"I just believe in transparency in charities. Tell people what you’re doing with their money and invite them into a lot of different opportunities to give and people will surprise you. They want to be helpful."
Before today’s guest embarked on his mission to save millions of lives, he had to save his own.
Scott Harrison was one of New York City’s premier nightclub promoters, doing drugs, drinking heavily, deeply unfulfilled and on the verge of self-destructing. In today’s podcast episode, he tells me his riveting story of how he came to declare spiritual, moral, and emotional bankruptcy – and uses it as a catalyst to change the world…
Now, Scott has made lists such as Fortune’s 40 Under 40, Forbes’ Impact 30, and was #10 on Fast Company’s 100 most creative people in business, as well as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. He is the CEO and founder of Charity Water, an organization dedicated to helping people in developing nations get access to clean and safe drinking water. Charity Water has provided clean drinking water to over 8.5 million people in 26 countries.
I’ve been enamored with Scott’s story, passion, and vision – which are the basis of his new book, Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World.
Today, he joins the podcast to share insights from his remarkable journey and personal transformation, in a way that can inspire you to do the same.
- How Scott went from being immersed in nightlife to leading one of the most impactful global charities in the world.
- Why Scott paid $500 a month to spend 2 years in post-war Liberia – and how it inspired him to start Charity Water.
- What Scott did before he checked into his volunteer mission – and how changing his environment allowed him to drastically change his habits.
- Why so many people don’t trust charities – and how Scott used this information to build an organization that addressed those objections.
- The power of Scott’s innovative 100% model – and how it has inspired other charities to take action and reject apathy.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
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Hal: Hello, friends and goal achievers. How is it going? This is Hal Elrod. And today’s episode of Achieve Your Goals Podcast is brought to you by the Best Year Ever Blueprint Live Experience. It is the once a year, really once-in-a-lifetime weekend experience where 300 members of the Miracle Morning Community and listeners of the Achieve Your Goals Podcast come together in person with me, with my good friend and co-host, Jon Berghoff, in sunny San Diego, California. This will be our fifth annual event. Every year hundreds of members of the community, listeners to the podcasts come together to learn, to grow, to connect, to take ourselves and our lives both personally and professionally to levels beyond we ever experienced before. And what makes the Best Year Ever Blueprint so special, well, really there are countless intangibles. There are a few that really stand out to me and number one is the people, it’s the community. Imagine a culture, the energy, the level of engagement of the 174,000-person online Miracle Morning Community. Just imagine is one of the most engaged fastest growing communities in the world. But now imagine being in the same room, not with all 174,000 of us, but with the 300 most dedicated, passionate members of that community, those that often come back year-after-year-after-year to this event. Last year we had I think 16 different countries represented. People flew in from around the world to meet us in San Diego.
Number two is the experiential nature of the event. It’s not what you learn while you’re there, but it’s what you experience real time in the room tapping into your greatest strengths, the best version of yourself. We don’t just teach you how to do things and then send you home to do them. You actually get to experience everything that you learn in the room using cutting-edge experiential learning science which I know very little about, but thankfully my good friend and partner, Jon Berghoff, is one of the best in the world. Companies like NASA and Facebook bring Jon in to do what he will do with you that weekend at their company. And the third thing that I think really makes Best Year Ever stand out from any other event out there is to focus on becoming versus doing. Similar to the Miracle Morning, we believe that your level of success in every area of your life will always be determined by who you become much more than anything that you learn and granted, there’s a correlation. When you learn things and you apply things, yes, you become more. So, the irony is that who you become is far more important than what you do or what you learn but it’s what you learn and what you do that determines who you become. And so, we take that all into consideration so that when you leave the event, you leave the event as a different person, a better version of who you were when you walked through the door.
And this year’s Best Year Ever Blueprint will be December 7 through 9 at my favorite Waterfront Hotel in all of San Diego. It’s the Manchester Grand Hyatt. And a quick logistical point, the main two-day event, Best Year Ever Blueprint event is Saturday and Sunday, December 8th and 9th and for all of you entrepreneurs, you can choose to attend the optional Entrepreneur Day on Friday, December 7 where we’ll focus on how to launch and grow a seven-figure multimillion-dollar business, how to grow your platform, or what I like to call your community of loyal, raving fans, and even how to improve your financial efficiency so that you keep more of what you earn and a whole lot more. Now, you can get all the details for every part of the event and you can secure your spot at BestYearEverLive.com. I really hope you can join us for what is sure to be another unforgettable weekend and I look forward to being with you in San Diego. And in the meantime, I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You’re about to meet a man named Scott Harrison, the CEO and founder of Charity: Water who is truly changing the world and I enjoy hearing his story, hearing what he’s up to, the lessons embedded in what he shares, and I hope you do too. Love you, goal achievers. Enjoy today’s conversation with Scott Harrison.
