Hitting The Mark

Hitting The Mark

Conversations with founders about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success.


EP022 – Scott Harrison, Founder & CEO, charity: water

Strategic Clarity + Verbal Clarity + Visual Clarity

Fabian talks with Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water, one of the most trusted and admired non-profits in the world.

Solving the water crisis one donation and one well at a time, Scott and his team created a brand that breaks the stereotypes of what a charity is and how a charity acts. He re-branded ‘charity’ while creating a beloved brand of his own.

Charity: water is a champion in brand messaging, design, and storytelling while leading with technology and innovation. A paramount episode not to be missed.


President Obama praised Scott Harrison, and so have Arianna Huffington and Michael Bloomberg. Without a doubt, I knew he would be a charismatic and smart guest. But having Scott share his inspirational story and dive into the details of how he built the brand, and how branding was actually a crucial component of charity: water’s success, went beyond my highest expectations.

Scott is the founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in need around the world. He is also the New York Times best-selling author of Thirst, a story of redemption, compassion, and the mission to bring clean water to the world. In the 13 years since he founded his organization, charity: water has mobilized over 1 million donors around the world to fund more than 38,000 water projects in 28 countries and bring clean water to 10 million people.

He was ranked number 10 in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in business. And in this episode you will witness why.

To get inspired, not only for the ways in which you build your brand, but for the way you live your life, give this episode a listen.

____Links mentioned:

charity: water

THIRST – the book

Spring – the video

Hitting The Mark Patreon Page

____Full Transcript:

F Geyrhalter: Welcome to Hitting the Mark. President Obama praised my next guest, so has Arianna Huffington and Michael Bloomberg. Today I’m fortunate to have him on the line. I usually spend around two hours prepping for my guests the day prior to the taping. And then, at night, I listen to some past interviews while on the treadmill. This was different. When prepping for my next guest I got so sucked into his stories that I spent the majority of my day diving into the rich and fascinating journey of Scott Harrison.

Scott is the founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in need around the world. He’s also the New York Times best-selling author of Thirst, a story of redemption, compassion, and the mission to bring clean water to the world. Harrison spent 10 years as a night club promoter in New York City before leaving to volunteer on a hospital ship in West Africa as a photo journalist. Returning home two years later, he founded charity: water in 2006. In the 13 years since, the organization has mobilized over 1 million donors around the world to fund more than 38,000 water projects in 28 countries and bring clean water to 9.7 million people.

Scott has been recognized on Fortune’s 40 under 40 list, Forbes’ Impact 30 list, and was ranked number 10 in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in business. He’s currently a World Economic Forum young global leader, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children. Out of sheer coincidence though a mutual friend I got introduced to his wife, Viktoria, who is also Vice President of Creative for charity: water, who in turn made this interview happen since Scott was already somewhat familiar with my work to some extent, just seeing my books on branding lying around the house. Welcome to the show, Scott, and thanks so much for making the time.

S Harrison: Hey, thanks for having me. This will be fun.

F Geyrhalter: So, Scott, your inspiring story has been told many times, and as of late also in your best-selling book, Thirst, which I picked up a few days ago. It’s a fascinating story and a remarkable journey. Could you share a little bit of it with our listeners? Like how did your career begin, and how did you end up running one of the most trusted and admired non-profits in the world?

S Harrison: Yeah. Well, I guess I’ll start early on. I was born in a very middle class family in Philadelphia, raised in New Jersey. When I was young, when I was four years old, there was a terrible accident in our house. We got carbon monoxide gas poisoning from a heater that leaked. My dad and I were lucky enough to find the leak and we recovered, but my mom, after passing out one day unconscious, just never recovered. She became an invalid. Her body’s ability to just function normally in the world ended with this carbon monoxide poisoning.

I grew up in a pretty sheltered Christian home taking care of mom. An only child. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I was in a caregiver role really. Then at 18, maybe no surprise, woke up one day and said, Now it’s my turn. Now it’s my turn to move to New York City and to do all the things I wasn’t allowed to do. Now it’s my turn to take care of myself. I joined a rock band which was a terrible idea because we broke up a couple of months later because we all hated each other.

