Welcome to The Daring Interview Series! We’re launching this reboot of my favorite interview blog series with five new interviews this year!
I love this series because I get to learn more from the people who inspire me to be daring with my life and my work.
Meet Scott Harrison!
We’ve been huge supporters of Scott and charity: water for years. In fact, our community raised enough money to put a well in a Rwandan village. I believe Scott has completely disrupted the nonprofit model in a powerful way. Here’s the official lowdown on Scott:
He’s the founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit that has mobilized over one million donors around the world to fund over 29,000 water projects in 26 countries that will serve more than 8.4 million people.
Scott has been recognized on Fortune’s 40 under 40 list, Forbes’ Impact 30 list, and was ranked #10 in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business. He is currently a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and lives in New York City with his wife and two children. His new memoir, Thirst, can be purchased through thirstbook.com or everywhere books are sold.
Let’s dig in!
We’d love to know more about your work and how you find the courage to share your authentic self and your work with the world.
Tell us about your passion behind your new book, Thirst.
A little over ten years ago, I was working as a nightclub promoter in New York City. My life revolved around smoking, drugs, models and hard drinking. I worked at more than 40 nightclubs over a decade, and on the outside, it looked like I had it all. But on a vacation to South America at 28 years old, I realized I had suddenly (or slowly) become the worst version of myself. And the worst person I knew. I was morally bankrupt and living a life I wasn’t proud of — one that ran directly counter to the values I was raised to believe in. I wondered what the exact opposite of my life would look like. What might it look like to return to the morality and spirituality of my youth? What might it look like to serve others instead of myself? Six months later I left everything behind, selling almost everything I owned. In that pursuit, I spent the next 16 months as a volunteer photojournalist on a humanitarian medical mission in post-war Liberia, West Africa.
That time truly changed my life. I saw extreme poverty for the first time, living in a broken war-torn country that had no running water, sewage system or electricity. I was horrified to see children drinking water from leech- and bacteria-infested ponds and swamps they shared with animals.
Living aboard a medical ship, I was fully immersed in the work of the doctors and surgeons, and I quickly saw the connection between many of the diseases they were treating and the contaminated water sources I’d seen on land. At the time, 50% of everyone living in Liberia was drinking dirty water. With a little research, I discovered that dirty water, poor sanitation and lack of hygiene are responsible for half of all disease in developing nations. It’s also responsible for more death in the world than all forms of violence, including war. I couldn’t believe something that we took for granted back home in the US was ruining so many lives.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to help. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to do something about the injustice I’d seen. When I came back to New York, I started charity: water to raise funds and awareness for fixing a problem that was completely solvable with the right resources. Twelve years later, we’ve raised more than $320 million with the support of over one million people from 100 countries. And our incredible community continues to grow and make an impact on the lives of millions more around the world.
With Thirst, I’m excited to be able to share my journey and charity: water’s story with more people in a way that I’ve never done before. The ups and downs, the failures and disappointments –– but also the great hope that I have. I’d love for Thirst to encourage readers to summon the courage that lies within each of us, to take bold leaps of faith, and to find greater passion and purpose in their own lives.
You have revolutionized the way the world thinks about social entrepreneurship. What is one lesson that you’ve learned that’s fundamentally shaped how you think about leading?
Two words that are guiding points for me are trust and transparency. They are cornerstones of the charity: water brand, and essential to strong leadership, as well.
Early on I realized that people don’t trust charity. As I told friends about the work I was doing and began asking for donations, that quickly became apparent. My friends were cynical. They were skeptical about where their money might go or how much of it would actually help people. Digging into it further, I discovered that there was data behind that observation. A USA Today poll found that 42% of Americans distrust charities, and an NYU study found 70% of Americans think charities handle money poorly. Having traveled now to 69 countries, I’ve found the perception of charities is even worse in other parts of the world. This fact often surprises people, and I saw it as a huge opportunity.
So from Day 1, we promised to set up charity: water differently. We decided to show donors exactly where their money was going. For the past 12 years, continuing to today and each day moving forward, 100% of every public donation directly funds clean water projects, and we prove every single project with photos and GPS coordinates on Google Maps. We have an entirely separate bank account for our overhead costs, which is funded by 130 generous families who together make up a program we call “The Well.” They fund things like staff salaries, office rent, flights, insurance, and paper for the copiers.