Hal: Goal achievers, what’s going on? It’s Hal Elrod. Welcome to the Achieve Your Goals Podcast, and as always, you’re in for a killer interview today, a gentleman by the name of Scott Harrison. And if you don’t know Scott, he is the founder and CEO of Charity: Water, which is a nonprofit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. And after a decade as one of the top nightclub promoters in New York City, which if you haven’t heard Scott’s story, it’s pretty inspiring and I’m excited to bring this to you but he was surrounded by the nightclub life, drugs, alcohol, and Scott finally declared spiritual, moral, and emotional bankruptcy and he started over. He went to Africa. He spent two years there where he saw the effects of dirty water firsthand and then when he came back to New York City, he came back on a mission and turned his full attention to the global water crisis which is 663 million people who do not have clean water to drink. Think about that for a second. We wake up and we’ve got all of our different problems, but one of them for most of us is not having to find water for the day for us, for our families to drink.
And in 12 years with the help of more than 1 million donors worldwide, Charity: Water has raised more than $320 million and funded nearly 30,000 water projects in 26 countries. And when completed, some of these are still underway, of course, but those projects will provide over 8.5 million people with clean safe drinking water. And Scott, based on what he has done in the world, the impact that he’s made, he’s been recognized on Fortune Magazine’s list of 40 Under 40, Forbes Impact 30, and Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business where he earned the number 10th spot. He’s currently a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and author of the new book Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World. And Scott lives in New York City right now with his wife Victoria, son Jackson, and daughter Emma and it is my great pleasure to have a conversation for those listeners today. Scott, how you doing, buddy?
Scott: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me on.
Hal: Yeah. Our friend John Ruhlin introduced us. It’s actually kind of a coincidence, right? Right after John introduced us, a good friend, Mike Dillard, I saw an email from him and he had you on his podcast and I started listening and was just enamored with your story and your passion and your mission and what you overcome and what you’re doing now in the world. So, let’s start with kind of the story. How do you go from being one of the top nightclub promoters in New York City immersed in that nightclub life to creating and leading one of the most impactful global charities in the world? Take us on that journey.
Scott: Yeah. Well, it was definitely a roundabout path. In some ways when I started I was uniquely unqualified on paper to do any of this but the story really starts a little earlier. I was raised in a very conservative Christian home in Philadelphia and New Jersey. When I was four years old, there was this freak accident in our house. There was a carbon monoxide gas leak and my family got sick. My mom almost died and from that point on actually became an invalid, never recovering. And I grew up wanting to be a doctor. I grew up wanting to help people. I grew up playing piano on Sunday in church, not smoking and drinking and cussing, or any that. And then at 18 in some ways, it’s just so cliché but I begin to live out the rebellion, the prodigal son type parable where I say enough of the church, enough of the rules. I’m going to move to New York City. I’m going to have lots of sex and do lots of drugs and try and become rich and famous and try that on for size. The way that I tried to do that was by becoming a nightclub promoter. I just couldn’t believe that there’s an actual job where you get paid to drink alcohol for a living. I mean, not only would you drink for free. Your friends would drink for free. I was basically going to be a paid professional drinker. I wound up working at 40 different nightclubs really at the high-end in New York over a decade.
Hal: And what age was that?
Scott: This is 19 to 28. The fringe of 18, 19 to 28.
Hal: Nine years.
Scott: Yeah, and this is before. And I started working in clubs before I was even allowed to be in the clubs. So, I don’t know, it was this “models and bottles” we used to call it. We would get the beautiful girls inside the club and then the really rich finance guys would come and pay lots of money to sit around them. And it would be not uncommon for someone to come and spend $10,000 on champagne in a single night. We were selling bottles for $800, $1,000 sometimes that cost us $50 or $60 to buy. So, it looks like a glamorous life and I was collecting all the things that I thought would make me happy, the BMW, the Rolex, the model girlfriend, the grand piano in my New York City apartment, the Labrador Retriever, just got it one by one. And what was actually happening was I was rotting inside. I was smoking two to three packs of cigarettes a day. I was heavily using cocaine and ecstasy and MDMA and Special K. I was a heavy drinker, a heavy gambler. I was addicted to pornography and strip clubs and just had come so far from any shred of morality or spirituality of my youth. And this all came to a head for me.
