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From Nightclub Promoter to CEO: Scott Harrison, Founder of charity: water

by Nitya Timalsina to Startup Grind

Nitya Timalsina
Jun 27, 2016 · 5 min read

After visiting his first nightclub, 18-year-old Scott Harrison was hooked. Soon enough, partying and getting wasted became the norm. Over the next 10 years, Scott became a nightclub owner, earned thousands per month simply for promoting alcohol and hosting parties, and supposedly got “addicted to everything short of heroin”.

Today, he has raised $210 million and improved more than 6 million lives. How, given his earlier struggles, did he become the impactful and successful CEO of an internationally renowned organization, charity: water?

It’s just a matter of (gaining) perspective

Unfulfilled by his extravagant lifestyle and burned out by the hollowness of weekly ragers, Scott, 28-years-old at the time, decided to volunteer full-time in Liberia. He constantly dedicated himself to helping others from that point on. Over the following two years, he learned a lot about the value of human life and the struggle millions of people worldwide face in trying to collect water:

“663 million people today don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.”

Drinking from swamps, sharing water with cattle, and traveling for miles everyday is completely normal for millions of people. Meanwhile, 52% of preventable diseases in developing countries are caused by lack of clean water and sanitation. This deeply affects Scott and he has vowed to do all he can to create change because: “no one needs to drink dirty water. There’s no cure we’re waiting for to arrive from a lab. There’s no mystery. We know how to provide this.”

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Using creativity to create change

In charity: water’s early days, Scott had to get creative to gain traction. Using his knowledge about promotion, gained from his nightclub ownership days, he organized a birthday party and raised $15,000 from a single event after charging $20 for all attendees, tempting them with an open bar for one hour. Instead of pocketing proceeds like he did as a former nightclub owner, he used every cent to serve a refugee camp in Uganda. Then, he sent photos and GPS proof to every donor, amazing them with the difference their $20 could make.

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“Tell people what you did with their money. Inspire them and they will continue to be generous.”

Over the next 9 years, Scott came up with even more creative ways to fundraise and mobilized more than 1 million supporters worldwide to raise over $210 million. To date, more than 6 million people across 24 countries have received access to clean water. Scott’s goal is to help 1 million people in 2016 alone.

Building trust, one community member at a time

To what does Scott credit charity: water’s amazing success?

Organizational efficiency

First and foremost, charity: water ensures that 100% of public donations goes towards helping communities in need. Overhead costs and credit card fees are fundraised and stored separately, often through celebrities and corporations.

All of this ensures maximum efficiency and trust in the brand. As Scott explains, about “42% of Americans don’t trust charities” and maintaining an innovative but trustworthy brand is the best thing that a company can do.

Community involvement

Instead of simply sending overseas volunteers, charity: water collaborates with local organizations and individuals to change the local communities. Donors are highly engaged through the help of brands like Saks Fifth Avenue and creative solutions like Virtual Reality films and GPS tracking of project sites. If you donate a well, you could use your VR headset or web browser to monitor the results. This takes community engagement to the next level.

Constant motivation

To drive a movement and succeed at the level Scott has, you have to truly believe in your vision and the impact you want to create. Scott is consistently motivated because he has seen the amazing changes a single well can bring.

People in villages across the world describe life “before the water came” and “after the water came.” Clearly, water has the power to change everything from education to health and interpersonal relationships. This is what keeps Scott going.

There’s always room for improvement

Despite all the success, Scott regrets not having established charity: water’s subscription-based donation model years ago. He views this as a huge missed opportunity. Most donations occur online and instead of having so many one-time donors, charity: water could have had repeat-donors, contributing a small amount every month for an indefinite period of time. Of course, the past is the past but a subscription-model is certainly part of charity: water’s current fundraising strategy:

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“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Innovation cannot be stopped and seemingly, neither can Scott. A big part of his plan now is to inspire others to take action. He has already motivated millions of people across the world to learn about water issues and fundraise creatively, whether through lemonade stands or the Founders Pledge. He stresses that the time for action is now:

“We are living in the most remarkable time in history. If there’s ever a time when these huge problems can be solved, it is certainly today.”



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Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around…

Nitya Timalsina

Written by

I want to use my voice to spark authentic conversations and create positive change in the world.

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around the world. Welcoming submissions re: startup education, tech trends, product, design, hiring, growth, investing, and more. Interested in submitting? Visit our submission form here: https://airtable.com/shrShpeN89HrzCzOB

Nitya Timalsina

Written by

I want to use my voice to spark authentic conversations and create positive change in the world.

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around the world. Welcoming submissions re: startup education, tech trends, product, design, hiring, growth, investing, and more. Interested in submitting? Visit our submission form here: https://airtable.com/shrShpeN89HrzCzOB

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