How charity: water is changing the way we think about charitable giving

Scott Harrison is the brains behind charity: water, a nonprofit working to solve the global water crisis one innovative step at a time.

Dec 13, 2017 · 5 min read

In an unlikely journey from nightclub promoter to social entrepreneur, Scott Harrison made a drastic change to focus on giving. After a life-changing trip to Africa, Harrison came back determined to find a solution to the global water crisis. He founded charity: water to help bring clean water to people in developing nations.

But the story of charity: water isn’t just a story of one guy turning his life around to do something good — it’s a story of reimagining charitable giving. From smart branding to transparency through technology to creative partnerships, charity: water is connecting with donors and doing business in a new way. The organization uses innovative campaigns and experiences to inspire its audience to give, with 100 percent of public donations going directly to water projects. In 11 years, the charity has raised about a quarter of a billion dollars, delivering clean water to more than 7 million people. It’s a business case study in innovation that actually does the world good.

Ahead of Harrison’s session at NRF 2018: Retail’s Big Show, he spoke to us about the inspiration behind charity: water and how he’s disrupting the way people and organizations think about giving back.

Scott Harrison

What inspired you to start charity: water?

After spending 10 years living a very selfish life as a nightclub promoter in New York City, I realized I was spiritually and morally bankrupt, and decided to make a drastic change. I spent almost two years in West Africa as a photojournalist aboard a hospital ship through the organization Mercy Ships, where I saw firsthand the horrors that can occur when people don’t have access to clean water. These two years truly changed my life, and I returned to New York City determined to find a solution to the global water crisis.

charity: water gives 100 percent of all public donations to fund water projects. How do you make this possible?

Our 100 percent model is core to what charity: water is, and we’ve always stayed true to it, never using a single dollar of the public’s money for anything other than water projects. We’re able to keep this promise thanks to a dedicated group of donors called The Well, made up of generous families around the world who fund our overhead costs. This amazing group has made it possible for more than 1 million donors to have a pure giving experience, knowing every penny of their donations is going to fund more than 24,000 water projects for 7.3 million people over the 11 years since charity: water’s founding.

How does the holiday season impact donations and your operations?

The holiday season is incredibly important — nearly one third of annual giving occurs in December, and 12 percent of all giving happens in the last three days of the year. That’s part of the reason why we launched our subscription program, The Spring. In addition to creating a community of donors committed to giving on a monthly basis, the program gives us a baseline of recurring funds so we don’t have to start from zero on January 1 and are able to more accurately predict cash flow for the coming year.

Tell us about your success with brand and corporate partnerships. How do you approach these relationships?

To develop holistic, multi-year campaigns and experiences that inspire our audiences to bring clean water to people in need, we find brands who have values and objectives that are aligned with ours. On our end, we want to raise money and awareness for clean water, while companies want to use their businesses to drive good and help a cause they care about. We work together to develop a concept — be it a co-branded product, percentage of sales, an employee fundraising campaign or an event — that will engage their company, employees and customers, and be a win for both sides.

What makes a great brand partner and why are businesses working with you in this way?

A great brand partner genuinely cares about making the world a better place. In order for a partnership to be successful, it must feel authentic. We evaluate fit based on a company’s values, mission and vision, as well as their interest in pursuing a multi-faceted, multi-year campaign. Businesses look to us to help reach Millennials, engage their employees and show their customers that they stand for something.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned through your work with charity: water?

Getting people to care about issues that they don’t personally face is hard. At charity: water, we’re storytellers at heart and I attribute a lot of our success to being able to inspire people through powerful stories from the communities we serve.

What inspires you? Where do you get new ideas to grow your organization?

I’m inspired by the act of giving, and the joy it brings. That’s why I’m passionate about inspiring others to give and changing the way we think about charitable giving.

Some of my best ideas come during long car rides in Africa. I wish this solution wasn’t 3,000 miles away, but some of my favorite creative breakthroughs have come in Malawi, India, Niger or Ethiopia in the back of a Land Rover. When I’m back in New York, I still try to carve out time for quiet thinking and reflection, stepping away from devices and screens when I can.

What advice would you share with young social entrepreneurs?

My best advice would be to learn how to tell stories and speak publicly about your mission and vision with passion and authenticity. These skills are incredibly useful in building a company or nonprofit. Another thing I’d mention is that integrity is everything — much more important than what you do is how you do it.

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The National Retail Federation is the world's largest retail trade association, representing all retail formats and channels of distribution.

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