At 28 years old I was in Punta del Este, South America and I was with the beautiful people and we had rented this compound and there were servants waiting on us and there were horses in the backyard. I remember spending $1,000 on fireworks and we blew it up right next to the pool. And I just realized it was this moment of clarity, I realized that if I wasn’t happy now, it would never be enough. Someone would always have a more famous girlfriend. Someone would always have a better watch, a better car, a private plane. I remember watching someone who we were with apathetically gamble $10,000 hands of blackjack. He just didn’t care whether he won or he lost. It was almost like a game of musical chairs where the music stops and I just don’t have anywhere to sit. It felt so unsettling. And I began to try to imagine what it would look like to find my way back home, to come back to faith, to come back to morality or virtue, and to get out of nightlife. And back in New York City from this trip, I tried to drop the vices and smoke less and do less drugs and sleep around less and I was trying to do it but it was just so unsuccessful and it took me about six months later and I write about kind of the moment in the clubs in a lot more detail in the book. But there was this moment where I made a clean break and I sold almost every earthly possession I had and I asked myself the question, what would be opposite of my life look like? Not to pivot, not a 45 or a 90-degree turn but what would 180-degree opposite life look like? What would it look like to try and walk in the other direction?
And the only thing I could think of was why don’t you go serve the poor, go in a humanitarian mission and give one of the 10 years that you’ve wasted back almost as a penance or a [tie – 12:36]? I’ll never forget I was at a dial-up Internet café and I started applying to volunteer at the famous humanitarian organizations I’ve heard of over the years and I put in all these applications and I wait because I’m going to be able to pick from the litter and then I’m shocked and dismayed as I’m denied by every organization that really has no idea how a nightclub promoter would be useful. And finally, thankfully, one organization says to me, “Look, if you’re willing to pay us $500 a month and if you’re willing to go live in and serve in postwar Liberia,” as the country I’ve never even heard of in Africa, “then we’ll take you.” And I was like, “I’m in. Here are my credit card details. When do I leave?” And my life changed so dramatically and so quickly. In a couple weeks later, I was in West Africa for the first time in my life on a humanitarian medical mission faced with absolute extreme poverty for the first time in my life and that really was the turn that led me on this new journey.
Hal: You were there for years. Did the timeframe stick?
Scott: Actually, it turned into two years.
Hal: Got it. So, you were over there and that was where you saw the drinking. Well, talk about the drinking. What is that firsthand? Like, bring us into that scene, you know, because I think for most of us, we’re just so disconnected from that scene.
Scott: Sure. Well, I was with a group of doctors and surgeons that were operating on a huge 522-foot hospital ship. So, imagine an ocean liner that’s been gutted and turned into a state-of-the-art hospital and this humanitarian group would sail up and down the coast of Africa. They would pull into port with the best doctors and surgeons in the world who decided not to go to the Maldives or the Caribbean on vacation but have decided to fly to Africa and use their skills in service of others. And when we would pull into the port, often there would be thousands and thousands of sick people that had come, 5,000 people standing in parking lots with massive deformities, with leprosy, people blind with cataracts, people that were lame, people with flesh-eating disease, and just the most horrific suffering. And what struck me was we actually didn’t – we had to turn people away. So, we didn’t have enough doctors. We didn’t have enough surgery slots to offer. So, one of my first experiences on the ground in Africa was sending 3,500 people home without hope and say, “We can’t help you,” and I later learned that some of these people had walked with their children, with their sick children for more than a month. This wasn’t like, “Hey, I’m just going to go down the street.” This is a journey. I heard there’s a doctor in the neighboring country and I’m going to walk a month and the list is closed, the club is full, and it was so heartbreaking. So, I really began to focus on the hope and on people that we were able to help. We’re able to help 1,500 people just in that first four months of the medical mission.
