Founder, CEO of charity: water
Fast Company: Where did you grow up?
Scott Harrison: I was born in Philadelphia, PA and grew up in Hunterdon Country, NJ.
What occupation did your parents have?
My father was a businessman working as an executive for a small company that sold electrical transformers. When I was 4 years old, my mother became an invalid after the local gas company installed a faulty furnace in our house and she was exposed to carbon monoxide fumes. That’s a long story.…
What college did you go to? Major/Minor?
I went to NYU and majored in Communications. I wish I could say I was a good student, but I lived off campus for four years and wasn’t very diligent with my studies.
Favorite specific class or faculty member, what was memorable about it/them?
I remember taking a photojournalism class. We were sent to photograph the Twin Towers.
What was the inspiration behind your idea?
From the age of 18-28, I lived extremely selfishly and made a living in the New York City nightlife scene. My life was decadent and sycophantic. I drank excessively and occasionally used drugs. Then, after a decade of serving myself, I re-embraced my childhood Christian faith and decided to leave NY behind to serve God and the poor. That led me to Benin and Liberia West Africa, where I volunteered as a photojournalist alongside humanitarian doctors and surgeons. The poverty I saw there shook me to my core. I never looked back.
What problem or issue did you first try to answer?
I started charity: water hoping to address a couple things. I saw a disenchanted group of people (my friends and co-workers) who weren’t giving to charity. They felt disconnected . . . they didn’t know what good their money would do, and felt most charities were inefficient and opaque. I wanted to reinvent charity and bring this group back to the table. But I needed an issue. During my time with the doctors, I’d become acutely aware of the massive global water crisis. It was, in fact, a cause of so much of the disease we saw. A billion people didn’t have something I’d taken for granted every day of my life — clean drinking water. That needed to change.
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
With respect to reinventing charity, I wanted to create a transparent organization that used 100% of public donations to fund projects, and proved such using photos and GPS coordinates on Google Earth. With regard to water, I wanted to give as many communities as possible clean water. It wasn’t quantitative.
How did your goals change over time? And what is the goal today?
They got way more aggressive. We embraced design and started looking at charity: water as a brand. We were "selling" the most redemptive thing we could imagine. Clean drinking water. Why shouldn’t we bring the very highest level of sophistication and excellence to our work? With regard to water, I realize this may sound crazy, but I want to solve the problem in our lifetime. The 10-year goal is to provide at least 100 million people with clean water.
What was the first milestone reached when you knew this was going to work?
A few months ago, we funded enough water projects to serve our first million people. That’s awesome. That’s Madison Square Garden at 50 times capacity. On the other hand, we’ve solved 1/1000th of the global problem. A tenth of a percent. Next milestone? 10 million people. Then 100.
What figures do you most admire, whose leadership do you follow and whom do you seek for advice?
Dr. Gary Parker is a real mentor of mine. He signed up as a volunteer facial surgeon on Mercy Ships for a three-month gig and never came home. 24 years ago. He’s a man who embodies deep faith, integrity, competence, and compassion. I’ve also got an incredible personal coach and mentor that came out of tech. His name is Ross Garber, and he saw his internet startup Vignette go from 1 to 2,100 people in a few years. He’s helping me grow a lot professionally and deal with the challenges that come with rapid scaling. He kicks my butt and sends me flame email all the time. I love it.
How is your life different now than it was before you started?
That’s a hard question to answer. In every way, I guess. Before I started on this journey, I was a drunk selling alcohol and escapism for a living, obsessed with "me." Now I try to use my gifts to serve God and those living in poverty. I love every minute of it and can’t believe I actually get paid to serve.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
The idea of seeing a billion people served in my lifetime. The idea of making sure every single person on the plane has access to life’s most basic need — clean water. It’s really exciting, and I believe we can do it together.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama, what would you tell or ask him?
I’d use the time to show him pictures.
What was or what is your biggest challenge?
The 100% model. Using 100% of public donations to directly fund water projects has forced us to be very creative as we fund-raise separately for staff and operations. It’s not easy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
How has technology, social media affected your business?
It’s made the big dream seem possible and within reach. Soon, three billion people will be connected to the Internet. A friend told me once, "Scott, you know if you keep going like this, you might actually solve your problem using the inevitable math of networks." I love that.
What assets or challenges do you have because you are young?
I think youth has been one of our biggest assets. I started charity: water at 30 and have been completely comfortable with breaking rules. I looked around and didn’t see any nonprofit organizations that personified the values, design, storytelling ability, and transparency I was after. Being young, I believed anything was possible.
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be …
Studying theology? Helping other nonprofits embrace design and tell their stories simply? Traveling the world as a photojournalist for nonprofits? Who knows..
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin's DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We'll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We'll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.