“It’s hard to convey the impact seeing the work in person has on people” – Charity: Water’s Scott Harrison on Making a Difference


My final year at YouTube was spent on a set of activities aimed at extending YouTube’s capabilities as an education and activism platform, not just an entertainment vehicle. One of the role models I met during this time was Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water. Scott’s a magnetic public speaker and as evidenced by his previous life of running high-end NYC nightclubs, he knows what makes people tick. Hearing how – and why – he shifted his life’s work to addressing water issues in Africa moved me to start getting involved in his and other organizations. Although I haven’t yet had the chance to go with Scott to Africa, we’re looking to join one of his “family trips” when our daughter is old enough. He’s a gem and here’s Five Questions with him…

Hunter Walk: Charity: Water is celebrating its 10 year in operations. Rather than asking you to look backwards, let’s look forward: what do you think will be most different about C:W 10 years from now?

Scott Harrison: When charity: water started, the mission was simply to bring clean and safe drinking water to as many people in need around the world as we could.

At the same time, I wanted to “reinvent charity” after learning than almost 1/2 of the people in this country don’t trust charities. We came up with a different way of transparently handling public donations (the 100% model), cared deeply about design and storytelling, and wanted to hold ourselves accountable to effective work in the field (which at first was as simple as putting up all the photos and GPS of our water projects on Google earth and maps).

However, as our work in 24 countries evolved, we began to focus more on sustainability. We realized that dots on a map weren’t enough, and we wanted to be able to prove the sustainability of our programs – put simply – we wanted to make sure clean water was continuing to flow for years to come at these water points. It’s still early days, but we launched a program called “Pipeline” and have now deployed 1,000 remote sensors in Ethiopia which are giving us not only functionality reports, but telling us exactly how many liters of clean water are flowing every day.

We’ve also been training up local mechanics through our local partners, who can run maintenance routes and make preemptive repairs and major repairs on thousands of projects.

As we look to the next 10 years, I think we’ll be able to take some of the tech we’re building and share it with others. The sensor project, for example, was funded by a grant from google.org and is all open-source. It’s made for the afri-dev well, and there are more than 1 million of them in Africa.

The sensor costs only about $100, and can protect a $10,000+ asset. Imagine installing them on every single well in Ethiopia. Or Uganda for example.

As charity: water grows, we’re excited about not just reaching people directly (we’ll hope to help another 1M people in 2016 alone), but also reach millions more through some of the technology solutions we’re building, and through our Pipeline program (our mechanics are now starting to also visit and repair non charity: water points in their coverage areas).

HW: C:W has always successfully engaged “influencers” to help spread the word but my impression is that those folks don’t just tweet, you actually take them to Africa, help them understand the problem. What changes for people once they come to Africa with you versus *just* hearing about the problem?

SH: It’s hard to convey the impact seeing the work in person has on people. For example, I’ve been to Ethiopia 27 times since starting charity: water, and every single visit has changed me. I always leave touched by the profound amount of unnecessary human suffering that comes without clean water, and inspired by the progress that’s being made, and the lives we’re able to change by providing such a very basic need for human flourishing.

While we wish we could take everyone to the field, I’ve been able to host about 300 of our top supporters over time, and it’s always one of my favorite things to do.

I literally just get out of the way and live vicariously through their experience meeting our local partners and the people we’re able to serve. It’s one thing to see me make a speech about the issue, it’s another to touch, smell and see it in person.

We often have visitors carry 40 pounds of water a fraction of the distance that the women and children travel each day, and some simply aren’t able to manage. Those that do normally often collapse in exhaustion, and gain a deep sense of empathy.

HW: Your focus on accountability resonates with me – how as a donor, I can see exactly what projects my dollars are being spent on and know that water well is making a difference in a community. Was that a basic belief from the beginning – that you needed to show people the change they were funding – or did it derive from a particular experience, piece of feedback you received?

SH: Yes, I saw that my friends weren’t giving to their parents or their grandparents charities. There was a lack of trust in the system, but so many people really did want to help. They wanted to be generous and make a difference.

I thought we first had to solve the problem of “where the money went” and then solve the problem of “what it accomplished”. I thought we’d be able to use technology to connect supporters to the impact their gifts would make out there and that if we closed the loop, we could restore a little more of people’s faith in giving, and hopefully encourage future generosity!

And we’ve always looked for new ways to do that. Whether it was mounting GPS units on our drilling rigs and giving them Twitter accounts, making impromptu videos from the field with beneficiaries, or now, sensors.

Just last week I shot a very quick email to a prominent tech founder letting him know I’d come across the sensor data on one of his older water projects in Africa, and that well was producing 1765 liters a day, four years later.

HW: There are a number of water-related charities and obviously this problem is large and critical enough that many hands, dollars and approaches are needed to solve the problem. But in another way are your organizations “competitors” for donor money or for press? How does competition work in the nonprofit world?

SH: I get asked why charities don’t merge or collaborate more, and I think it really comes down to culture.

There are a lot of great water organizations out there doing important work. Some with similar business models to ours (raising money and awareness, then implementing the work through teams of locals and local partners), and others working in more urban and peri-urban environments. The water programs team at charity: water is pretty active on the water conference circuit, and we’re always trying to share what we’re learning with others in the sector.

We also built a website to share some of the best practices we’ve learned around building these local partnerships: http://partner.charitywater.org/

When it comes to fundraising, I have such an abundance mentality, and don’t look at other water orgs as competing with us. It’s such a huge issue – the 663M people without access to clean water. charity: water has only helped 6.1M people – about 1% of the problem. So there’s plenty of space for other organizations to take up this issue, build up supporter bases, and work alongside each other improving human lives. I think there “is enough” and we all need to work hard at bringing people into this important causes, and then stewarding resources carefully.

HW: Does the tech community care enough about Africa versus just our own backyard? Have donations from technology companies and individuals increased substantially over the decade of C:W? Someone reading this who hasn’t yet donated to C:W, what should they think about?

SH: Much of our funding on the “other side” of the 100% model has come from technology founders and employees. In other words, more than half the people that fund the staff and overhead costs through a unique giving program we designed called “The Well” come from tech.

The values of the organization – transparency, a focus on metrics and growth, attention to design and innovative storytelling – resonate with many people.

However, I’ve seen that change and their support also include a real love for Africa and the work after a field visit. For someone that hasn’t donated yet, I’d encourage them to learn a little more about our work here and then considering a monthly donation at charitywater.org