Early Days—Episode 10: charity:water with Scott Harrison
In Episode 10 of the Early Days, Scott tells the story of his 16-year journey building charity:water with the mission to give people access to clean water.
After 10 years of being a club promoter in New York, Scott Harrison declared moral bankruptcy and bought a one-way ticket to Liberia to serve others. While in Liberia, Scott faced the startling reality of clean water access in the developing world. Seeing how big a problem this was, Scott decided to dedicate his life to solving it.
He flew back to New York, threw a big birthday party, invited all his friends, and raised money to build his first well. On that day, charity:water was born.
Sixteen years later, charity:water has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to build thousands of wells around the world, slowly but surely giving people access to life changing clean water. In the latest episode of the Early Days, listen to Scott's zero-to-one story of founding charity:water.
TYLER NORWOOD, HOST:
Hey everybody, I'm Tyler, and this is The Early Days podcast. I created this show as part of my work as an investor at Antler. I wanted to talk to the world's best founders and pick their brains on how they went from zero to one, building some of the most important companies in the world.
In today's episode, we have Scott Harrison, who's the founder of Charity: water. And I've got to tell you, this is one of the craziest founder stories I've ever had. It’s one of the most exciting episodes we've produced. It's also the first social startup that we've ever covered here.
Long story short, after 10 years as a club promoter in New York—living the life, wearing a Rolex, driving the cars, drinking, all the accoutrements that goes with being a club promoter—Scott Harrison declared moral bankruptcy and decided to move to the poorest country he could get a ticket to: Liberia.
After spending two years in Liberia doing service, he was confronted with the reality of the water that Liberians were drinking and saw how big of a problem it was around the world having access to clean water.
He flew back to New York. He threw a party—his birthday party—and invited all of his friends that he had from his promotion days. He told them it was $50 to get in. And that money was going to go to building the first well that charity: water ever built.
Fast forward to today, and Scott has built one of the largest, most impactful organizations in the world. They have opened thousands of wells across the world, given access to hundreds of thousands of people, and provided clean water that they didn't have previously. It’s a real true story of the change that someone can make in their life.
I'm really excited about this episode. Let's dive right in. This is the early days of Scott Harrison and charity: water.
Scott, thanks so much for coming on the show. Great to have you here and thanks for the time.
SCOTT HARRISON: I'm excited to be here. Fireside chats are fun.
TYLER: So, Scott, you are the founder and CEO of charity: water. You are the first NGO to come on the show.
SCOTT: No way. You're going to have to have more, man. There's some great social entrepreneurs out there these days.
TYLER: I know. Well, I'm hoping that you'll be the key to unlock a greater pipeline of social entrepreneurs.
TYLER: So you guys are a huge organization. Very well known. I've told people that we're recording this and actually Caroline sitting right behind me used to volunteer at charity: water.
SCOTT: Oh, no way. Hi, Caroline.
TYLER: Your reputation precedes you. But for those of you listening that don't know what charity: water is, Scott, can you give us the elevator pitch?
SCOTT: All right, Tyler, so it's kind of like it sounds. We're a charity that helps people get water. I was not very creative 16 years ago. That was the best idea I had. And I always say throw in a colon for a little bit of confusion, maybe, or ambiguousness.
TYLER: Yeah, a little stylistic. A little touch.
SCOTT: So we actually just turned 16, yesterday, on my 47th birthday, because I launched charity: water on my birthday. Since then, we've raised more than $700 million from millions of donors around the world, and we have provided clean water for about 15.5 million people out of the 770 million people who need it. So for those thinking about market share, we're about 1/50 of the way to our goal, which is that everybody on Earth gets to drink clean water.
TYLER: Well, congratulations on the success, and I know it certainly sounds like you approach it from a perspective of believing there's still a lot of really good work to be done.
SCOTT: Yeah, I mean, we feel like we're early days. I remember seeing the 27-year stock chart of Amazon and a tweet once that said, if Bezos had left in year 20, he would have left 93% of the value unrealized. So, in two decades, 7% of value was created. So 16 years in, that's kind of how I think about the future that, for sure, we're in the second inning.