But I found that there was this unique profession in New York City called a night club promoter. And if you could get the beautiful people into the right clubs you could make a lot of money drinking for a living. I was 19 years old, a couple of years before I was even legally allowed in these nightclubs, I started throwing fashion parties and music parties, and pulling crowds of people together, doing deals with the clubs. I thought this was the greatest life ever. I mean I was chasing girls. I was chasing fashion week around. I was chasing the cars and the watches and all these things that I thought would bring fulfillment and happiness.

The next thing I know 10 years is over. I’m 28 years old. I’ve worked at 40 different clubs in New York City over a decade. And my life is terrible. I have a cocaine problem. I have an Ecstasy and MDMA problem. I’ve got a serious drinking problem. I’ve smoked two to three packs of Marlboro reds for ten years, so I have a coughing problem. Gambling. Strip clubs. Pornography addiction. I mean, you name it, every vice that you might imagine would come with the territory had found its way to me and I’d taken it on.

I had this really extreme contrast of a life that looked great on the outside. Going to beautiful dinners with fashion models at 10:00, and going to the club at 12:00. So then this life that was really rotting on the inside. Often I wouldn’t go to bed until 12:00 or 1:00 or 2:00PM the next day, taking sleeping pills to try to come down off a high.

I had some health issues. I read about this in the book. One day half my body goes numb. Maybe to a listener, no freaking wonder. But I go see doctors as you would and get the MRIs and the CT scans and the EKGs, and they can’t find anything wrong with me. And I just really have a moment where I’m faced with my mortality. I realize, Boy I’ve made a mess of my life, and if I continue down this path I’m leaving the most meaningless legacy that a person could leave. I drink for a living. I get others wasted for a living. I’m doing nothing to serve others. I’m doing nothing to serve humanity.

And I also realized I’d come so far from the foundation of spirituality and morality of my youth. And I wanted to come home. I wanted to find my way back to that. So that was 28, and one day I decide I’m going to leave night life and I ask myself the question, What would the opposite of my hedonistic, disgusting, sycophantic life look like? I thought, Well, serving others on a humanitarian adventure. I’m going to go do that. I’m going to go serve people without being paid, and I thought it’d be cool to go to Africa and do that.

I found out this was very difficult when you’re a nightclub promoter that gets people drunk for a living, because serious credible humanitarian organizations aren’t exactly interested in taking you on. So I got denied by 10 or so famous organizations that everybody would have heard of.

F Geyrhalter: To do volunteer work, which is pretty amazing.

S Harrison: Yeah. I didn’t even want to be paid.

F Geyrhalter: We don’t want your free work.

S Harrison: Right. But I looked toxic on paper, right? So finally one organization said, Hey look, Scott, if you’re willing to go and live in post-war Liberia, West Africa, and if you’re willing to pay us $500 a month you can join our mission and you can be our photojournalist. I’d actually gotten a degree at New York University in journalism and communications just because it was the easiest degree I thought I could get. I was a C-minus student. Never even say the diploma. I just sent it straight to my dad because I felt like I owed it to him for saving up.

So I on paper was technically qualified to do this job or this role. And I said, Great. I’ve got some cameras. I can write and I can’t wait to see what amazing humanitarian work you’re doing and how you people are, I’m sure, saving the world. So it happened very quickly, Fabian. I would up a couple of weeks later in West Africa embedded as a photojournalist with a group of humanitarian doctors and surgeons who would operate on people who had no access to medical care from a giant 522 foot hospital ship.

The ship would sail up and down the coast of Africa bringing the best doctors and surgeons to the people who needed medical care. Thousands and thousands of people would turn up, and we would help as many people as we could. My third day in Africa, my third day on this mission, I was faced with the reality that there was so much more need than we could handle. 5000 sick patients turned up for 1500 available medical slots and we wound up sending 3500 people home.

I would up just falling in love with the work of these doctors. Their heart, the purpose behind it. I had an email list of 15,000 people. So I had in a way a little bit of a built-in audience. Now granted these people had been coming to parties at the [inaudible 00:09:47] for Vogue or Cosmopolitan magazine for years. But I was able to tell them the stories of these patients of these amazing doctors. I learned that the same gift for promoting nightclubs, the same maybe skill that could get people excited about spending $20 on a vodka soda, could also be used to tell more redemptive, important stories, and also be used to raise money.

