Ep. 9: Scott Harrison
BY Future of StoryTelling — May 14, 2020

Charity: water founder Scott Harrison shares how he has used storytelling to build the organization to the success it is today, and why a simple story is so much more powerful in moving people to action than even the most compelling statistics and data.


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Charlie Melcher: Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher. I'd like to welcome you back to the Future of StoryTelling podcast. At FoST, we believe that stories have the ability to change the world for the better, many of the people and organizations that are working to make the world a better, safer, and more just place are not focused on storytelling. That's why in 2015, we started FoST For Good. Our 501C3 devoted to educating and inspiring the nonprofit and NGO community to become better stories tellers. Our mission has been to help the helpers, to amplify their messages and greater their impact.

Over the years, we've had the opportunity to work with and support many impressive nonprofits. But when it comes to purpose driven storytelling, the place we turn to for inspiration is Scott Harrison and his talented team at Charity: Water. Scott started Charity: Water with the mission to bring clean and safe drinking water to every person on the planet. Since then, he's raised $450 million to provide clean water to over 11 million people in 28 countries. In our conversation today, Scott and I discussed the epiphany that caused him to turn his life around from being an alcoholic club promoter, to becoming the founder and CEO of Charity: Water. How he has used storytelling to build the organization into the success that it is today and why a simple story is so much more powerful and moving people to action than even the most compelling statistics and data. Please join me in welcoming Scott Harrison, to the Future of Storytelling podcast. Scott, it's such a pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thanks for joining me today.

Scott Harrison: It's an honor to be on with you.

Charlie Melcher: So I am a huge fan of the work that you have been doing at Charity: Water and I'm certainly not alone in that. You have built an incredible following and I'd love to know a little bit about the origins of Charity: Water, and specifically how important your own personal story was to sort of the formation of the organization and to its success.

Scott Harrison: I was born in Philadelphia into a middle class family at 19-years-old, two years before I was legally even allowed to drink. I learned that there was this extraordinary job in New York City called a nightclub promoter. I started working at a place called Nell's on 14th street, then moved to a club called Lotus and over the next decade worked at 40 different night clubs. And then at 28 years old, I was a heavy two pack a day. Marlboro Red smoker with a coughing problem. I had a serious alcohol problem. I had a serious drug problem. I was a heavy user of cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA special K. I had a gambling problem. I'd kind of become this absolute degenerate scumbag, really. A hedonist living only for myself. It hit me one day, I was in South America and party town in Uruguay on this pretty decadent vacation.

It just hit me that I'd become the worst person leading, perhaps one of the most meaningless lives. I asked myself a very direct question. What would the opposites of my life look like? So that led me at 28 years old to sell everything I owned it, New York City and apply to humanitarian service organizations. One organization eventually took me on and said, if I was willing to go live in post-war Liberia the country at the time, I'd never even heard of in West Africa. If I was willing to pay them $500 a month, I could join their medical mission. I walked away from the drinking and the gambling and the drugs, and I left kind of that former life completely behind. I joined a humanitarian medical mission in post-war Liberia.

Charlie Melcher: Your job on this medical mission was to do what?

Scott Harrison: They took me on as a photo journalist, I'd actually gone to New York University and gotten a degree in communications that I'd never really used. I'll never forget Charlie. My third day in Africa, my third day on the mission, we hosted what was called the patient screening. I remember being told that the government had given us the soccer stadium. The kind of broken down football stadium in this center of town to receive the patients. And then it was my job to document all 1,500 of those people we were able to help. I saw the most unimaginable suffering. And then I saw our doctors responding and really just try to focus on the hope.

Charlie Melcher: So what came from your experience there? How did you get from that to Charity: Water?

Scott Harrison: I finished the year and then I just didn't know what was next. So I signed up for a second year and it was really the second tour back in Liberia, where I discovered the water crisis. And as I traveled in the rural areas, I saw people drinking from swamps and from ponds and from rivers. I learned that 50% of the country didn't have clean water to drink. I learned that 50% of the disease in the country, was caused by unsafe water and lack of sanitation. I started linking so many of the things that we were seeing to the lack of access, to clean water.