TYLER: Well, and it matches with something that Bezos said all the time. A really powerful cultural component of Amazon is that it's always day one.
TYLER: That was what he instilled in all of his leaders: guys, if we ever rest on our laurels, that's the first day of us dying. You have to continue to come to work.
I say, too, when I'm talking to people about what we're building with Antler. I mean, look, I've been at it for five years, it’s like we've only had one batter in the first inning. We're not even halfway through—we're at the top of the first inning.
I mean, that’s so exciting. My mind is spinning now because having you
on here, and with the social entrepreneurship aspect—there are so many interesting angles and things to talk about. But I would be remiss if we didn't start with your story, which I think is one of the coolest, most interesting parts of charity: water if I can compliment you.
SCOTT: I'll try to be succinct.
TYLER: Yeah, I mean, now thinking about it, this is a 20-25-year story. But I think it's great for people to hear kind of how you started charity: water.
SCOTT: Sure. Well, really, I think there are three parts to my life. I was raised in a very conservative Christian family. I was an only child. My mom became an invalid when I was four years old due to this bizarre, freak carbon monoxide gas leak in our house. So you know, one day, four-year-old Scott sees his mom collapse unconscious on
the floor on New Year's Day, 1988, and life is never the same again.
So you know, growing up, I wanted to be a doctor, I played piano in church, didn't smoke, didn't have sex, didn't drink, didn't do drugs. I was just a good kid taking care of my mom.
And then at 18, Act 2 starts. I live out this cliché, prodigal son story. I just wake up one day and say, I want to have sex, I want to drink, I want to smoke, I want to party, you know, I want to travel the world. The church sucks, and it's boring.
And then I spent 10 years as a nightclub promoter in New York City, working at 40 of the top fashion, music, celebrity nightclubs over the next decade.
And I got a lot of the things I was chasing, you know? I got the BMW and the Rolex and the model girlfriend. The New York City loft with the grand piano in it.
And then I woke up at 28 years old and I'm like, I hate all this, I'm miserable. All my rich friends are miserable. I was after this endless hedonistic pursuit of more, of endlessly more. And there was never going to be enough to satisfy the desire for sex or materialism or fame—all the stuff we were chasing.
And I was fortunate enough, I guess, to get off the ride.
I had a pretty radical Act 3, I guess. I had this moment at 28 years old, where I sold everything I owned and said, I'm going to make my life look exactly the opposite. I'm going to think, do, and say 180 degrees from what I've been thinking, doing, and saying for the last 10 years and just see where that leads me.
And that led me to a humanitarian volunteer opportunity in the poorest country in the world as a photojournalist in Liberia, West Africa. I fell in love with the idea of service and being around these humanitarian medical professionals. And after the year was over, I said, Well, let me do another year. And you know, in that two-year period from 28- to 30-years-old, I saw people drinking dirty water for the first time.
And you know, Tyler, I used to sell bottles of water at nightclubs for $10 a pop to people who would order 20 bottles and not even open them because they were drinking Cristal or Grey Goose instead.
So all of the things that I saw, living in the poorest country in the world—from leprosy to flesh eating disease to cleft lips and cleft palates and facial tumors—it was just this one thing, dirty water, that kind of wasn't okay on my watch.
And I said, Well, I'm 30. What if I dedicated the rest of my life to trying to provide clean water to every single person alive on planet Earth? I thought, How far can I go? How much of an impact can I have?
And that was 16 years ago. And I'm only 15 million people to the way there. So, you know, again, a fraction of what I honestly thought we would have accomplished.
I mean we raised $100 million last year as a charity. That is an order of magnitude less than I thought we would be raising. You know, I think there are two million charities in the country. I thought we'd be kind of top 150 now, but it's still a tiny amount of money.
With the wealth that's been created in the world, and the technology advances, for us to show up and get $100 million in donations from the world is a fraction of the success that we should be having with such a noble cause, 16 years in.
So I'm deeply discontent, I guess. You could put it that way.