I wound up doing a year there. That turned into a second year. And in the second year that I was back in West Africa, in Liberia, I saw the water that people were drinking in the rural remote areas. As I traveled around the country I just couldn’t believe that there was no clean water. People were drinking from swamps. They were drinking from ground ponds, from viscous rivers. I learned that half of the country was drinking bad water, and half the disease in the country was because of that bad water.

So I really started evolving into what I was interested in. If you’d asked me in the first year it would have been surgeries and medical procedures. If you’d asked me in the second year it would have been, Hey we need to get people water so that they’re not sick in the first place. Let’s get to the root cause of this, not just treat the symptoms.

So all in, it was two years. It was a life changing, extraordinary experience. I came back to New York City at 30 with a completely new lease on life, a new purpose. I’d shed the vices. I quit smoking before I joined the mission. I quit drinking. I quit drugs and swore off porn and all that stuff obviously. I just wanted to change everything about my life. And now I had my issue. I wanted to help see if I could bring clean drinking water to people around the world that needed it.

F Geyrhalter: And what was that one big breakthrough moment where you knew that this is not going to be a small non-profit? This is actually turning into a brand with a huge following, and it’s going to affect millions of people. When was that moment when you knew now we’re going over that curve, you know?

S Harrison: You know I think I was pretty clear early on about the importance of branding to our success or to any sort of scale. So, okay, the different between mission and vision for us. So the mission was going to be let’s bring clean drinking water to every person on the planet, and we’ll know that we’ve achieved our mission when there are zero people left dying of bad water. Zero children dying in their mom’s arms because they had to drink from a swamp. Zero women being attacked by hyenas, or lions, or crocodiles at the water source. So that’s the mission.

However, I had the advantage of being 30. The term social entrepreneur wasn’t invented yet. And I really didn’t know any better. I was just hanging out with everyday people who worked at the Sephora store. Or they worked at MTV. Or they worked at Chase Bank. And I realized that most people that I talked to didn’t trust charities. They didn’t trust the system. I learned that 42% of Americans said they don’t trust charities, and 70% of Americans … This is a more recent poll by NYU… 70% of Americans said, We believe charities waste our money when we donate.

So I thought, this is actually the bigger opportunity. The vision for this thing is going to be reimagine, reinvent charity. How a charity should think and feel and act. How a charity should connect and serve its supporters. So we had a mission but then the vision would be this bigger thing that we did, and it would require effectively rebranding charity to take the cynical, skeptical, disenchanted people and say, Hey take another look. We’re doing something very, very different here. We think we’re actually speaking to your objections and the reasons why you’re not giving. So “charity:” kind of on the left side being the vision and then “water” being the mission.

F Geyrhalter: Right. And how did that come together? So when you instill trust in people and you have to change the stigma around charities not being trustworthy and how money goes to salaries, how did your business model, for instance, address this?

S Harrison: Yeah. The biggest problem people had was they don’t know where their money goes. I would just hear a version of that time and time again. You know, I give to a charity. How much is actually going to reach the people that need it? Is any of it going to reach the people? And I thought, Well, what if we could make a promise that 100% of the money would reach the people that need it.

F Geyrhalter: Which is crazy.

S Harrison: Which is crazy.

F Geyrhalter: Right, yeah.

S Harrison: And it really, on face value, it’s a really dumb idea. Because if every donation goes straight to, in our case building water projects around the world, well then how would you ever pay for your own salary? Or your team’s salary? Or your office costs? So I deeply believed that I could find a very small group of people and get them excited about that, about paying for the unsexy overhead costs, if they knew, again, that they were opting in to pay for this and if we were able to run a really efficient organization.

So I literally opened up two bank accounts with different numbers 13 years ago. And said, 100% of the public’s money is only going to go in this bank account and it’s only going to build water projects, that we are going to prove. We’re going to use photos and GPS and show satellite images. We’re going to put trackers on the drilling rigs so people can just feel so connected to 100% of that money.

And the other bank account, I’m going to go to entrepreneurs and business leaders and say, Hey, look, we have overhead costs, do you mind covering those? Because I can get you a great return on that investment and you’re going to help me build a movement of clean water and restore people’s faith in charity.

So that was idea #1. The second idea was really just proof and finding ways to connect donors to the impact of their donation. So if a six year old girl gave $8.15 could we track that $8.15 to a village in Malawi and show here a picture of the project that that $8.15 went and supported? Could we even show her the names of the other people who made up the rest of that water project? So proof just became this core pillar.