But as I got off the ship and as I started traveling into the rural areas, I was shocked and appalled at the water people were forced to drink and you said take us into the scene. So, imagine a brown viscus river, imagine a green algae-filled pond, and then imagine a child walking out of the forest of the woods with a bucket filling up water that you wouldn’t give an animal. I mean, if your dog tried to drink this water, you would yank the collar. You’d be worried that your dog would just vomit after drinking this water but yet you’re watching children, five-year-olds, three-year-olds, 13-year-olds. There was a thirteen-year-old named Hawa that was one of the first people I met drinking dirty water and you know that this is making them sick. So, I learned that 50% of the country, 50% of the people in Liberia were drinking bad water and then to make that worse, there was only one doctor for every 50,000 citizens. So, if you actually got sick from water, you are out of luck because the medical system had been broken by a brutal civil war that lasted 14 years. So, I learned that 52% of all the disease throughout the developing world or what some people might have heard referred to as the Third World, half of the disease is caused by bad dirty water, lack of sanitation, toilets and bad hygiene caused by the water as well.
So, you know, maybe, maybe going all the way back to a child wanting to be a doctor, wanted to help sick people now being with actual doctors who were able to help only 1,500 people in a country of millions and then learning that half the country did not have clean water like that’s my thing. I’m going to go to the root cause of the suffering of this disease, of the sickness. I’m going to try to work to make sure everybody has clean water and at the time, Hal, it was worse than it was now. It was a billion people without water. One out of every six human beings alive when I started Charity: Water didn’t have this thing that so much of us just take for granted. And I think it was even more pronounced for me because I had been selling VOSS Water in my nightclubs for $10 a bottle to people who wouldn’t even open it. They would order 10 bottles and let it sit there and go drink vodka or champagne instead. So, just I couldn’t believe that we lived in a world where so many humans, a billion humans didn’t have their most basic need for health, for life met, and it was a solvable problem. That’s the other thing. There were solutions. You could dig wells or drill wells or build rainwater harvesting systems or filtration systems. No one needed to drink dirty water. This wasn’t like looking for the cure for a disease that we weren’t sure was even out there. This was just as simple as helping people get clean water.
Hal: So, when you came back to New York, what was kind of the journey from this wake-up call you had overseas to, “All right. I’m going to start a charity,” like what was that, where was that aha moment? What was that process like?
Scott: Well, I should say I got clean. So, before I joined the mission, I went out with a bang and I smoked three packs of cigarettes and drank eight beers and I actually checked in, so doing all these interviews for the book, people remember me turning up stinking like alcohol as I joined the mission on day one and surrendered my passport. But that was it. I never smoked again.
Scott: Fourteen years. I never touched coke or any of that stuff again. I never gambled again. I never looked at a pornographic image now a decade-and-a-half. Really in the most extreme way possible, I had to leave all of those vices on land and kind of sail away to this new life. It was a do-over. It felt like I could actually at 28 years old just start a new story for my life but I had to leave all that crap behind.
Hal: I want to go off topic real quick and then we’ll come back but I just published a book, The Miracle Morning for Addiction and Recovery and obviously, I think everybody knows that addiction is one of the biggest problems in the United States. So, I just I feel for anybody listening that struggles with addiction, any advice, any thought, I mean, how because what you did is pretty rare to be able to quit cold turkey all of those vices, never go back to them. I think there’s millions of people in America and around the world they’re like, “Wow. I wish I had that discipline, that willpower, that whatever it is.”
Scott: Well, the environment really helped. So, I mean, going from an environment of drinking and drugs that where the club starts at midnight and ends at 4 or 5 AM to an environment of effectively Christian humanitarian doctors.
Hal: So, there weren’t a bunch of drug dealers roaming the villages.
Scott: There were smokers. There were a couple of guys in the engine room of the ship that would smoke. So, that really helped and going into a pure environment where the norm was not alcohol abuse. The norm was not cigarette smoking or drug abuse. The norm was virtue, virtuous clean living and the service of the poor and in the service of others so that that really helped me.
Hal: That’s a very good point. And for anybody listening and you’re going, “I don’t have the resources right now to go on a mission,” the lesson is still the same, right, cleaning up our environment. If we’re hanging out with people that are – I always say that if you’re hanging out with people that drink alcohol all the time, probably you’re going to drink alcohol. They do drugs? You probably end up doing drugs. So, yeah, I think, Scott, that’s a really, really important lesson or point is that you’ve got to change your environment, surround yourself with people that are not doing the things that you don’t want to be doing anymore.
Scott: And I admire them. I mean, this is amazing. They were role models for me.