Just in sharp contrast, I'd been selling Voss Water in my nightclubs for $10, a bottle to people who wouldn't even open the water. They would just order 10 bottles and let it sit there and then drink vodka and champagne. So I came back to New York City at 30 years old on fire from this radical experience that I'd had working with these doctors, seeing all these problems. Learning about the need for clean water globally and said, this is going to be the thing that I do. I'm going to start a charity. I'm going to call it Charity: Water. I'm going to try to build a global movement to bring this basic need to everybody on the planet.

Charlie Melcher: Boy, have you done it. It's incredible what you've built. I'm just curious, so first of all share, so that our audience understands how many people have you been able to provide clean water to, to date?

Scott Harrison: We have now been able to raise about $450 million from, over a million generous people scattered around the world. We have turned that money into clean water in 50,000 villages across 28 countries for 11 million people. 11 million people.

Charlie Melcher: 11 million people.

Scott Harrison: It's 11 million Charlie out of 785 million people who need that clean water as we sit here, recording this. So 170 or so of the problem. Certainly a dent and certainly it matters for the 11 million people that we helped, but so much more work to be done.

Charlie Melcher: Okay. So now I want to ask you about, since I come from this perspective of storytelling. I found myself on social media, not too long ago, and all of a sudden I get served this ad and it's a Charity: Water ad and I click on it. And next thing I know it's been 20 minutes and I've been watching this incredible story, your story in what feels more like a documentary film. First of all, how did you do that? How'd you get me to spend 20 minutes sitting there watching something I normally don't spend 15 seconds doing. How successful has that video been for you?

Scott Harrison: That video, which is 20 minutes and you're right now, it has, I don't know, 35 or 40 million views and has raised a lot of awareness and money for the organization. Kind of starts with my story, but then it moves on to many other stories. So I almost go as maybe the narrator to then the guide as other people joined Charity: Water, and other people contribute their unique gifts or talent or money to build it into a movement.

Charlie Melcher: Right. Well, you certainly have a very attuned radar to what is a powerful story that's going to move people to action. So many nonprofits and NGOs are doing really incredible work, but they're often not the world's best storytellers. They kind of miss the ability to let people know what they're doing, to communicate in a way that's human and that resonates all too often. In fact, they focus just on the numbers or just on the science, and they don't realize that that's not, what's connecting to people's hearts. It's not motivating people's donations or actions. You seem to have a real intuitive sense of finding the stories that will move people.

Scott Harrison: I think many charities are started by academics, by technicians, by people who are really good, by engineers. But often those same skills are not the same skills that might build a movement or catch a six year olds imagination or capture her heart. People don't respond to 100 page white papers. I won't call out the org, but it's a very famous United Nations vehicle that does really, really good work in the world. The New York Times looked at their website and they communicate their issue through PDFs, right? This is what people do. You write papers on it. This is the problem of the global water crisis and the solutions to it and it might be a 72 page paper. I think they found 70% of the PDFs on the website had never received one download.

I think many charities are started by academics, by technicians, by people who are really good, by engineers. But often those same skills are not the same skills that might build a movement or catch a six year olds imagination or capture her heart. People don't respond to 100 page white papers.

Charlie Melcher: How many views did that 20 minute video of yours get again?

Scott Harrison: 35 million.

Charlie Melcher: It's 20 minutes long.

Scott Harrison: Part of it is the textual language, right? We're willing to see something, we're willing to hear something, we're willing to experience something. We might not be willing to dive into an 82 page discourse on the systematic problems. So I think it's often then difficult for the leaders. If you are coming from an academic or an engineering background to attract the talent that you need to attract. So it's not just as easy as saying, well, just outsource it, just hire great storytellers. Because storytellers want to work for storytellers. What I've really outsourced is the engineering and the hydro-geology. I'm really lucky. I've got a great guy Christoph Gorder with 25 years of international development experience. He's running global operations across 28 countries with a huge team of 25 people. I focus much more on the movement building, the marketing that trying to create the next virtual reality film or the next augmented reality experience or what is the next gala experience look like?

Charlie Melcher: I mean, I'll just mention one thing, I did get the pleasure to come to of your recent big gala's in San Francisco. It was extraordinary. I mean, it was something like a Steve Jobs, Apple product launch meets Dr. Martin Luther King sermon meets-

Scott Harrison: On a much lower budget, much lower budget.