The third was really building an epic brand. You know 13 years ago if we were doing this podcast I would have told you that branding was going to be key to our success. And I would have quoted from the New York Times, a writer named Nick Kristof, who said that toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than all the world’s life-saving causes.

F Geyrhalter: I can see that. Yeah.

S Harrison: I thought it’s true and it’s broke, and right? Colgate and Crest are better marketers. Doritos can spend hundreds of millions of dollars. Junk food companies, literally killing us and our children. But yet the most empowerful life saving causes on the planet often have anemic brands. In fact, there’s almost a poverty mentality. You know if our brand looks too good maybe people won’t want to give us money.

F Geyrhalter: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

S Harrison: So you saw a lot of beige out there in the sector. You know dropped panel ceilings, florescent lights, cubby holes with the fuzzy linings on them. And I thought, man, the brands that we all look up to, the epic brands, the Nikes, the Virgins, the Apples, the Teslas, these are imaginative, inspiring brands. These are brands that don’t use shame and guilt to peddle their wares. These are brands that try to call forth greatness and innovation and beauty. And I just didn’t see that in charities. I saw charities trying to make people feel really bad about how much money they had and then guilting and shaming them into giving.

While that may work in a short term for fundraising, it’s not how you build a brand. Nobody goes and tells their friends about the charity that made them feel shameful. Or guilty. But you do go tell your friends about something that you’re inspired by. So brand was really going to be this third core pillar. And that would look like attention to detail, valuing design, trying to hire the best designers and convince them not to work at Apple but to work at a place like charity: water and use their design skills for good.

F Geyrhalter: Unheard of, yeah.

S Harrison: And then the last thing was just making sure we worked with local partners to get the work done. I thought for our actual work, providing clean water to people around the world, to be culturally appropriate and for it to be sustainable it had to be led by the people in each of these countries. So by Ethiopians in Ethiopia, and by Kenyans in Kenya, and by Indians in India. Our job would be to create a global movement, energy and awareness around the clean water crisis. Use 100% of the money and track those dollars, but then empower the locals, now in 29 countries, to lead their communities and their countries forward with our capital.

F Geyrhalter: Amazing. And obviously you care deeply about design, right? Your organization has been praised for its imaginative approach to branding. I just got a chance to review your 86 page brand guide last night. It states the following. It states: We believe a strong sense of brand can set us apart and amplify every message we send. Very much to what you just said, but when you started you had pretty much zero money. Zero experience, right?, in not only the non-profit space.

S Harrison: But we had good taste.

F Geyrhalter: That’s right. And that can set it apart, right? But you didn’t have experience branding necessarily, right? I mean as a nightclub promoter to a certain extent, flyers, stuff like that. But people don’t care that much. How did then the visual brand come together? How did you arrive at that really now iconic bright yellow water can logo? What was that journey like?

S Harrison: Well, so the first person that I hired was someone to help me go and work on the water projects, go and find the partners and figure out who we should send this money to to get impact. The second person I hired was a creative director, a designer. I later married her, so that’s the story for the book.

F Geyrhalter: Good choice.

S Harrison: And she became my wife. But for a charity to make an early hire as a designer is unheard of. I mean that’s normally hire 30. It’s hire 60. Sometimes it’s hire never. You know you hire some agency and you shop the whole thing out. So I just believed that brand would need to be the core of this thing, and it should be the second person.

So when I hired Vik, she was working at an ad agency. She was working on Toyota campaigns and Clinique and she hated it. Her agency’s motto was Create Desire, and it was basically sell people more things that they don’t even want, certainly don’t need, and then we make our clients rich. So she had come across charity: water. I’d done this outdoor exhibition in New York City where I put dirty water from New York City ponds and rivers into big plexi tanks and I showed people what it would look like if we had to drink the same water that people were drinking around the world.

F Geyrhalter: That was a great campaign, yeah.

S Harrison: Yeah. And she volunteered at that, and at the end she said, Hey, I’m a designer. Can I be useful? I’m like, Absolutely. Can you show up tomorrow? And she was an animator. She was a graphic designer. She wound up teaching herself how to shoot, edit video. And just really the all in one designer, then VP of Creative later. So it was really the three of us at the beginning kind of concepting these campaigns. How do we raise awareness? How do we get people to think differently about water?