Hal: Sure. Yeah. Very powerful. All right. So, yes, back into the story of how Charity: Water came to be. So, you came back, you got clean overseas, and you’ve stayed clean when you came back, and then how did you move into starting a charity?
Scott: Yeah. Well, so I have my issue, okay, I’m going to be passionately focused on ending the water crisis. I’m bringing clean drinking water to everybody on earth and I really could kind of see through to the end and I could see this day on earth when everybody had clean water to drink no matter where they were born. So, I started talking to my friends about this and I should say that, again, it’s not a great time to start charity because I’m 30 years old and I’m completely broke and I’m sleeping on a walk-in closet floor of my old nightclub promoter friend’s apartment so he takes me in, but this isn’t a great time. But I’m running around, I’ve taken 50,000 photos in Africa, and I’m running around to nightclubs and I’m in DJ booths opening up my laptop, showing pictures of people drinking dirty water saying, “We need to do something about this. This is on fire like this is not okay.” And as I do this, I learned that there’s a huge cynicism and a huge skepticism out there when it comes to charity. Some of my friends were saying, “Oh, I don’t give to charities. I don’t trust charities. They’re black holes. I don’t know where my money goes. I don’t know how much of my money will actually reach the people that I’m trying to help.” And everybody seemed to have one scandal or one horror story that they could pull out of their back pocket and I thought, well, what if there was a different way to do this? What if there was a new business model? What if there was a new way to get these disenchanted people and get them to take another look, bring them back to the table?
Hal: So, the charity model was kind of eye-opening to you seeing that that needed to be changed?
Scott: Yeah. And I learned that 42% of Americans said they just trust charity and I learned that 70% of Americans polled by NYU said that they actually believe charities waste money or badly waste money. So, think about that, 70% of the people polled thought charities did the wrong thing with money. And that surprised people out because we have this culture of generosity. Who’s more generous than Americans, right? I mean, we are givers, but yet people don’t trust the system. So, the bigger vision actually became to reinvent charity. I love the word charity. Charity means love. It means to help your neighbor in need and get nothing in return. And I thought the fact that so many people are turned off by the act of giving, the act of love, this is broken. And as I started talking people, I just said, “Well, what would make you want to give to a charity? What would that look like? What would it feel like? How would the charity treat you? How would they speak to you? Would it be transparent? What would that look like?” And I came up with 100% model just through talking with people and people said, “Well, I would want to know that all my money is going to get there,” and I said, “Okay. So, 100% of your money. That would make you give?” And then other people say, “Well, I want to see proof of what the charity did with my money.” Okay, so the charity would prove it. And other people said, “Well, I think charity brands suck.” I said, “Okay. So, it would have a brand that felt like Nike or Apple or Virgin.”
And I just started putting these things together and the 100% model was incredibly difficult but by opening up two bank accounts and made that promise 12 years ago that every donation we would ever get from the public, whether it was $1 or $100 or $1 million would only build water projects that got people clean water. And the second overhead bank account we would somehow scrap and find, hopefully, visionary entrepreneurs or business leaders who would want to pay for the office salaries and the flights and the office rent but the 100% model would be almost a mic drop. You couldn’t use your excuse, “Well, I don’t know where my money is going because all my money is getting there.” And then because we created a non-fungible business model, we realized that we could use technology to prove what we had done with the money. We were going to be building water projects in countries all around the world. Water projects are these physical things. Clean water flows out of water projects. So, I met the founder of Google Earth which was starting at the same time and realized, “Oh my gosh, like Google Earth and Google Maps, they’re building this free place where we can tell everybody what we did with their money where we can build the most hyper-transparent charity the world has ever seen,” and we can prove all of those projects. So, we said, “Look, we’re never going to fund work anywhere in the world unless Hal can go to Best Buy, buy a $50 GPS device and then go and visit every one of these projects and make sure they were there.