Charlie Melcher: I was just blown away by what it was not. It was not a traditional series of talks, maybe a little video and some rubber chicken in a hotel. It was a complete immersive experience. Tell me how you come up with that. Tell me how you think of it. Do you agree with my analysis?

Scott Harrison: Yeah. I think we just say what's the story. I mean, it starts with what is the meta narrative of the evening. We want to take people on a journey. Every single person sitting there eating rubber chicken and drinking cheap wine, gets the chance to go on a transcendent emotional roller coaster that hopefully leads them to the altar of giving a lot more money than they ever thought they would give. And then at the core, the thing is so pure. The magic is the magic of helping others, the magic of moving our inert capital money from our bank accounts or a donor advised fund to free that money to actually transform human lives.

Charlie Melcher: That's what I mean by immersive. You're not just... It's not a top down story. You've worked out the ways for all of us to play, to have a role, to be brought along on that journey. It's very sophisticated. I mean, literally for example, there was a tablet in front of every one of us on the table and it had our name on it. And each of us could engage in the act of giving in this very simple way, no friction and you built it to. So I remember the very first thing was we all gave I think, $10 just to get this one well fixed. Of course everyone could afford $10 who was there, but it was so sophisticated.

Scott Harrison: Charlie, my early galas were not that interesting. I auctioned off watches and Prada handbags and a vacation in Telluride for the first couple of years. Like everyone else. And then we just realized this sucks. We have people in the wrong part of their brains. I don't want you in the buying side of your brain. So we stopped selling stuff 10 years ago. And then I think we just added in new elements, the element of surprise, the element of sound and music. I'll give you just an example, if people listening are interested in. The one before you came to see... You came to the one where we fixed 1,000 wells. The year before, it was actually my favorite, we built a dome. We built a 360 LED screen that was the size of a football field and we wrapped it around 500 people.

We hung it from the air. And as you looked up and sat down for dinner, dinner would take 70 minutes. And as you sat, you were watching a woman in Ethiopia walk 70 minutes, one way to a swamp for water. She's got a kid along with her. The kid is giggling. She's laughing. She's singing a little bit. The Ethiopian countryside is beautiful. But there's also a tear in what she's doing because she's down to toxic water that she's going to have to haul back up the Hill. So we just let that kind of sit for dinner. The other just nice connection is... This was in San Francisco. So it was around 7 or 8:00 at night. It was 7:00 AM in Ethiopia. So she was actually walking at that same moment. So thousands of miles away, this was happening in real time, as you were sitting there having your dinner.

We asked everyone... I think it was $181 that we needed for everyone to fund the drilling rig. So again, you had an iPad in front of you that said Charlie Melcher and I just said, "Hey, would you contribute to the drilling rig?" And then you could put the name of a loved one on the actual rig. And as you did that on the 360 screen, we saw all of these names flying up, populating a rig. Okay, well, let's just see what it's like to drill a well and [inaudible 00:16:22] village is going to be the very first... The woman that you just saw is the first well we're going to drill.

At that point we turned off the lights. We had a community gathered on a rig. We brought the video up and we drilled a well live. And at that moment, I had found some people from George Lucas's studio that set up hoses, that showered water over all 500 people over the dome. So you're there and literally the water is falling from the sky. We wound up funding, not only the rig, but six and a half years of drilling, raising over $7 million in that moment. You don't need a lot of money. I think I paid $10,000 to blast water cannons over 500 people in black tie and get them wet.

Charlie Melcher: Yeah. But you gave them something to believe in. You gave them a story that they lived. You use the specific to connect them to the universal, but you've also been incredibly successful at getting small size donations from very large number of people. Can you talk a little bit about this shift in that strategy and how you go about doing that?

Scott Harrison: One of the things that drove a lot of growth was this idea of asking people to donate their birthdays, to Charity: Water. The sticky idea that we came up with... This is what? 13 years ago. Was you'd asked for your age in dollars. So I turned 32 and I went around asking every single person I knew for $32 donation promised that 100% of the money we would go directly to fund these water projects. The significance of a small donation. If you can only raise $32 for your birthday or if you're a nine year old and you get three, $9 donations. Knowing that 100% of those $9 donations are actually going to help people, has been a huge competitive advantage for us.