So I think it was just valuing that really early on, and then she wound up staying with the work for nine years and building up an amazing team and an amazing creative culture. You know, it’s interesting. My wife, Viktoria, left a couple of years ago. She’s now a brand consultant and starting her own business just trying to teach brand to other startups and other non-profits.

She walked in the office the other day. There’s 100 people here and we have a stunning 35,000 square foot office in Tribeca, New York and there’s huge 14 foot light boxes and donated TV screens with images and with video loops. She walked in and was kind of like, Oh my gosh I don’t know a lot of the people anymore. And the design looks even better than I ever remember it. And I’m like, Yeah, that’s the testament to the culture. We posted a job for graphic designer at charity: water. I think we had 480 people apply at a non-profit. So that’s really the culture.

So it was valued at the top. It still is. I’m still pixel pushing every once in a while. I’ll go over and I’ll change a color or complain about a font. But I think that’s the difference because a lot of non-profits are run by academics. Or they’re run in a much more institutional way that doesn’t value the creativity and the aesthetic.

So it was two things. It was having the good taste. I couldn’t do it myself. And then hiring and then putting the money in that direction for years that’s helped. The jerry can you asked about. I absolutely resisted that. I didn’t like the yellow jerry can. I didn’t think anybody would know what it meant. And Vik always saw it as our Nike swoosh symbol. You know this is the symbol for water throughout so many countries around the world. The jerry can is not going away. And we want the water in every single jerry can in the world to be clean water. You know, it’s the yellow can. I argued it for maybe a year.

F Geyrhalter: Oh, wow. Persistent.

S Harrison: And in the vein of my wife, typically right. And it turned out that she was. It’s been a distinctive mark for us.

F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. It’s a little bit like the name where it feels at first a little generic, and then you can own it. And you own the entire history that’s behind that simple image. Right?

S Harrison: It really is. I mean I laugh about that. Right? It’s a charity that helps people get water. I mean at least you know what we do.

F Geyrhalter: So let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about that, because I wonder was it intentionally picked to allow for an extension into anything else than water at some point?

S Harrison: Yeah. So that’s why the core. So charity: would be the core entity, i.e. the vision. This effort to bring in new donors, to inspire generosity, to speak to cynicism around charity. Right? Build this huge community of givers who wanted to help people, help end suffering around the world. And then water would be the first initiative. Right? We were going to do that. We were going to live out the vision through the mission.

F Geyrhalter: How long could it take, right? A couple of years then we should be done with water.

F Geyrhalter: Check.

S Harrison: I thought the next year I was going to imitate Richard Branson and I was going to launch charity: educaton, charity: health, charity: malaria, charity: justice, charity: shelter.

F Geyrhalter: Well, I’m glad you didn’t. We’re all glad you didn’t.

S Harrison: I actually registered a bunch of domain names. I think I still own charity:education.com.

F Geyrhalter: Because all the ones you haven’t registered, they will be registered by the time that the podcast airs I’m sure.

S Harrison: Yeah. Yeah.

F Geyrhalter: They’re going to sell it to you for millions of dollars, Scott. That’s what they’re going to do.

S Harrison: Exactly. Exactly. So that was the idea at the beginning. And then as it happens, first of all you realize how difficult it is to do one thing well. Also, by the way, Fabian, there are 663 million human beings without clean water. So we just passed through 10 million that we’ve helped. So that’s 10 million of 663 million. So 1/66th of the problem, or 1.5%. So we’re at the very beginning of this journey and our impact we hope.

And the beauty is as we got deeper into our first mission, our first initiative, charity: water, we learned that water impacted just about every other thing we were interested in doing. It impacted women and girls and gender equality. It is only the women and the girls that are the ones getting the water. It radically impacts health. 50% of the disease throughout the developing world, caused by bad water and lack of sanitation. It dramatically improved education as we could bring clean water and sanitation to the one in three schools worldwide that don’t have clean water. I mean imagine sending your child to a school with no clean water and no toilet. Imagine sending your teenage girl to that school. Well, she doesn’t go four or five days a month to a school without water and toilets and falls behind in her studies.

