How charity:water became tech’s favorite non-profit

“I had a model girlfriend and a BMW. I wore a Rolex. But I was really miserable,” says Scott Harrison, founder of charity:water, on the period leading up to its genesis.

charity:water has already brought clean drinking water to 2 million people around the world and is supported by some of technology’s biggest names including Sean Parker (Napster), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Marissa Mayer (Google), Dennis Crowley (Foursquare) and Michael Birch (founder of social network Bebo). So how did charity:water conquer the tech world?

Harrison spent 10 years working in the nightclub industry in New York. “I got paid to fill up nightclubs with beautiful people and sell them very expensive drinks,” he recalls. “After 10 years of that, on a trip to Uruguay, I took a look at my life and realized that I would never be happy chasing the things I was chasing. There would never be enough girls. There would never be enough money. There would never be enough status. I started reading the New Testament and theology, and I’m in Uruguay hungover, so this was an interesting push-pull. It was a debauched vacation where we were drinking Doms (magnums of Dom Perignon) every day. So I came back and I couldn’t throw these parties with any joy anymore. I made a deal with God that I would make my life 100 percent the opposite.”

Never one for half measures, Harrison volunteered as a photo journalist with Mercy Ships (the only NGO that would accept him), which operates a fleet of hospital ships in developing nations. “I thought I would be able to use those photos to bridge the gap between this new life and the 10,000 people on my nightlife list, ” he explains. Aged 30 and back in New York, he started charity:water to bring clean water to some of the billion people in the world who lack access to this basic necessity.

charity:water now has 4,282 water projects all over the world from Bangladesh to Bolivia. A network of 25 experienced partners in 19 countries actually implement the projects. “Many of them stink at fundraising and telling their story, so that’s where we come in,” comments Harrison. Access to clean water doesn’t just reduce levels of disease but also frees up large tracts of women’s time (women and children usually collect water) and improves the economic situation of the poorest households.

Projects use a variety of technologies, since there is no single solution that suits every situation. Some projects protect existing natural springs. Others filter water using biosand, harvest rainwater or rehabilitate existing wells. Donors can see photographs and GPS coordinates for each project on Google Maps.

Harrison didn’t just want to provide clean water; he wanted to reinvent charity. “When I talked to people about giving, there were so many excuses,” says Harrison.”They didn’t know where their money would go, and they didn’t know the impact it would make. Those were two solvable problems. The first problem was solved through the 100 percent model (100 percent of donations from the general public go directly to water projects). I found a group of people who would fund staff and operations. There is now a group of 81 such investors.” Other  “investors” are Michael Birch, Sean Parker, Matt Mullenweg (the founder of WordPress) and Jason Fried of 37signals.

The Dollars to Projects feature tracks every dollar though the system. Every three months, charity:water sends a batch of money out. It is tracked for the next 12 months while the implementation partners are digging and drilling. The partners create a report, charity:water audits that data and presents it back to the donor. “Even if you only have $4, you can see where those $4 ended up,” says Harrison.

He also wanted to build a brand. “To solve a problem this big, we needed to create an epic brand, an aspirational and transparent brand.” says Harrison. “So many charities seem to market guilt. We tell a story of opportunity. We needed to present the problems, the solutions and the joy that results when those solutions are implemented, in beautiful ways.”

Technology entrepreneurs got involved early on. “I wanted to spread my birthday idea (giving up your birthday presents and asking friends and family to donate instead) through social media so I googled the top five social networks, one of which was Bebo.

“I wrote Zuckerberg. I scraped Michael Birch’s (founder of Bebo) address and shot him an email in the dark. I got an email back saying ‘Wow that’s a really cool idea’ but the timing was bad and he couldn’t really help at the moment. Some months later, he was passing through New York and we met. A couple of days after the meeting, he wrote me an email saying ‘I’ve wired $1 million to your account’”.

Others followed. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey gave up his 33rd and 34th birthdays for the charity. Investor Chris Sacca and Spotify’s Shakil Khan visited Ethiopia to see charity:water’s projects there. “In many ways we are a startup and a tech company, except that I have no equity and there is no exit.” Harrison claims. “Our shareholders are 65-year old women in Africa who walk three hours to get clean water. We are raising 73 percent of our money online. We are up 80 percent in a sector (charitable contributions) which has been falling. The bigger we get, the more people we can help.”

The charity’s latest initiative is WaterForward, a brainchild of Michael Birch, which is an online book filled with the faces of people helping to end the water crisis. Each slot in the book costs $10, and 100 percent of that money goes to charity:water. You can’t put yourself in the book. Someone else who is already in the book has to sponsor you with a $10 donation. Once you’re in, it’s up to you to pay it forward. WaterForward has raised $175,000 so far.

One consistent problem with water projects in the developing world has been maintenance. Wells are built, then fall into disrepair after the NGO that builds them moves on and the locals don’t know how to fix them. Harrison is now looking at innovating in this area. “We are piloting a mobile mechanics project in Ethiopia where locals visit all the local projects and bring back data. We have funded women entrepreneurs in India [who] go and rehabilitate water projects. We are working on giving cell phones to women in these villages and incentivizing them by topping up their cell phone minutes to text us data on the water project, as simple as ‘Water is flowing’ or ‘Water is not flowing’.”

I ask Harrison about his plans for the future. He says “We’d like to help 15 million people get clean water by 2015.” Not many have that in their business plan.

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