Inside the WELL Summit: Meet Keynote Speaker Scott Harrison, CEO of charity: water
After a boozy decade of nightclub promoting, Scott Harrison, founder and CEO of charity: water, declared spiritual, moral and emotional bankruptcy—and started over. He spent two years in Africa, saw the effects of dirty water firsthand and came back to New York City on a mission. That mission became charity: water, the nonprofit that raises awareness about and funds for the clean water crisis. After almost 12 years and $300 million raised, Scott is still on fire for the cause. We chatted with him about his new book, and why he’s excited to be one of our Keynote Conversations at WELL Summit NYC 2018.
How do you bring creativity to being the CEO of a nonprofit?
Charity: water has always been focused on design and branding and storytelling. We’ve made more than 500 videos to date and our second employee was a designer (now our creative director). We really adopted the “show, don’t tell” idea. The old way was to get donors with stats and have them read white papers. The new way is bringing them into the issues with stories of the lives of the people we’re helping.
How do you get the average American to care about the water needs of someone across the world? How do you bring that to life with all the other issues out there?
Our role is to get people to care about an issue that doesn’t impact them. We do that with ad campaigns with powerful images. We put dirty water in baby bottles with statistics on them. We’ve used taxi tops and buses and gallery campaigns with rich New Yorkers mirroring the conditions of the people charity: water serves.
We do water walks where you carry 40 pounds of dirty water to get people to experience what it’s like to walk in the steps of those who don’t have access to clean water. We’ve done exhibitions, going park to park in NYC.
We were the first charity to get one million followers on Twitter, and one of the first to use Instagram. We’ve done so much guerilla and grassroots work, we’ve given 1000s of speeches, from elementary schools to colleges and corporations. We’re trying to innovate and bring attention to this really important issue.
It’s amazing that 100 percent of public donations to charity: water go to clean water funds. How do you get private donors to cover the overhead?
We treat them like investors—I spend a lot of my time engaging with them and showing them what we’re up to. There are 129 families who pay for our overhead of our salaries, our offices. They include the founders of Facebook, Twitter and Spotify. And once a year we take our private investors to water sites. I’m going in March 2019 with a group of entrepreneurs and investors to show them the site in Ethiopia (where I’ve been more than 30 times).
We actually have two bank accounts, one for public donations that entirely goes to clean water sites, and one for our private investors that funds our overhead. Most people don’t know this, but we even pay back the credit cards transaction fees. So if you donate $100 online, we don’t get $100—we get $97, but we make up that difference and make sure $100 goes to the clean water sites.
In your book coming out October 2, you said that before you started charity: water, you were face with “spiritual bankruptcy” and were the “worst person I knew.” What does your spiritual life look like now?
I attend a small, non-denominational church in my community and I do a lot of speaking at churches. I got to speak at the Vatican on World Water Day this year, and I love to share my story with people of different backgrounds.
Just to be clear, charity: water isn’t a faith-based organization, and we have people of many faiths on staff. We’re all motivated to do this work, to improve the lives of those around the world.
I wish I prayed more, I wish I read my Bible more. But faith is the most important part of my life.
How does faith fit into your wellness practice? We hear a lot about meditation, and quiet time in wellness, but not as much about Christianity and prayer.
The Bible talks about meditation—it’s a word I grew up with, meditating on ancient texts. I listen to a lot of modern hymns, and I try to keep a dialogue of gratitude all the time.
Christians are told to be grateful and to extend blessings to those less fortunate. In the Bible, James 1:27 says that true religion is caring for the widows and orphans. I’m always looking for the opportunity to be a blessing to others. That’s part of my personal integrity and virtue.
What do you want people to take away from your new book?
We’re all on a journey. I often hear people be frustrated that they haven’t found their “purpose” yet. It’s never too late—I was on a hedonistic journey of decadence. I hit rock bottom, and then I found my purpose. It’s never too late to make an unlikely turn or shift in your life.
Also, I want it to raise awareness about the water crisis. One-tenth of the planet is drinking bad water. We know how to solve this problem, but we don’t yet have the awareness around it.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I’d love to help 100 million people get clean water. We’ve helped build 28,000 water sites to help 8.2 million people in 26 countries, but I want to do more.
I also would like to inspire many others to start their own organizations to tackle other worldwide issues. Together, we can end suffering around the world.
It’s been 12 years since you founded charity: water—what’s next for you and the organization?
We’ve only solved 1/80 of the water crisis. That’s 1.2 percent and it’s not enough. We’re going to continue to grow our impact and invite people into our issue, so it can be their legacy too.
What makes you excited about speaking at WELL Summit?
I LOVE speaking and telling our story! Eleven years later, I still love it. The charity: water story is made of of thousands of other stories that move others to compassion and empathy. I think I’ll be preaching to the choir at WELL Summit—it’s not a cynical group, and you’re going to get it! People need clean water.
Let me also let you know about The Spring, our group of monthly donors from 100 countries. For only $30 a month, you can help give one person access to clean water. It’s a special group that we’re inviting more people to join, and you’ll get content created just for you about the impact of your donation.