So water became like this onion that the deeper we understood the importance and significance, the more we realized we were accomplishing so many other things. We were ending so many other aspects of human suffering by doing the one thing well. So 13 years later there’s still no plan to brand extend. But, you know, as generic as the name is I think we’ve been able to own it through campaigns and through design and through, I mean gosh, we’ve probably made 800 to 1000 videos in house over that last decade or so.

F Geyrhalter: I feel like I watched 100 of those yesterday. You get sucked into it.

S Harrison: Some of the old ones are a little painful.

F Geyrhalter: I don’t think my Google search got me that far. So it’s all good. Let’s talk about storytelling a little bit more. I mean, it’s key in the non-profit world. We talked about that most lead by using tools of shame and guilt. But hopeful storytelling in contrast has always been a tremendously important aspect of charity: water. And where other people use statistics, which are a far contrast to personal stories which lead to empathy more naturally, you guys you tell unbelievably sophisticated and personal stories. I heard one of those. I think it was on MentorBox, of giving a drilling rig a Twitter account and mounting it with cameras to tell its story while raising funds for it. And things did not always go quite as planned with the rig’s journey. But you still shared those hiccups or failures with your tribe. Can you tell us that story, and perhaps how other brands can learn from the transparent way that charity: water tells its stories?

S Harrison: Yeah, gosh, I feel like I’ve got to be careful not to use any of the buzz words.

F Geyrhalter: It’s a branding podcast. Go for it.

S Harrison: For authenticity.

F Geyrhalter: I did empathy. It’s open. The door’s open.

S Harrison: Yeah. I mean I think if you’re trying to solve for trust people just want to know how things really are out there. And if you present a picture of everything works all the time, and everything always goes well, well, people just know that’s not how life works. That’s not how any company works. That’s not how any organization works. I think over 13 years we’ve just been honest and vulnerable about some of our challenges, whether they’re broken wells out there. Whether it’s drilling wells and not being able to serve communities like you mentioned.

So in that specific story, we had crowd funded a well deep in the Central African Republic for a tribe of Bayaka Pygmies. This is a marginalized tribe. It’s an oppressed group of people. They never had clean water before. In fact, the well driller that we were working with had gone in three times before and failed. A couple by hand, not finding water deep enough. Once with a small rig. He was sure that this time with the proper equipment, with a million dollar drilling rig and our money, he would be able to go and succeed.

And we really believed him. We got thousands of people to learn about the Bayaka tribe, about their heroism, and their courage, and how they take care of their kids, and what the families are like. Just how extraordinary these people are. And we asked people to give money and said, Hey, please help. We promised that if we raised enough money to help them, then we would fly back and we would drill the well live via satellite so people could see the payoff. And what happened was we got another dry well. We tried, and we tried, and we tried for a couple of days. And we just broadcast the failure. We didn’t sugarcoat it. It wasn’t a happy ending. We wound up pulling away, leaving the village no better off than we found them. And perhaps worse because we’d raised a sense of hope. And we’d lit about $15,000 on fire in front of our supporters.

But it was one of the most popular videos we ever shared because it was true. We’ve all been in car accidents. We’ve all maybe made a bad investment or a bad decision. And this wasn’t for the lack of trying. This was actually a tenacity and a courage that was to be commended by our local partner in the effort of never giving up on these people, of never giving up on this tribe. But this time didn’t work and all this money was lost.

I just remember the emails coming in. It was sympathy but it was more respect, like, wow, we respect you guys for just being honest with us, for letting us know how hard it is out there to do what you’re trying to do, by not sugarcoating it. And we will continue to give to charity: water. We know it didn’t work this time, but if you want to go back we’re in it again. And we actually did go back a year later, and we were able to finally successfully drill for that community in Central Africa with even more and different equipment. And then send that video around of eventual success. But I think just being willing to live with the reality of the moment and to share that built a lot of community.

F Geyrhalter: And that’s radical transparency, right?, which kind of by now even became a little bit a buzzword. But for you guys that is something that is really entrenched in how you actually run.

S Harrison: Yeah. I was saying that 13 years ago on stage and to anybody that would listen. Radical transparency. Hyper transparency. I mean I just believe that the great businesses and certainly the great non-profits in the world, they will thrive on being honest and having integrity, on sharing their successes, sharing their challenges, and also sharing their failures.

