Six years ago Scott Harrison wouldn’t know a Bayaka from a bialy. He was a nightclub impresario helping to sell $16 cocktails to
a cool crowd of Millennials while showing off his sponsored Rolex. Now Scott heads charity: water, a non-profit organization he founded that has delivered clean drinking water to over 1 million people in its first four years and aspires to help 100 million in the
next ten years. How this happened is a story of personal transformation and exemplary entrepreneurship, offering up 8 questions for any aspiring leader to consider right now without fail.
1. Is this what you really want to be doing?
If you have to think about this question, then you probably know the answer is no. Discovery one’s calling is often a journey upon which only the bold embark. Finding his nightclub gig wanting, Scott Harrison began his journey as a volunteer photojournalist in Liberia and for two years took “pictures of the some of the sickest people in the world, who were getting treated by volunteer doctors.” Added Harrison, “So coming back off that experience, I was 30, pretty ambitious and bold, deciding I wanted to reinvent charity.” Explaining his need to start fresh, Harrison offered, “I didn’t think I could work within the system and make the impact I wanted to make.”
2. Are you providing a clear vision?
The vision thing seems so obvious that it’s simply overlooked by aspiring leaders, the way the rest of us simply take clean water for granted. For Harrison, the vision involved creating a new kind of transparent charity that puts 100% of public donations to work, in this case delivering clean water to those who don’t have it. Noted Harrison, “Its not guilt based, this is all about presenting people with an amazing opportunity to serve people who need your help.” The opportunity will require raising a whopping two billion U.S. dollars in the next ten years, “a crazy growth rate of 63%” that even Harrison admits is unprecedented. Crazy or not, Harrison’s vision is as clear as a mountain stream.
3. Can you reduce your business to a simple story?
A crystal clear elevator pitch is often discussed but rarely realized by even the best of entrepreneurs. Most organizations, especially non-profits have a tendency to “lead with complexity,” noted Harrison. So charity: water keeps it very simple, “If you give money, we can bring clean water to a community,” offered the succinct Harrison. Supported with visual storytelling that engages on a visceral level, “as you get interested with a simple story we then let you discover the complexity as your interest level increases,” Harrison explained. This progressive approach has helped charity: water attract thousands of donors from sophisticated millionaires to 10-year olds, all with a shared understanding.
4. Do you know your weaknesses?
Successful entrepreneurs are rarely geniuses; in fact many think of themselves as being too naïve to realize why their idea won’t succeed so they just plough ahead. Naïve or not, they must have a keen understanding of their weaknesses and Harrison is no exception. When explaining why hire #2 was a water projects person and #3 an art director, Harrison revealed, “I’m not an executer and I’m a terrible designer.” With these two critical positions in place, Harrison was able build both his brand and his family, as hire #3 Vik also became his wife. Four years into it, Harrison now laments little with the exception of bringing in systems late–systems that could help him manage hundreds of thousands of donors and related CRM activities.
5. Do you aspire to create an epic brand?
If you are too busy trying to make sales to think about your brand, think again. Perhaps the most instructive of all Harrison’s initial goals was his desire to build a brand, something many non-profits considered to be a dirty word. As he put it, “to solve a problem as big as the water crisis, we would need to create an epic brand.” Modeling brands like Apple and Nike, brands that sold “gazillions of product to people, charity: water would be selling gazillions of dollars of clean water and hope,” Harrison explained. To achieve epic status, charity: water put special emphasis on emotional storytelling via high quality photography, beautifully produced videos, and a gorgeous Web site that is easy to navigate, all produced without a marketing budget.
6. Have you figured out how to scale your business?
A lot of entrepreneurs never build a structure that scales, preferring the hands on approach that keeps them at the center of the action. But for Harrison solving the problem of scale was essential to his vision, “We can only do this by getting millions of people involved through the inevitable math of networks.” This is why Harrison and his team created mycharitywater.org and launched it in beta September 2009. In 11 months, more than 2,800 people have started personal campaigns to celebrate their birthdays, mountain climbs or Mohawk shavings and helped raise nearly $3 million. Noted Harrison, with people raising an average of a thousand dollars per personal campaign, “We only need two million birthdays in a decade to get to our ten year, two billion dollar goal.” And while Harrison says “only” without hesitation, keep in mind he’s gotten this far with less than 25 staffers!
7. Do you have a strategy for each social media channel?
Without a lot of serious strategic forethought, most businesses have jumped into various social media channels with little regard for the roles each might play in their business growth. Admits Harrison, charity: water wasn’t much different jumping into Twitter at the outset, becoming the first non-profit to have over one million followers. “Twitter is great for awareness and getting people to watch a video but outside of benefiting from the amazing Twestival (charitywater.org/twestival), we haven’t tried to raise money with it,” explained Harrison. “Facebook traffic [to their Web site] stays a little longer, engages a little differently, so there’s a big focus now for us to build that community,” Harrison added. With 56,000 fans now, charity: water hopes to grow its fan base to over one million, perhaps by integrating Facebook Connect into mycharitywater.org in some manner.
(To become a fan, click here.)
8. Who the heck are the Bayaka and how can I help?
Most entrepreneurs understand the role of passion in motivating internal staff and external stakeholders. Scott Harrison’s current passion is the Bayaka people in the Central African Republic (see the video below). Explained Harrison, “They’re hunter-gatherers, but the logging industry has forced them into the villages where they’re being treated like slaves and denied access to clean water.” With the goal of drilling fresh water wells for all 16,000 Bayaka and another 70,000 other Central Africans this September, charity: water needs to raise $1.7 million. And here’s how you, my thoughtful reader, can help. You can join my campaign with the goal of attracting 16,000 $20 gifts, one for each Bayaka (if Scott can be ambitious, so can I!). Because charity: water tracks where each donation goes, you’ll be able to see with complete transparency your donation in action. As Harrison concluded, “This isn’t our story, it’s your story, it’s everyone else’s story.”