TYLER: That's good, right? I mean, a chip on the shoulder is, I think, one of life's greatest motivators and continues to propel you forward through all that good work.
I mean, I love the story. I'm sure we could do a two-to-three-hour podcast just double-clicking into what you just talked about and all the stories and moments of reckoning.
You know, actually, I had a very similar upbringing, right? I grew up in a conservative Christian family. I would think I was in with the cool Christian kids…
SCOTT: Yeah, okay. You were playing pool and listening to rock ‘n’ roll…
TYLER: Yeah, you know, I hung out with the kids who smoked pot, but it was known that I didn't. I did Bible study. We would go down to Mexico and haphazardly build houses every year on mission trips and all sorts of stuff.
And then, with college, I went the other way. I moved to Vietnam and then I lived in Singapore and India. So I can definitely understand that part of the journey.
But I think the step you took, to move to Liberia… I mean, going into the
Christian vernacular, it's sort of like this penance that you put yourself through.
SCOTT: It was a tithe, honestly, Tyler. I mean, to use the Christian word, I grew up and my parents gave 10% of everything they owned back to the church or poverty causes. For me, it was a tithe of time. I had selfishly wasted 10 years eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping my way around the world. I wanted to give one of those years back in service, which now has turned into 16—I guess 18, actually, in counting.
TYLER: Yeah, exactly. And then you were sort of faced with abject poverty. I think poverty in the United States is an order of magnitude different from the true abject poverty that exists in Liberia.
I remember, there was a facility in Vietnam for children that had mental disabilities, and mental disability in Vietnam is still stigmatized. I think seeing stuff like that forces you to take action or care about it and face it.
So tell me. You're in Liberia, you're seeing people drink dirty water. You're sort of confronted with this paradigm shift. What happened then? How did your call to action turn into charity: water? What did you do?
SCOTT: Well, I think having the clarity of mission was really helpful. So when I came back to New York City, I had two years under my belt. I was 30. I was actually completely broke, so I was sleeping on a closet floor in Soho, New York City of a friend's apartment for free rent.
He's like, “You can sleep in my walk-in closet and not pay me.”
I'm like, “Great.”
You know, it was air conditioned and heated. There was a wall-to-wall carpet. So I can sleep underneath your clothes.
So that was kind of day one.
But I think the clarity of mission—I could say it in a sentence, 16 years ago and I can say it now. I want to bring clean water to every human being alive.
At the time, there were a billion people without water on the planet. So I had this massive problem and I had a very simple thing that I was trying to do. I also had the advantage of being 30, having no philanthropic experience, and no humanitarian organizational experience.
So I was just talking to people my age that worked at Sephora or MTV, you know, or Goldman Sachs. And as I would tell them about this dream I had, I learned that a lot of people were not down with charity. They were skeptical and distrustful. They liked the idea of using their money to help others or to end the needless suffering. But there were a lot of scandals.
I remember CNN or Anderson Cooper used to kind of chase the bad CEO of the charity to the steps of his McMansion, right? He would open the door, he would see Anderson, he would slam it in his face. And so, a whole generation throws up their hands and says, That's why we don't give. Four cents on the dollar actually went to the cause and 96 cents went to that crook's pocket, who hired his son, his family, his cousins, and his nephews, and put them all on the payroll.
So this was kind of at a time of massive distrust. USA Today had done a poll of Americans. They found 42% of people—so almost half the country—didn't trust charities.
So I thought this was a massive market opportunity. I wondered what it would look like to create a charity that had impeccable trust, and that had a business model that could both speak to the objectors and could win the disenchanted, skeptical, disenfranchised potential giver and bring them back to the table.
So that was really almost the vision. The mission is, Hey, let's get everybody
clean water, but the vision was to reimagine the charitable experience: Could we create the most transparent charitable vehicle in the world where people could track their donations and see exactly where every single penny, pound, dollar, euro went? Could we build an epic, inspirational, creative brand that rivaled Virgin or Apple or Nike? You know, not the guilt and shame-based charities of the Sally Struthers era—where they'd run infomercials with flies landing on kids' faces in slow motion as they looked sadly into the camera, and a 1-800 number scrolled.
