An interview with the founder of charity: water, Scott Harrison

Charity: water for the past 11 years have been on a mission to bring clean drinking water to all. So far they have funded an amazing 24,537 water projects for seven million people around the world. The work is inspirational and the numbers astonishing.

We wanted to learn more about how the company came, the journey Founder Scott Harrison has taken to be where he is and the future of this fantastic company. If you want to see how our work is supporting Scott and his team, have a look at our water weeks trips here.

You have quite a story, from promoting nightclubs in New York to traveling with Mercy Ships to where you are today and everything in between. Can you remember the moment you decided to change it all and step into the unknown? Where at the time did you think this new chapter would take you?

I’d been working as a nightclub promoter in New York City, getting paid to party and living decadently and selfishly. This went on for an entire decade, spiraling deeper and deeper. When I was 28 years old, I was on a vacation in Punta Del Esta, Uruguay with all the right people. But despite driving a nice car, having a great watch and a girlfriend who was on the cover of fashion magazines, I was empty inside. I was morally and spiritually bankrupt and knew if I continued on this destructive path I might not even make it past my 40th birthday. If I did, well, I’d probably look 60. I wanted to dramatically change my life.

I began praying again, quitting my job and my vices, and applying for every volunteer humanitarian opportunity I could find. In short, I wanted my sycophantic hedonistic life to look exactly the opposite. What might it look like to serve God, live virtuously and humbly, and use my time, talents and money to help people in need? Eventually I was accepted as a photojournalist aboard a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia, West Africa, through the organization Mercy Ships. I knew it would be a transformative experience, especially for a former nightlife promoter, but there was no way I could have predicted the way it would permanently alter the course of my life.

I spent almost two years on the mission, and it was during this time that I saw what happens when people don’t have access to clean water.

I witnessed parents who were left with no choice but to give their children leech and bacteria-infested water from brown viscous ponds they shared with animals.

I simply couldn’t believe that hundreds of millions of people lacked access to clean water (today, 663M) and a guy like me was out there selling $10 bottles of water to people in clubs who didn’t always even open them. I returned to NYC determined to make my life count. And to spend what was left of it trying to bring clean and safe drinking water to everyone on the planet.

What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned along the way?

That it wouldn’t be easy. It never is.

I believed literally everyone could get behind this mission: see, and end to the water crisis and make sure everyone on earth had their most basic need for health and life met – clean water. I realized however that so many of my friends didn’t trust charities. In fact, 42% of the people in America don’t trust charities and 70% think charities waste money. I believed there was a better way to do things, and transparency would be a vital part of the equation. I wanted to create a new kind of charity, one that was completely transparent with donors about where their money was going. We made a commitment on day one that 100% of all public donations would always go directly to build water projects, and we’d raise all the overhead separately from a small group of private donors and board members.

If there was one thing that keeps yourself and charity: water moving forward what would it be?

Seeing firsthand how people’s lives transform when they receive access to clean water. We’ve said for years that water changes everything. It dramatically impacts health, it impacts local economies as women and girls get time back in their day that they can turn into income. It impacts education as schools improve with clean water and toilets, and it even restores dignity to women who often don’t have enough water to keep their bodies and clothes clean. The amazing thing about working on water is that it’s a solvable issue.

I truly believe if enough people come together we can reach a day in our lifetime where nobody drinks dirty water.  I have a deep faith in the transformative power of radical generosity and compassion, and the ability of everyday people to reject the apathy that’s so easy to succumb to with an issue like this and become a part of the solution.

We’d also provide donors with proof of where every dollar went. It certainly wasn’t easy to sustain this model in the organization’s early years, but we never wavered on our promise. Eleven years later, with the support of a group of 121 private donors who fund our operating costs, we can proudly say that every penny from the public has gone straight to bringing people in need clean water, and we’ve now used the over $260M raised, to fund over 24,000 water projects in 24 countries for 7.3M people.

Another important lesson learned was that brand mattered. When we started, there were so many lame and anemic charity brands out there. Where was the Nike, Apple or Tesla of charities? So many of them peddled shame and guilt instead of opportunity and hope. Their websites and email marketing were awful. And they threw data and statistics at people instead of telling stories. I believed that creating a beautiful, epic brand and telling true inspiring stories would be the way to inspire millions. Beyond just proving the effectiveness and impact of our water projects, we wanted to connect donors on a human level to the people their donations are helping.

We do this by sharing personal stories from the communities where we work, and we’re always looking for more innovative ways to make these connections. For example, we recently produced a Virtual Reality film that put viewers in the shoes of a 13-year old girl in Ethiopia who got clean water for the first time in her life. And earlier this year, we created an interactive microsite where people could take a quiz and meet someone like them in a community without access to clean water. We believe that finding ways to humanize the water crisis is the first step to solving it.

What do you envision for the future of charity: water?

We want to make a bigger impact, as 663 million people are still living without access to clean water. While we’ve been able to help more than 7M people, we need to go faster and help more people. This led us to create a brand new monthly giving community, The Spring, and it’s something that will be essential to our future. It’s a growing group of passionate, generous people who stick with us month in and month out. In the past year, nearly 10,000 people have joined The Spring from 80 countries, and the community is growing. We’re working on new ways to foster and engage Spring members, with exclusive behind-the-scenes content and unique opportunities to connect with their impact on a deeper level.

You can visit to learn more and join us.

You’re stranded on a desert island and you can take just three items, what’s coming with you?

A Message translation of the Bible

A water filter

A very big lighter