Over the years, we’ve had many opportunities to walk away from this model. But even though it was (and still can be) incredibly challenging at times, we’ve always stayed true to the original vision, never using a single penny of the public’s money for anything other than funding direct water project costs in the 26 countries where we work. Staying true to our commitment to transparency has been an important lesson in the art of building trust with our community.
What do you love about leading?
I love seeing others bring fresh approaches and passion to a cause that I care so deeply about. I love seeing the team’s ideas come to fruition, from the smaller things like changing a donation button on the website that improves a user’s donation experience, to the big ones, like back in 2015, when when we made a virtual reality film and unveiled it to 375 people in black tie at our annual gala, charity: ball. I also love being a storyteller and having the opportunity to share the incredible stories constantly emerging from the charity: water community all over the world. I love inviting new friends to join us, and meeting with our supporters who give so selflessly and passionately in service of others.
What part of leading do you find the most challenging?
In the book, I talk a lot about some of my struggles as CEO. Anyone who has met me will tell you I can be demanding, a bit of a perfectionist, and sometimes a bit oblivious. I’ve been working on all these things, and have learned how to step back, to not obsess over every tiny detail and to resist micromanaging my incredible staff.
What does vulnerability mean to you, and what role does it play in your work?
I mentioned earlier that transparency and trust are of paramount importance to us. Vulnerability goes hand in hand with those two ideas. For us that means sharing it all, not just the victories. We are quick to admit when things don’t go as planned. Sometimes we build a water project and it breaks, or it takes months longer than we expected because we had to track down a specific part. We keep our donors updated on these failures in the same way we do about our successes.
Our most epic public failure was something I dedicated several chapters of the book to, because it was such a significant moment for us in terms of putting our promise of transparency to the test. We had launched a campaign to raise money for a well that would serve a desperately in-need community deep in the Central African Republic rainforest. We promised everyone who donated that we would share real-time video of the project being drilled. But after working through the night in the field with our local implementing partner, we failed to hit water. We agonized over whether to show donors the video of our failed attempt but ultimately knew what we had to do. You’re not being transparent if you’re only sharing your wins and victories, right? Waiting for our supporters back home to wake up and see the public broadcast of our failure was one of the most terrifyingly vulnerable moments of my life, but the public response was more supportive than I had dared to hope. It cemented what I already knew: in order to earn that trust, you have to be willing to put it all on the table. Our donors learned that day that we’d never sugarcoat the work just to keep up appearances.
In your experience, what’s something that gets in the way of doing brave work, and how do you move through it (e.g., fear, perfectionism, procrastination)?
One of the problems when you tackle an issue as big as the water crisis, or for that matter, any global issue, is apathy and paralysis. The statistics are daunting. Today, 663 million people around the world are drinking bad water. That’s almost 1 in 10 people alive. When faced with something that feels so big, it’s easy for many people to embrace apathy, and ask themselves, “What could I possibly do about a problem that big?”
We all crave the feeling of accomplishment that comes with achieving goals and checking something off the list. One of my favorite quotes that’s become a north star for me is an ancient rabbinical, “Do not be afraid of work that has no end.” I believe if you can reject the apathy and embrace a life of service to others, tackling problems big and small and seeking to end needless suffering, you’ve signed yourself up for a never-ending work. And that’s ok.
That said, at charity: water, we actually believe we can solve this problem in our lifetime. We believe we will see a day where everyone has access to life’s most basic need: clean water. I’ve found that one of my biggest assets in doing this job is that I have an almost reckless sense of optimism and unfailing belief in the goodness and generosity of humans.
I heard a pastor say many years ago that those with the most hope have the most influence. And I think we desperately need more hope in our world.
It takes courage to share ourselves and our work with the world given the criticism and mean-spiritedness that we see in our culture, especially online.
What strategies do you use to dare greatly – to show up and let yourself be seen when there’s no way to control the outcome?
