Photo courtesy of charity: water

NOTHING IS CRAZY. That was charity: water’s theme for the year, meaning we all should do whatever it takes to help the 663 million people around the world without clean water…no matter how crazy. Skydive. Sell lemonade. Grow a beard. Ride a bike. Do anything, because the craziest thing we can do is nothing.

And while we’ve done some crazy things with THE APERTURE EFFECT, I thought why not be crazy enough to try and Skype with Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water. The worst he could tell me is no, right? So Quinn and I made this little video, and it worked! And last week, I had the great opportunity to spend a little time chatting via Skype with Scott.

Take a look at the short transcript of our conversation below and, if you feel so inclined, be crazy enough to make a donation to our campaign. Thanks for all you do!

Scott: Joe, how’s it going?

Joe: Scott, I’m doing well. How are you doing?

Scott: Good man. Where are you in the world?

Joe: Indianapolis area.

Scott: Indianapolis!

Joe: Yeah.

Scott: My dad was born there.

Joe: Really?

Scott: I’ve never been, but he lived there. He was either born in Cincinnati and raised in Indianapolis, or born in Indianapolis and raised in Cincinnati. I should know that, but it was many, many years ago.

Joe: Oh yeah.

Scott: 75 years ago.

Joe: I hear you. Well thanks so much for the time today. Really appreciate it!

Scott: Of course man, I’m all yours.

On Tackling the Global Water Crisis…

Joe: Cool. So when I think about the global water crisis that charity: water tries to tackle, I think about this huge, ginormous, beast of a problem. And I’m curious, how do you not get overwhelmed by that? How do you get up every day and go, Okay, this is worth running after. It’s attainable. It’s something we can actually conquer, versus, Oh wow, this is too overwhelming.

Scott: Yeah. I think spending so much time over there, in the countries where we work and the communities that have been helped over the last nine years, at a pretty good cadence, has just really kept me hopeful. I mean, I’ve had these moments where you realize how profound the change of clean water can be in a village. What change its brought to a family. What change its brought to an individual life. I’ve had these moments saying, “I would have worked all of these years for this one person, or this one family, or this one village.” We look back now on nine years…it’s 17,000 villages and 5.5 million people. We can fill up stadiums, and it’s now more than small states.

And, this is a little off topic maybe, but you know that Starfish Story that everybody talks about? The kid throwing the starfish in, and the old man asking him why.

Joe: Yeah.

Scott: I heard an interesting take on that last week. I was at Catalyst last week, and someone was saying that the thing that always pissed them off about that story was that the guy was alone. If there had been 100 people out there throwing starfish, there’d be no starfish.

Joe: Yeah.

Scott: I think that’s what we’ve tried to do with the organization over the last nine years. Yeah, it started out with my story and the impact I could make. I’ve done a couple birthdays, and I’m just one person telling a story.

But now, almost a million people have added their story to the charity: water story. You’ve got six-year-old girls out there in Vancouver selling lemonade. You’ve got 78-year-olds giving up their birthday. You’ve got guys in Afghanistan writing haikus. You have meditation communities in Australia. People climbing mountains, skydiving, sailing, walking across America.

So we’ve really tried to make it very invitational. Turn it into a platform and say, “Well, this is my story. I was a prodigal nightclub kid, that was given the chance to go and see extreme poverty in West Africa, and this was my response to it. But what could you bring to this?” Then, just give people a place and a platform to do that.

I think I’m also an optimist, and the world is getting better. The glass is half full. I really focus on the people that we’re able to help, and not the enormity of the problem…which really is true. I mean we’re coming up on six million people served, of 600 million. A decade of my life to solve one percent of the problem you could argue is a very small dent, but I know, in the lives of six million people, it’s made a profound difference.

Joe: Mm-hmm.

Scott: Some of those people were walking eight hours, every single day in the hot sun, giving their children water that would eventually kill them. Literally, just playing Russian roulette with diseased water every day. And being able to give a woman eight hours back in her day, give her water that’s clean, that’s not going to injure her children, it’s hard to put a price on that.

On Lamenting and Leveraging His Story…

Joe: I heard your story a couple years ago at HubSpot in Boston, and got a chance to hear your back story. As you said, you were a nightclub promoter. I was curious, do you struggle with those years of life? Do they weight heavy on you like those were wasted years, or do you see them more as a necessary means to where you are?

Scott: Sometimes I think, just very pragmatically, had I started earlier we probably would have gotten a lot more people clean water. But maybe I wouldn’t have started at all. I think that I really focus on how I’ve been able to really redeem some of the things that I learned over that decade.

I was storytelling…I was promoting. I was promoting something very decadent. The story I was telling was, “Come into our club, get wasted, spend lots of money on booze, and your life has meaning, and you’re a good person. Sit with the pretty girls and boys, and you’ve arrived.”

I’d obviously gotten pretty good at that over the years, and creating these environments that people would want to be a part of, that just ended with a lot of really drunk, sloppy people at the end of the night and a lot of money in the register.

Being able to promote something very different…something redemptive, something wholesome, something simple—the idea of clean water for everybody—has been really exciting, building on some of those strengths. Even, I remember, our first couple water projects were sold to nightclub owners.

Joe: Oh wow.

Scott: People that used to come in and spend money at our clubs. That was even cool, taking some of the same people that were buying the booze and saying, “Look, you can help people get clean water.”

I don’t really lament it that much. I’m glad I started when I did. Sure, I could have started earlier, but at least I had a foundation for promoting, for storytelling, for creating environments. Trying to inspire people and use that for good.

