Unconventional Charity: Water aims to raise $2 billion for clean water

Scott Harrison, the founder of Charity: Water, takes an unconventional approach to bringing clean water to millions of people. Among his ideas: Put 100 percent of donations directly into projects – and look to entrepreneurs, not other charities, for great ideas.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP/File
Girls fill plastic basins at a free water tap operated by a charity in a neighborhood of Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, where houses rarely receive water. Water supplies are insufficient to meet even the capital city's needs, and contaminated drinking water leads to epidemics. Scott Harrison's Charity:Water hopes to raise $2 billion to get clean water to 100 million more people.

Scott Harrison, who founded Charity: Water, has been seeking a director of development for two years. But every applicant fails to meet his ambitious plans, he told the Association of Fundraising Professionals annual meeting on Sunday [April 1].

Mr. Harrison says the conversation always goes something like this, with him starting out by asking, “How much money did you raise last year?” The answer is usually something like “$10 million.” “How many people are on your staff?” “10.” “That just doesn’t work for us,” he says.

Mr. Harrison, whose organization employs only two fundraisers, is looking for someone who can generate a much higher return.

IN PICTURES: World Water Day 2011

Doing things differently has been Mr. Harrison’s goal since he started his nonprofit. Mr. Harrison, a former nightclub promoter, decided at age 28 he wanted a career in working for humanitarian organizations. None accepted his applications except Mercy Ships, which hired him as a photographer. What he saw on his two trips to Africa inspired him to found Charity: Water, a group that digs wells and provides other aid to help people in poor countries access to clean water.

Since the charity was founded in 2006, it has been held up as a prime example of a modern organization, achieving much of its popularity by raising money online with video, social media, and celebrity endorsements.

Mr. Harrison’s shared these secrets to his organization’s success:

• Demonstrate results. Since his first fundraising event, Mr. Harrison said he has been dedicated to showing donors where their money is going through photo documentation and GPS coordinates. Today, donors and volunteer fundraisers for the group can see exactly which water projects their money has supported.

• Good design and branding. Mr. Harrison wanted his charity’s image to focus on its mission to provide clean water to people in poor countries. He believed that he didn’t need much money to do this, just “good taste.”

• Not charging donors for overhead. Mr. Harrison created two accounts when he founded the organization: one for operating expenses and one for programs so that 100 percent of donor money would go to water projects. To get enough money to pay for overhead, the charity recently adopted a membership plan for people who want to support the day-to-day operations of the organization. He treats them like “shareholders,” he says. But the approach has been challenging. In its early years the organization depended on irregular donations to pay administrative and other costs, including one gift of $1 million.

• Broadcast your failures. Every year, Charity: Water drills a well during a live broadcast. One year, that drilling found no water. To confront the issue head on, Mr. Harrison filmed a video of the failed drilling and sent it to all of the organization’s supporters. He now considers that one of the most compelling things the organization has done. “People just want to hear the truth,” he said.

• ”You are what you eat.” Mr. Harrison says his organization doesn’t spend much time with other nonprofits because it doesn’t want to operate like other nonprofits. He spends much more time talking to entrepreneurs, especially those in the technology world, because those are the organizations he most wants to emulate.

Mr. Harrison has another secret as well: He aims high. He’s hoping to raise $2 billion to help provide access to clean water to 100 million people in the next decade.

He closed his speech with the story of a woman who had to walk eight hours a day for water and committed suicide one night after dropping and breaking her clay pot as she returned to her village. As he finished the anecdote, a woman near the front of the conference hall yelled out, wanting right then to give $20 to dig a new well.

That’s the power of fund raising.

This blog post originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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