F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. And it’s also important to you share the impact any specific group investing into your organization has, right?, if it goes right or wrong, but just to show what is happening. So data plays a huge part in charity: water. I watched your keynote from Inbound last year and you promised to share the impact that specific audience, if they would donate, right?, the impact that they would have on communities after five years.

Now the way that I actually first learned about charity: water was the campaign you did together with Depeche Mode during their Delta Machine tour. Obviously a huge audience around the world. I believe a total of two million people attended once that tour was over. And the partnership continued in the Spirit tour a few years back. Did you have a system in place back then to track how much, let’s say, the Copenhagen audience contributed versus the Paris audience? Or how many wells were built based on this one tour?

S Harrison: Yeah, the Depeche Mode money was actually raised primarily through-

F Geyrhalter: The watch, right?

S Harrison: … a partnership with Hublot. Yeah. A partnership with Hublot. However, they did have a campaign online and I remember all the band members donated their birthday. The fans were able to contribute to their birthdays.

F Geyrhalter: Talk about that a little bit. Talk about that initiative because that’s something most people are probably not familiar with, and it’s such a great … We’re getting sidetracked but let’s go there for a second.

S Harrison: It was a simple idea. Look, it was a simple idea. We have birthdays every year. Our birthdays are typically about us, celebrating ourselves. We get gifts often that we don’t want or need. We throw ourselves parties. Often other people throw parties for us that we don’t necessarily even enjoy. And I thought, What if we could reclaim the birthday as a moment of generosity? And what if we could make our birthdays about others, and involve our friends, and our family, and our community in significant change around the world?

I said, Look, here’s this sticky marketing idea. Let’s turn them into fundraisers and let’s have people ask for their age in dollars, or pounds, or euros. So I tried this by doing my 32nd birthday. I said, Hey, if you’ve got 32 dollars please donate 32 dollars for my 32nd birthday. 100% of the money will go help clean water and we’ll prove exactly where every dollar goes.

To my surprise, my goal was $32,000 which was ambitious, but this idea spread and I ended up raising $59,000. Then a seven year old kid in Texas took the idea and he said, I’m turning seven and I want $7.00 donations for my birthday. He started knocking on doors, telling the story, talking about water. Wound up raising $22,000. A seven year old kid. We had 80 nine year olds donate for their birthday, asking for $89. It was kind of a beautiful multi-layered idea because so many kids around the world are dying before they reach their fifth birthday because they’ve had dirty water.

We realized that as we donated our birthdays, people could actually have more birthdays. They could live longer. They could live healthier. They could thrive with clean water. And our friends don’t want to get us crap anyway. You know, we don’t want to get our friends an iTunes gift card, or a wallet, or a handbag.

F Geyrhalter: Especially the iTunes gift card.

S Harrison: Or scarves. Or socks. Or whatever, right? So people would much rather give to a cause that you care about. So this movement has helped us now get over two million people clean water around the world. Over 100,000 people have donated their birthdays. They’ve raised over 70 million dollars. In fact, if anyone is just interested in learning more you can just go to charitywater.org/birthdays. Even if your birthday is 13 days from now or 11 months from now, you can learn more. You can pledge. And we make it so easy. I’ve done eight birthdays now. My son did his first birthday when he was one, and people just love it. They love being able to see the impact of seeing something that was really focused on us turned to help others. Depeche Mode donated their birthdays. Will Smith donated his birthday. Kristen Bell donated her birthday. Tony Hawk. The founders of Twitter and Spotify and people at Apple. It’s been amazing. Everyday people. Kids donating their birthdays to huge executives. It’s helped us raise a lot of awareness and raise a lot of money.

F Geyrhalter: And it’s one of the reasons why you’re one of the 10 most innovative people in business today, most creative people in business. It’s those little ideas that come so quickly and afterwards they have such an impact. As we are coming slowly to an end here, I need to ask you this one question. What is one word that can describe your brand? So I know you believe in simplicity. It’s important for the organization. This is brand simplicity at its core. Everything charity: water does. Everything it stands for all condensed into that one word that I call your Brand DNA. Can you think of that one word?

S Harrison: Yeah, yeah. Inspired.

F Geyrhalter: Great.

S Harrison: We are trying to inspire people. We are inspired by the stories of courage and heroism. We’re inspired by our local partners. We’re inspired by our volunteers. We’re inspired by the beneficiaries out there, the women that are walking for water, that are providing for their families under dire circumstances. We’re inspired by our donors. We’re inspired by our team members that we get to work with. It’s my favorite word for the brand, and hopefully we’re able to continue inspiring others to join us.