On the Shame of Privilege…

Joe: I’m running my 4th campaign for charity: water now, and if I’m honest I struggled to find the energy to get it up and running this year. Struggled to find the motivation. And then I felt even worse that in our privileged society—or at least in my own privileged world—that I wasn’t more overwhelmed by how much I have and, by comparison, how little others have. And there was a shame associated with that privilege. How do you process that? Do you feel that same shame? Does it weigh you down or push you to greater things?

Scott: Yeah. I think a lot about it at Whole Foods. {Laughs} Just the contrast of spending a week in the Sahel Desert where it’s 120 degrees and so hot where everybody just goes under trees and checks out for a few hours. You look around and nothing grows. If the people were living on a dollar a day, you have no idea where the dollar would come from. And compare that to $11.99 craft beer…for a single bottle…and cheese and fish on sale. I do draw those comparisons at some point.

But my wife and I have tried to be really generous. We try to just give a lot. I’d say we give 20 percent of our income, at least every year. We’re both on non-profit salaries and not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, especially in the world that we’re surrounded by [here in New York City]. But when compared to the people we serve, we really are wealthy.

Joe: Yeah.

Scott: We’re not worried about where food’s going to come from. When my kid gets sick, I have a $50 co-pay, and I can take him to the hospital. So I think there’s a lifestyle of gratitude, and then, just trying to make sure that we’re constantly just saying “yes” to giving, as people are asking. And that we’re looking for opportunities to give to a local homeless shelter, or give to a friend’s birthday campaign, or give to another organization. We love supporting the overheads…even in small ways…of other organizations.

On the Causes He Gets Behind…

Joe: Yeah, yeah. What are the things that kind of stand out when you think about, “Okay, I’m going to give to this organization.” What are some of the things that you look for?

Scott: Yeah, it’s so different, because I couldn’t care less about the efficiency of an organization really, even though we’re all about fiscal transparency, and efficiency, and getting the most out of dollars here [at charity: water].

I just care about people really. I want to give to support a social entrepreneur, or someone who started a charity because they believe passionately in the cause. I’m not looking at their 990s, before I’m going to write a check.

I want to encourage them with the gift. I want them to be able to do more work. I hope they’re efficient. I hope they’re being good stewards of the money, but that’s not where I start. It really starts from a place of just, “I love what you’re doing. Here’s 100 bucks. Here’s 500 bucks Here’s 1,000.” Whatever we can give.

“And by the way, use this to pay for the stuff that nobody else wants to pay for, because we believe in you. If you need to go buy a new copier, if you need toner, if you need to pay your phone bills, I would rather that my money goes for that. I don’t need a kid at an orphanage writing me letters every month. {Laughs} So go sell that idea to someone who doesn’t trust you, who doesn’t want to serve your mission in that same way.”

Joe: Yeah. Yeah, you feel the pain of the overhead costs, and you can relate to that for sure.

Scott: I’m not a charity skeptic. I think less money needs to be locked up in the bank accounts and 401Ks and balance sheets, and more money needs to be unlocked so it can actually be put to good.

On the Effects of Fatherhood…

Joe: So, so true. I could not agree with you more. One last question…you’re a dad now. I’ve changed a lot I think, as a person, now being a dad. How has fatherhood changed you as a person and also as business owner? What are some changes you’ve seen?

Scott: I think with respect to the work, I’ve always seen parents react in a more visceral way, I think, than I did even to some of the images of kids drinking dirty water. Just that thought of, “What if that was all you have? What if you had to give brown, viscous water with leeches to your child?”

When you sub in your child for that child, it’s a more shocking, horrific response. You only want the best for your kids. You want to protect them. You want to make sure you do everything you can to keep them healthy, to keep them from falling.

So I think it’s made me look at the work from the eyes of a father, or a mother, or you’re a family just living with no options, but to basically serve up their kid, potential death everyday.

You know, you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. You can’t not give your kid water, and if you give your kid water from the swamp, there’s a good chance they die of diarrhea. Fifty six percent of all of the disease throughout the developing world—56 percent—are water and sanitation related. There’s a slew of stuff that can kill them.

Joe: Yeah.

Scott: And I’m working a little less hard, to be quite honest. I’m spending more time at home. I’m around, and I’m present. We moved really close to the office, I’m nine minutes away by walk. [My son’s] in here at the new office a lot, and I get to see a lot of him. I’m really enjoying it. It’s a blast. It’s way more fun than I thought it would be. Kids are awesome.

Joe: I know, I know! How old is he?

Scott: He’s 14 months this week.

Joe: Okay. Yeah, Quinn just turned two on Saturday.

Scott: Yeah, and I can’t wait to be walking in the woods when he’s five and seven, and camping out and chasing bears, and all that kind of stuff.

Joe: Yeah, yeah. Are you an outdoors kind of guy…even though you live in the city?

Scott: I am. It’s tough living in the city, but we’ll go up to the Catskills on weekends, rent a little cabin or something, or stay with friends. That’s kind of where, I prefer being in nature. I’m a woods and mountains guy over the beach.

Joe: Yeah, so am I, which puts my wife and me at odds sometimes. She’s definitely more of a beach person.

Scott: Yep, and my wife doesn’t like to hike. I’m always trying to entice her with some destination at the end of the hike, but she’s not a hiker, and I love it.

Joe: Haha, I hear you man! Well, I really appreciate the time today, Scott.

Scott: Cool man. God bless and love to your family.

Joe: And to you. Take care!


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