So, the second pillar became proof and then this brand pillar was really important to me because I just saw so much shame and guilt in charity fundraising, the leftovers from those commercials with the flies landing on African kids’ faces and everything was in slow motion and they look up to the camera with sad eyes as the 800 number comes across the screen and people would give but you would never tell someone about a commercial like that. You would never wear the T-shirt of that charity. And so many charities had anemic brands and their websites were lousy and their email marketing was terrible and I thought the great brands in the world don’t peddle shame or guilt. Nike doesn’t tell people that they’re fat and lazy, to turn off the TV and go for a run because then people wouldn’t buy Nike gear. Nike tells people, “You’re amazing. There’s greatness buried within you. You can run farther than you ever thought possible. You can climb that mountain. Even if you don’t have legs,” and they tell stories of people overcoming adversity and reaching their goals and someone turns off the TV and says, “Maybe I could try,” and they do want to tell their friends and they do want to wear the logo of the company. So, I wanted to do that with the charity. I wanted to make it fun and imaginative and creative and inspirational. This was going to be an invitation to a party, the party of generosity, of radical generosity, a party that was about compassion and empathy and serving our brothers and sisters in need across the world that just happened to be born in places with dirty freaking water, and we could build a brand that felt a lot different.
And then the fourth pillar was just kind of a no-brainer to me, which is always working through local partners. Africa didn’t need any guy from Philadelphia running around drilling wells. Southeast Asia or India didn’t need a guy from LA running a drilling rig. We would only and always work through local partners. I just believed for the actual water project to be sustainable and culturally relevant, they had to be led by locals. So, I say these four things now like giving away 100% of the money and just proving where it went and building in a cool brand and using locals. None of them sound that smart or that radical, but it actually was. Nobody else was doing that at the time. So, we just started to explode with growth and people started throwing money at us.
Hal: Yes, speaking of growth, I’m curious as to how with that 100% model being revolutionary, who were the first people that you went after that you pursued, that you reached out to, to start supporting all of the operations of Charity: Water so that the donations could go 100% to the actual cause?
Scott: It was one of my favorite stories in the book that I got to really honor someone who helped with that. So, when I started, the criticism was, “Okay, Scott, that’s the stupidest idea we’ve heard. You’re going to give away all the donations. How will you ever even hire an employee? No one wants to pay for your employee salaries only. No one wants to pay for your office rent,” and I’m like, “I don’t know. We’re going to make it happen.” So, I’m just running the balancing act, trying to put money in the water bank account and fundraising there and then raising money for a little bit of overhead and we hire a second employee and our third employee, and it’s just the overhead account is always lacking. It’s always falling behind and there’s weeks when we’re not cashing our paychecks and we’re always out of money, but we were raising millions for the water projects. So, I knew that the 100% model was working. It’s just not in a sustainable way, but a year-and-a-half into Charity: Water we ran out of money. We were basically almost we were on the brink of insolvency, but yet, Hal, I had $881,000 in the water account that I couldn’t touch and this was like nine months of funding or operations capital, but I had a couple weeks left in the overhead account. And I was actually going to shut the organization down and say, “All the critics are right. I guess you have to be a multi-millionaire or billionaire to actually have enough money to pay for the overhead.”
And at that moment I was praying like crazy. I had very little faith. I wound up writing a cold email to an entrepreneur of a social network, scraping his name off of a domain registry, off of the WHOIS at the time and I was writing about something completely different, not an ask for money. It was pitching an idea about getting people to donate their birthdays and this entrepreneur writes me back and says, “Hey, I like your idea about birthdays for clean water but it’s bad timing for me and I can’t help you.” So, six months later, at the moment of really shutting the organization down, he resurfaces, “Hey, I’m coming to New York. I’d be happy to meet and learn a little bit more about what you’re doing.” And this British, tall, lanky guy walks in my office. His name is Michael and sits down with me. I’ve got my laptop and I’m just telling the story, “Hey, the 100% model’s working. People are giving for the first time in their life. They’re trusting again, but I’m totally broke in this other bank account.” And he says, “You know, I don’t trust charities.” He’s like, “I don’t trust charities.” And I’m like, “I know. Michael, you’re like so many other people. That’s why I built this model for people like you.” And we have a pretty good meeting I think but he’s not showing me much. He wasn’t really laughing. He just seems pretty cynical, but very nice and on his way out, he said, “Well, let me think about how to help you.” Two days later, Hal, I got an email. He said, “Scott, it was great spending time with you. I wired $1 million into your overhead account.”