F Geyrhalter: And I think you just have. In your book you state, and you stated this earlier in the podcast too, that good branding is key to charity: water’s success. What does branding mean to you?

S Harrison: I mean, gosh, there’s so many definitions. I think branding is the perception. It’s how people think of us. Does charity: water bring a smile to their face? Do they trust us? Do they believe that we are a bunch of hard-working, intelligent, passionate people that are doing this for the right reasons? That are trying to use our time, and our talents, and our money in the service of others? In the service of clean water? It’s all of these little, little ideas and moments and brushes with a person at charity: water, or the brand, or a video, or an image, or a quote, that adds up to the brand. I think, I guess branding is the things that we do to not protect that but really move it forward. To continue inspiring. To continue designing with excellence and integrity. To continue telling stories that move people towards a greater generosity, and compassion, and a better version of themselves.

F Geyrhalter: It’s the sum of it all. Absolutely. I want to urge everyone to pick up a copy of Scott’s book entitled Thirst. Proceeds go to charity: water.

S Harrison: That’s right. Yep. I don’t make a penny.

F Geyrhalter: You will do yourself a favor just to unlock the engaging digital component of the book, which is so cool. I got so sucked into this yesterday. It’s a wonderfully curated and displayed content. But Scott, what do you want listeners do to help your cause? Where else would you want them to go to be part of the change?

S Harrison: So there’s a video that we made as we turned 10. It’s called The Spring. It’s really our story. It’s an exercise in storytelling and branding. It’s now gotten over 20 million views across platforms. But people could watch that. They could learn about The Spring, which is this new community we’re building now across 110 countries of people who are showing up for clean water every month, in the same way that they might show up for Netflix or Spotify or Apple Music.

So it’s a community called The Spring and you could share the film. You could watch the film. You could join us in The Spring. Or you could just post it. So many people have learned about charity: water coming across a video, specifically this video. So that’s at … It’s pretty easy to remember. It’s just charitywater.org/thespring.

F Geyrhalter: We’ll link out to that.

S Harrison: Or even thespring.com. So I’d say learn a little more. I think it’s one thing to hear me talk about it. It’s another to see the images, to see the video of people suffering and the need. But also the amazing relief. You get to see wells being drilled. You get to see people drinking clean water the very first time in their life. I would say it’s an inspiring video, I think. So we’d love your help. Watch it. Maybe join us in The Spring, and then just help us share it. Because so many of your friends don’t know about this issue, have never heard about us. And this is how we’ve grown really, through word of mouth.

F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. Thank you, Scott, from the bottom of my heart. I know you need to go. Thanks for taking the time during your hectic schedule and for sharing your stories and advice with our listeners. I’m forever grateful for the time you spend with us and for the positivity, the inspiration, and the hope you provide through charity: water.

S Harrison: Of course. Well, listen, come visit in New York City. I’d love to show you around headquarters, and thanks so much for just investing time to learn about us and doing your research. I really appreciate it.

F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. Well, my pleasure. And thanks to everyone for listening, and please support this podcast so we can turn advertising free and solely listener supported. Just like Yacoub Yassin from Cairo, Egypt, Chris Wertz from New Orleans, Abda from Karlsdorf-Neuthard in Germany, Devroni Liasoi Lumandan from Sabah, Malaysia, Pablo Valles (who I do not know where he’s from), Rod from Fort Mill in South Carolina and last but not least, and this is just too awesome, Viktoria Harrison from NYC whose husband you just listened to for the past 45 minutes, and who has been integral in the creation of the Charity: water brand. Wow. This is amazing, and what a truly international group. All of these new subscribers joined on the Brandster level and are now part of my monthly group calls. Join them by heading over to Patreon.com/hittingthemark to show your support. And please leave a quick rating and review wherever you listen to the show. Hitting the Mark is currently brought to you by Finien, a brand consultancy creating strategic verbal and visual brand clarity. You can learn more at finien.com. The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won. And I will see you next time when we once again will be Hitting the Mark.


  • Kat Ransom

    Amazing story behind charity water. Thanks for sharing Fabian. I miss wotking with you!

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