countries, it’s just unfathomable to even think that that is a reality somewhere. I just think it’s so cool what you’re doing that you’ve raised almost $700 million and I think you said 111,000 wells. That’s fantastic. And by the way, you were being modest about your book because I believe your book was a New York Times bestseller called Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World.
Scott Harrison: You’re very kind.
Justin Donald: So, tell me about this process of writing a book. I mean, did you feel like you needed to do this to create attention for this organization? What really was the impetus behind it?
Scott Harrison: You know, it’s funny, I’m just trying to put together the pieces, but I remember once, you know, we scaled very quickly in the early days. We were also very fortunate to have to birth our organization in the dawn of social media. So, I spoke at Twitter headquarters when there were 40 total people in the company, and it was Jack Bissonnette, and we became the first charity to get a million Twitter followers. You know, I spoke at Instagram, Facebook early on. I mean, we had so many of these relationships that helped us kind of maybe scale as a nonprofit alongside some of these big social media companies. So, I remember sitting with somebody at CAA who is a really good friend and she’s like, “You better tell your story before somebody else does.” And that’s such a weird thing because it’s like I don’t do anything in my life that’s defensive. But I remember saying to her like, “I’m way too young to write a memoir.”
And then she was kind of joking about that and said, “You really should try to put your story out there. It could not only raise awareness for your work, helping people get clean water and advance the mission, but you might inspire a bunch of other social entrepreneurs who might say, ‘Well, if a freaking cracked out nightclub promoter can go raise three-quarters of $1 million and help 15 million people, well, maybe I could too for my issue.'” So, that was really the thought was to inspire people with creativity and innovation. Also, in the book, I talk about some of the boneheaded, stupid things we did along the way and the times that we almost went bankrupt and almost didn’t make it. So, it’s not a story of just everything went right. And I was hoping that that would encourage other people and it’s been out for a little while now and I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people saying, “I just read this in college in my social entrepreneurship class,” which they have social entrepreneurship classes now.
Justin Donald: That’s incredible.
Scott Harrison: It’s freaking amazing. “And I’m not going to go pursue water, but I am going to go pursue justice for children or shelter or make sure nobody goes to bed hungry.” So, yeah, it was a cool experience writing it. I mean, at first thought, we were going to keep all the money and set up college funds for our kids. And then I got to a point really that last minute just said, “You know what, I’m just going to give away the whole advance and all the proceeds domestically, internationally towards the work.” And I think sometimes when you’re willing to give something away, it grows. So, it’s been cool to see the impact of the book.
Justin Donald: That’s incredible. I love hearing that. That’s a decision I made with my book as well, where 100% of the proceeds are donated to charitable causes. And at this point, it’s all gone to an organization called Love Justice International, and they stop human trafficking in 26 countries around the world and do incredible, incredible work. And, yeah, I think that it’s amazing when you can have some sort of IP or some sort of asset that is responsible for creating change and creating income that goes towards facilitating that change. I think that’s greater than any amount of money that you and I could ever consume from that product. Like, there’s just going to be ample opportunity to earn in other ways.
Scott Harrison: Yeah.
Justin Donald: That’s cool. So, this has been just a fascinating interview and I just love learning about you. I love learning about your company, your organization, Scott. How can we find out more about you?
Scott Harrison: You know, we’ve got a pretty good website. There’s actually, if people wanted to see some of the images, we’ve got a film now called The Spring that’s also on our website, CharityWater.org. That’s been viewed now over 100 million times across platforms. And it’s one thing to talk about people drinking dirty water, it’s another to see it. It’s one thing to kind of talk about a community getting clean water. It’s another to see water shooting up into the sky with 400 people dancing and celebrating and knowing that their lives will be forever changed because someone thousands of miles away cared about them and wrote a $10,000 check. Or a kid went out there and sold lemonade and contributed $47.21 and that went towards the construction of their projects. So, yeah, CharityWater.org is a great way to get involved.
And then we also have this unbelievable community called The Spring, which is it’s just the people that show up every month in the same way they do for Netflix or Spotify or Amazon Prime, except we don’t give you music or movies or next day shipping. And 100% of that goes directly to the people in need. And kind of moving/pivoting to that subscription model in year ten helped take us from a $30 million-ish organization to a $100 million-a-year organization. So, we’re really being powered now by so many people across, I think, 147 countries who give what they can every month. And that consistency allows us to grow and scale our efforts.
Justin Donald: That’s incredible.
Scott Harrison: So, that’s called The Spring. You can go to TheSpring.com and the video is there and everybody is more than welcome to join.
Justin Donald: I love it. Well, thank you so much, Scott. I appreciate that. And I’ve had a few groups, namely, Charity: Water with you and Love Justice International, that have both been able to share their message on this podcast. And I hope that this can be a platform to educate. My whole goal is to help people create financial freedom but we don’t have to wait until we have financial freedom to be able to give to causes and help support things. And then when we accomplish and achieve financial freedom, it really gives us the opportunity to be even more charitable and to use that surplus income in a way that it really helps the world. And so, I love what you’re doing. I want to close out today’s session in the way that I do every single week, which is this: What’s one step you can take today to move towards financial freedom and living the life that you truly desire on your terms, not by default, but rather by design? And I’m just going to add on to that. And in doing so, what can you do to support great organizations like Charity: Water and so many others that are out there? So, thanks again and we’ll catch you all next week.
Scott Harrison: Of course. Thanks for having me.