Scott: So, we went from no more to 13 months of capital and, you know, Michael said, “You need more time to figure this out,” and thankfully we were able to use that extra time to find more people like Michael and his wife, and Charity: Water now has 131 families that pay for all the overhead and it’s been the founders of Twitter and Facebook and Spotify, it’s key execs at Apple, it’s venture capitalists, it’s entrepreneurs. It’s the founders of 50 companies that people would’ve heard of that have actually gotten excited about paying for overhead, about helping us build the organization, and that’s now allowed over a million donors to have a pure experience. I mean, people don’t know this, but we actually pay back the credit card fees. So, if you went on Charity: Water right now you dropped $100 with your American Express, I wish I got 100 but I get 97. We actually make up that $3 so those 130 families pay back that fee and we’ll send your intended $100 to the field and then we track it.
Hal: Very cool. Very cool. I’m sure you guys have inspired a lot of other charities. I’d love to ask you about that. I know you inspired a friend of mine, Jon Vroman, who says to say hello by the way. He is a big fan.
Hal: Yeah. Jon runs the Front Row Foundation and it’s the charity for Charity: Water but it’s the big one I support and he actually came to me a couple of years ago and shared your model and said, “Hal, would you be willing to donate monthly to help cover our costs so that we can model what Charity: Water is doing because I think it’s brilliant?” I want to know, Scott, do you know of other charities now that are following in your footsteps, in Charity: Water’s footsteps with the 100% model?
Scott: I do and there’s a great charity called New Story that’s basically doing what we would’ve done for shelter, building homes, using 100% of the public’s money, and then proving them, “Here is the home that you paid for. Here is the family living in it,” using photos and GPS and video. I’m very careful though, about recommending it because it’s incredibly difficult. It is. You have to run two bank accounts basically in perfect balance and existentially, Charity: Water could go broke with $100 million in the bank for water projects. You could never touch it. So, I certainly don’t want other people to run it and come and solve it. Here’s what I believe though, I believe that donors are open to a lot of value propositions. The core belief because they just want to know where their money is going. If I told you right now that my copy machine was broken and we had a great need to print copies and I needed $650 to pay the Epson guy, you would write a $650 check right now. You would want to meet that need. You would want to help Charity: Water.
So, it’s the not knowing, it’s the opacity that the sector has embraced and that culture of, “Well, my money for the disaster response might sit in a bank account for 12 years and actually never get used,” or, “My money might go into an endowment or an overhead account.” It’s the not knowing. So, I just tell people, “You don’t need the 100% model to be successful, but just tell people how you’re using their money.” And these 130 families and I’m sure when Jon came to you, you’re happy to pay for the overhead.
Scott: You just want to support and you trust him. You believe in the mission so we don’t actually find that it’s that hard to – those 130 families would be bummed out if we were using their money for the water projects. They love the fact that they’re paying for hydrologists or software engineers or the receptionist or the accounting team. They love that they are empowering the people in the model. So, I think I just believe in transparency in charities. Tell people what you’re doing with their money and invite them into a lot of different opportunities to give and people will surprise you. They want to be helpful.
Hal: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, what’s the future Charity: Water? You mentioned that from the very beginning, you, as Stephen Covey teaches, that you began with the end in mind. You literally saw the end of the global water crisis which I think there’s such an important lesson there for people to just have that vision, the more compelling the vision, the more inspired and motivated and driven we are to make that vision a reality. What’s the future for Charity: Water look like?
Scott: Well, we’re 12 years in and we’ve gotten 8.5 million people clean water, and the problem has come down to 663 million so that’s good news. This problem is we were a billion when we started. Now it’s 663. So, we now have 1/78 of the current problem solved. So, you look at that as half full or half empty. Someone said to me like just do 78 times more and then you’re there. It’s also 1.3%, so that sounds even a little more daunting. But, look, we’re trying to grow. We’re now helping about 4,000 new people every single day and that’s not because of me. It’s not because of our team. It’s because of our community. It’s because everyday people have responded to the need for clean water. They have rejected the apathy. That might be so easy to embrace with a paralyzing global issue and say, “I could do something. I could give $30 and give one person clean water. I can do that every month. I could donate my birthday for Charity: Water. I could join the overhead account. So, we’ve actually seen like the movement just begin to grow and we grew 40% last year. We’re up 40% again this year.