Optimism and hope are essential components of the charity: water brand. We use positive imagery and uplifting storytelling, and work hard to never guilt or shame our community into donating. Our goal is to inspire people by showing them what’s possible -– the transformative outcome of radical and selfless generosity, changing lives of those in desperate need by providing access to clean water. We let the joy that comes with the act of giving speak for itself and attract the right people and the right type of generosity to our cause.
Describe a snapshot of a joyful moment in your life.
When my first child Jackson was born, I realized that I was bringing him into a world of privilege. While my wife and I certainly aren’t wealthy – living in New York City on a nonprofit salary and also supporting other elderly family members – it’s a fact that my son will always have clean water, food to eat and a roof over his head.
Shortly before his birth, I’d spent time with a woman named Aissa in Niger, West Africa. Aissa had watched eight of her children die from disease – many of them undoubtedly because of the brown, viscous water she was forced to drink. I was so moved by her situation and the loss that she’d suffered, and I wondered whether Jackson’s birth could help her get clean water, along with others nearby.
My wife and I set up a charity: water fundraising campaign, and to our surprise, hundreds of friends, longtime donors and even strangers donated more than $250,000 to “welcome” Jackson into the world.
I made sure that that money went specifically to Aissa’s village and the villages surrounding her to end the suffering there, and make sure that no more kids there would die of dirty water.
It gives me such joy to think about taking Jackson over there when he’s a little older so he can meet some of the people who were helped through his birthday.
Do you have a quote, mantra, or manifesto for living and loving with your whole heart?
Integrity is everything – put it at the core of all that you do. Far more important than what you do is how you do it.
I’m learning to shift from sprint mode to marathon mode, and to structure the organization’s growth in a way that is sustainable. For the first 10 years of charity: water, in some ways, the numbers were everything. More donated birthdays, more money raised, more projects built, more people getting clean water. We always wanted to one-up the previous year’s donation totals and exponentially increase the number of people we served. But we also realized that, no matter how much we proved impact and showed people where their money went, most people were just giving once to charity: water. One donation, one donated birthday or one fundraising campaign.
As we enter our second decade, we want to make a greater impact and continue to grow, but we also want to do it more sustainably.
That’s why we’ve shifted our focus to growing our new monthly giving community, The Spring. We’ve been looking for people who won’t just show up once, but will show up month in and month out, faithfully fighting for change.
We all subscribe to a lot of things these days. The average American has 11 subscriptions — things like cable, internet, music, movies and newspapers or magazines. And we get value from these things. So we applied this subscription model to create a unique giving program, comprised of some of the most generous people the world has ever seen. A giving program where 100% of the value was passed on to the people in greatest need around the world – and passed on through the gift of clean water.
We’ve made this a huge focus, and have already been joined by 30,000 members across the globe who are collectively bringing clean water to almost 1,000 people every single day. I feel strongly that this community is going to be the key to helping us solve the water crisis, so I spend most of my time thinking about how we can make the program even more exciting and different than any other monthly giving program.
We’re also spending more time looking beyond ourselves. What impact are we having beyond just people served? How will we continue to reinvent charity and use the lessons we’re learning to serve others who are doing important work? It’s my hope that Thirst is a meaningful vehicle to that end.
Now, for some fun!
From James Lipton, host of Inside the Actor’s Studio . . .
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What sound or noise do you love?
My children laughing.
What sound or noise do you hate?
What is your favorite curse word?
I used to have the worst mouth of anyone I knew, and often sadly used profanity to hurt and insult people. As part of my life change over a decade ago, I completely swore off cussing.
We want to know!
Favorite show to binge watch on television?
Any new Ken Burns shows.
Tree of Life.
Coldplay’s Viva La Vida tour.
If you could have anything put on a t-shirt what would it be?
Water changes everything.
Taking my wife and children trekking through Ethiopia’s Simen Mountains, and to see the active volcanoes of the Danakil Depression.
What’s on your nightstand?
The Character of Virtue: Letters to a Godson by Stanley Huervas.
What’s something about you that would surprise us?
I was once in a commercial for Subway sandwiches. I had to order a BMT with sweet onion sauce at the counter, and then kiss a girl.
Your six-word memoir:
Water is life; giving brings joy
You can buy your copy of Thirst here! 100% of the proceeds go to charity: water!
Follow charity: water here: