charity: water - making giving cool

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Scott harrison

Scott Harrison, Founder & CEO, charity:water

How do you get leeches off the back of someone’s throat? Scrape it off with a stick, or drink enough diesel to kill it – but not you.

Scott Harrison gave us a litany of horrors, from communities blighted by lack of access to fresh water. Crocodile attacks, sick children, people exhausted through digging for water in sandy dried river beds.

We have the knowledge and tools to bring everyone clean water. $0.65 is what it costs to give a Cambodian family clean water. $5000 hand digs a well, and gives the structure to stop it collapsing. Kids stop dying of disease, they’re healthier, they spend more time in schools. The women use the reclaimed time and start small businesses. Some just use it to spend more time with their family.

But this wasn’t just a tale of community transformation, but of a personal one. Harrison was a professional partier in New York city, a glamorous but empty life, that was transformed by finding this cause. But this process wasn’t a simple one. His friends were sceptical about charity work. Too many thought that charity money never really reached the people it was aimed at. His solution? Two bank accounts. Public donations would not pay for the staff costs. They’d find funders and entrepreneurs to cover that part of it. 100% of public donations would go straight to clean water projects. The make proof of all their projects public on Google Earth.

He also thought that the world lacked aspirational charity brands. He started with a birthday part, with a $20 cover charge. They took that money straight to a project, and send proof back to the 700 people who attended the event. Their adverts are fun, interesting, not just serious. Saks 5th Avenue got involved and used shop windows. The Macallan used their oldest whisky – 64 year old – to sponsor the charity. They used visual communication via social media to drive interest. The reinvented galas into a more interactive, fun event, with sponsored water carrying.

Scott had a birthday party, where he asked for his age – 32  –  in donations. This spread, from a small boy giving up his 7th birthday for donations, to celebrities. Maggie Moran gave up her sweet 16th. Nona Wein gave up her 89th. One couple gave up their wedding…

One little nine year old girl called Rachel gave up her birthday – and died in a car crash not long after. Huge amounts of money were raised in her name. (and half the hall cried during the video). The Dollars to Projects tool allows people to see exactly where their donation was used. They build sensors into their projects, to allow them both to feed back to donors, and to identify when things were going wrong. They coupled that with training of local technicians. Google is donating money thorough its Global Impact Awards to roll out this programme.

They’ve raised $77m – clean water for 3m people. And they’ve done it in an era when donations to traditional charities are declining. Now? They want $3bn to solve the world’s water problems – and $300m more to run the organisation to do it. Want to join in? Give up your birthday.


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.