I think also in such a toxic caustic political moment where it just seems like everybody’s angry and everybody’s fighting about everything, in some ways, people told us, “Charity: Water is like a bomb.” Everybody can agree to agree that human beings should have clean water. Kids should not be walking seven hours a day with dirty water on their backs dropping out of school because they have to walk for water. Women should not be losing their children to diarrhea and dehydration and it’s amazing to see people who might disagree on just about every other social or political issue come together in solidarity and say, “We can agree on this.” Republicans and Democrats and Independents and Jews and Christians and Muslims, atheist and Mormons like it’s been a very, very big tent where people can agree. I think the best is yet to come. I think you already get 1.5 million new people clean water this year. That’s the KPI. I want to take that to 2 million, 3 million, and 4 million. And the way that we think we’re going to do that is through a new community that we launched called The Spring and it’s not that revolutionary. It’s kind of like Netflix or Spotify for clean water and we have people now from 100 countries showing up every single month with what they can give.
We have college kids giving $10. We have people giving $30 a month. We have people giving $100 a month. And the consistency is the most important thing. Not the, “I heard that thing and I drove by and dropped $100,” but actually, “No, I’m going to stick with you, guys. You continue to go out there and execute. I might be willing to stick with you for three years or five years or 10 years so we can see the number go from 600 million to 500 million, 400 million. One day we can tell our kids and our grandkids that we actually were a part of solving the water crisis, of ending this needless suffering. So, I’m passionate about The Spring. It’s growing to 100 countries. We have people in Africa now giving monthly, which I think is so cool.
Hal: Wow. Where do you go to get involved in The Spring?
Scott: Just CharityWater.org/Spring.
Hal: Okay. CharityWater.org/Spring. And then probably the last thing I want to talk about but I definitely want to talk about this is the new book. I think it’s coming out. I preordered it. It’s coming out I believe beginning of October.
Scott: Thanks, man.
Hal: Absolutely. It’s called Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World. Why did you write the book and what do people, what can they look forward to getting out of it?
Scott: Yeah. Well, I wanted to really share the message that I believe no one is beyond redemption and your past really doesn’t need to define what you’re able to do in your future. And I would hope that I go there in the book. I mean, there’s lots of drugs, there’s guns, there’s darkness in there, and I would hope that my story would encourage people because you’re going to read it and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I am definitely not as bad as that guy.” I mean, I thought that I was that. I mean, I hope that would actually give people hope that if you met me over a plate of cocaine at five in the morning 14 years ago in a nightclub or a strip club and someone said, “Hey, that guy is going to raise 1/3 of $1 billion and give 8 million people clean water and he’s going to be married with two beautiful kids and he’s going to make speeches about generosity and charity around the world,” you’d be like, “Haha, not that guy. Definitely not that guy.” So, I would hope that just that the personal story might inspire people. I believe you can actually you could use the darkness in your past for the mistakes you’ve made and you can redeem that and use it for good.
And then I would hope just to get people thinking about water. I mean, this is an issue we are only going to hear more and more about. I would hope that some of the stories might move people to action and to want to be a part of this. I mean, I kind of look at it as an invitation to a party. The party, I can see it in my mind it’s when every human being has the most basic need for health and for life met and that’s now happening in 26 countries around the world. It’s for drilling wells and building all these different systems and so many of these communities how they define the history of their community as before the water came and after the water came, and there’s just so many incredible stories. I’ve been to 69 countries now. I’ve been to Ethiopia 30 separate times and I just hope that the stories in Thirst would inspire people. And I donated the book advance to Charity: Water. I’m not making a penny off of it. All the money goes back to the organization and I would hope that just the book itself would actually bring clean water to people in need.
Hal: Wow. I mean, that’s one of the things I’m excited about to read it is your story and the specifics of it, the nitty-gritty and I read some reviews already in Amazon from your pre-readers who’s saying what a phenomenal storyteller you are, but to me it’s you’re doing something so big and so impactful and I think that, I don’t think, I mean I know that every single one of us that’s deep within us, that desire to make an impact to change the world, and I think that it’s priceless to read a story written by someone who’s actually doing that, who went from like you said, the darkness, not just the light but to shining the light on millions of other people. So, I commend you, Scott. I appreciate you. I’m so grateful that we have time to get together today.
Scott: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate you and everything you give to and the joy you bring to the world.
Hal: You got it, brother. Well, for everybody listening, check out the book, Thirst, on Amazon. Go to CharityWater.org/Spring and get involved. Goal achievers, I love and appreciate you. Thank you for tuning in to another episode of the Achieve Your Goals Podcast. I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I have. I love you and I will talk to you very, very soon. Take care.
"I believe no one is beyond redemption and your past really doesn't need to define what you're able to do in your future.”
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