So at our 10th anniversary, we launched a new giving community called the Spring. What if charity water could create a subscription community where 100% of the monthly subscription was passed on to people in need of clean water. We could report back and we could show them those donations turning into transformation to humans. So the 20 minute video was the launch of the Spring, which then actually did help effectively launch this Spring. Now we've got a members in over 120 countries around the world. That's been so cool to see people in Africa donating every single month to help other people in Africa to get access to clean water.

Charlie Melcher: So you're a digital native in your organization's efforts. And yet you decided to go ahead and do a book, one of the oldest forms of media, 336 page book. Why'd you do it? How was that been as an experience?

Scott Harrison: Yeah, so I spent two years writing Thirst. I think there was something about hitting 10 years of Charity: Water. The 10 million people served milestone we'd raised over a quarter billion dollars. I wanted to write about the experience in the hopes that it would help others. The hope that my personal story might give others hope who might have had a rough first or second act in life? I mean, I think what I was saying is that it's never too late to change and I go even darker than I've gone with you in the narrative of just how bad things really were and what a scumbag I was. I really wanted that to say, "Look, even if you've messed up, even if you've taken a wrong turn, you can use the things that you've learned and kind of find the light."

You can use them for good. You can redeem that loss time. And if a junkie nightclub promoter can start a charity that helps 11 million people and raises almost half a billion dollars, chances are, you were never as bad as me. I should say I didn't take any money from the book. I donated the whole advanced back to Charity: Water, all the future proceeds both domestically and now in some of the international edition. So I don't make a penny off it. So I really want it to be kind of a pure expression that really helped others and as a way for me actually, to become a major donor to the organization.

Charlie Melcher: That's wonderful. So let me ask you, Scott, how are you feeling right now with the whole COVID-19 pandemic and how's that affecting the work that you're doing at Charity: Water?

Scott Harrison: Well, it's a difficult time. Charitable giving has taken a massive hit as with any economic uncertainty. There goes a portion of giving. International giving is going to be more difficult as we see, certainly more needs in our local communities, more food banks that need help. Our friends and neighbors facing unemployment. So we're seeing a hit. We're seeing people lose their job and drop out of the Spring, because they can't afford 10, 20, $40 a month. We're seeing some of our corporate partners write massive commitments down to zero as they're unsure of the future for their corporation or their business.

I think that the terrible sense of loss or grief in this moment is that we realize clean water is literally needed now more than ever before. It is the first line of defense against the spread of the virus around the world. Go on the CDC website and the number one thing is wash your hands. So I do think on the other side of this, the issue of clean water for all could be even more timely, more top of mind and have more energy on the backside of this. That's my hope and prayer.

Charlie Melcher: Yeah. Well, if anyone can figure out how to tell that story in a way that's going to really move people to participate and to support that's you. You've got a great team that works for you, and you have a great team of people who've been supporting you for many years. I'm confident that a good majority of those will stay with you and help make sure Charity: Water gets through this difficult time. Scott, thank you. This has been a real pleasure. It's always so fun to get to hang out with you a bit, even if it's at a long distance.

Scott Harrison: Well, Charlie let me just say how inspiring your work and your community has been to us and to so many aspiring storytellers. So thank you for the opportunity and again, any anybody that's listening go check out the video. Just spreading awareness of our work during this time really, really helps. Even if you can't give, go to the spring.com and just learn a little more about the issue. And again, please, please do support those local charities that need you now more than ever.

Charlie Melcher: Thank you for being here with me today and thank you for the work you do.

Scott Harrison: Thanks for the opportunity.

Charlie Melcher: We'll speak soon. Thank you for joining us today and a special thanks to Scott Harrison for his inspiring conversation. If you enjoyed the show, we'd greatly appreciate it if you'd subscribe to and rate our podcast and don't be shy, share us with a friend. Thanks again for your time and a big thank you to production partner, Charts & Leisure. We'll look forward to seeing you next week until then please be safe, be strong and story on. For more information about the future of storytelling and to subscribe to our newsletter, visit us at fost.org.