Fast Company

Trickle-Forward Economics: Scott Harrison's Water-Based Experiment In Viral Philanthropy

WaterForward transforms the concept of pay-it-forward into a viral philanthropy campaign for clean water projects.

"I believe there's an enthusiasm around giving that we would hope to infect the world with," says charity: water founder Scott Harrison, whose breakout nonprofit has raised over $40 million for clean water projects worldwide. "We're trying to give you an opportunity to get involved, and to get others involved."

The optimistic philosophy of charity: water has driven Harrison to transform its donors' most common instances of self-indulgence into storytelling opportunities, such as asking individuals to exchange birthday gifts for donations, which inspired a growing network of donors to also give up birthday presents and ask instead for donations.

The same strategy has propelled a new experiment in micro-philanthropy with WaterForward, a pay-it-forward model of charitable giving where, for $10, a donor inscribes a friend of his or her choosing in a public book; each donor can only be in the book once, so any sense of reciprocation has to be directed to another friend, hopefully sparking a cascade of forward reciprocity. The ultimate goal is to bring clean water to a billion people who don't have it; 100% of public donations go to clean water projects. Physical volumes of the book will be printed every time an "edition" is one million people strong.

"People enjoy it when something nice is done for them, and people enjoy doing nice things for other people," says Michael Birch, the architect of WaterForward, which soft-launched last week, and one of charity: water's early major donors.

With initial funding from supporters like TOM's Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, the project launched with all-star cast of founding WaterForward members, each inscribing 500 of their social network friends into a public book. Several thousand lucky individuals were notified via Facebook and Twitter that a $10 donation was made in their honor, and, if they felt inclined, they could continue the chain of giving by doing the same for their friends.

"It doesn't start with an ask, it starts with a give," explains Harrison. "We don't use our social media to ever ask for money," keeping consistent with the strategy that an ask for money will likely terminate the relationship after the donation, but storytelling keeps both the initial donor and future donors engaged.

Donors are implicitly encouraged to think strategically about who to inscribe from their personal network: A social butterfly could spark a chain of giving that results in an extra impact of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Indeed, the WaterForward dashboard includes a graphic-friendly way to track one's total impact all the way up and down the pay-it-forward chain.

When giving is getting and donors are ambassadors

"We've outsourced our fundraising to you," says Harrison, who explains that charity: water's strategy has been to spread their message by transforming gift-getting events into gift-giving opportunities. For instance, in 2006, Harrison decided to give up birthday presents in exchange for his age, 32, in dollar donations ($32, $320, or $3,200). While he was pleasantly "surprised that this gimmick" raised $59,000, the simple self-experiment became a full-fledged model when it unexpectedly inspired a 7-year-old boy in Austin, Texas to raise an impressive $22,000.

"The average person who gives up a birthday raises about $1,040 from an average of 13 people," he says, "And, 13 new people now know about the work, and are brought in by you."

Harrison believes the model has become successful because donations don't feel like a sacrifice. "You've turned your birthday into a celebration of generosity," he says. "Instead of going out and saying 'Ugh, please give money for my birthday,' you're sharing an opportunity with them."

The same approach is taken with charity: water's high-profile donors, many of whom are currently with Harrison on an East Africa expedition to observe clean water projects in action. Rather than roll out the red carpet, members purchase a spendy ticket to sleep in packed dorm rooms, carry jerrycans for miles, and drive hours over bumpy roads between villages. "I want it to be rough," says Harrison.

Experiencing a glimpse of hardship and being personally thanked by local villagers will inspire participants to not only donate money afterwards, but become ambassadors to their network of deep-pocketed friends and legions of Twitter followers. "If the goal is to engage in service, in sacrifice, in giving, guilt doesn't do any of those things well, it doesn't create any lasting change," Harrison says. 

Simplicity and design

"If you can't tell people what it is that you're doing simply, they're not going to come along with you," explains Harrison, who often has designed his fundraising model and projects around ideas with a simple message that can survive intact through word-of-mouth (such as asking for his own age in dollar donations). As a result, charity: water guarantees that 100% of proceeds go to clean water projects, remunerating credit card fees from online donations and providing detailed transparency tools to track donations.

While Harrison admits that having to separately raise operating costs is a constant headache for the growing organization, he says that the simplicity of "100%" was necessary to overcome much of the doubt and confusion stopping charitable giving.

Harrison says he draws his marketing inspiration from the private sector, paraphrasing Nicholas Kristof, who once lamented that "Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups." The result has been celebrity-filled PSAs and commercial-grade production that brings the idea of dirty water into familiar settings.

Ask Why

Harrison's (optimistic) belief that people will pay good money for the warm-fuzzy feeling of philanthropy stems from a life-altering humanitarian trip to East Africa. Prior to this, he was living a decadent lifestyle in New York as a club promoter, complete with all the lavish trappings of a rock-and-roll lifestyle. "I was miserable for 10 years," he admits.

Most of charity: water's innovations have been an attempt to give donors to relive the same revelations that Harrison experienced when he returned from Africa, from giving up his birthday, to taking donors to the very continent where his mission started.

"Most people would think our 'why,' or our deep mission, is to bring clean water to a billion people, that's actually what we do," he says. The "why" of charity: water, he concludes, is giving individuals "an experience which addicts them, lets them in on the joy of giving."

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1 Comments

  • Bette Boomer

    We like transforming gift-getting events into gift-giving opportunities. Like TOMS, WaterFoward's pay-it-forward model of charitable giving of is bringing out brilliance. Will the public book be an e-book?