So I had all of these ideas on how we could—I mean, I don't use the word “disruption” now because it wasn't used back then. But anyway, I really wanted to just do everything differently in the hopes that it might work; that it might reach people who actually could sign up for clean water for humans, but not in the way charities were typically done.
TYLER: So walk me through it. In Liberia, you identified the mission: Bring everybody in on clean water, and then through—I don't necessarily know—customer discovery or market research?
SCOTT: Yeah—you talk to a bunch of people. It's like one side of your equation is, I need people to donate money if we're actually going to do this. You’ve found out that there's a big problem with distrust, and sort of lack of understanding of the future of charity. So the vision starts to come into focus, which is like, Okay, we're going to give everybody clean water. We're going to do it in a way that no one's ever seen before from a process, perspective, and a transparency perspective.
TYLER: Then what happened?
SCOTT: Well, then I started. You know, you all need to start. That's why one night I got a club donated, I got an open bar donated for an hour, and I emailed everybody that I knew. I said, Hey, I'm turning 31-years-old, and I'm going to launch my charity tonight. Come to my birthday party, but you have to bring $20 to get in the door, and 100% of that money is going to go build our first well.
SCOTT: Then word spread, and 700 people came. We raised $15,000 that night in cash, and we took 100% of everything raised to a refugee camp in northern Uganda. We built that first well, and then we sent the photos, the GPS coordinates, and the satellite picture of the well as it was built, and the video of clean water flowing back to the 700 people about six or eight weeks later.
We said, You came to the launch of charity: water—you may not have even known it— but you gave $20, and here's the result of your donation. Lives are changed—people's lives have been transformed—because you came and you gave $20. Here's exactly where it went, and what that money built.
And really that’s the simple formula: Give away 100% of all public donations—which we've now done for 16 years—and show people where their money goes. That's kind of been like rinse and repeat, and it's turned into almost three quarters of a billion dollars now.
TYLER: So from your birthday party to sending the images, how long did that take?
SCOTT: Eight weeks.
TYLER: Eight weeks.
SCOTT: Now, today at scale—with 29 countries and thousands of local staff—today that loop is a little longer. But back then it was like, Hey, we have $15,000. Let's go find a driller in Uganda, let's go drill a well, let's take a picture of it, let's take the satellite image of it, and then let's quickly drop those images and video into an email to 700 people.
Now, there are systems and CRM. There's a whole infrastructure that supports
this for a million plus global donors, but it was just that simple impulse.
That if—Tyler, if you came there and you gave $20 of your hard earned money, what if we could show you where your $20 went? Would that make you care about this cause? Would that make you trust us a little bit more and want to see what's next?
TYLER: Yeah. Well, yeah, and I think the timing. Seeing it happen within a reasonable time where you still remember your birthday party. And then the specificity of it.
I mean, one of the things that I've always struggled with with charity is that you get onto the list and you're updated with things that are happening. But your dollars are obfuscated into a system. You gave a donation until we put you on your list, and now you just get a broad update of what's happening in general. It's harder to grasp onto than, Yeah, I went to Scott's birthday party and here's a picture of the well that they built because of that, specifically.
SCOTT: And we built a website: A peer-to-peer fundraising platform that has now done that with over $100 million of donations. A six-year-old girl can go out and sell lemonade. She can mail in $18.17, and see where $18.17 went—the actual satellite image of the well in Malawi, and exactly how much that well cost. That well might have cost $11,214.62, but her donation was a part of that, and she could actually see all the other donations that made it.
So that, you know, we try to kind of take that simple idea, that discovery, and then
build the systems to institutionalize that at scale.
TYLER: Yeah. So not only are you guys a social enterprise—bringing clean water around the world—I have to imagine you're a fairly complicated accounting firm as well.
SCOTT: I mean, not that complicated, Tyler. We have two bank accounts. We have an overhead bank account, where I can pay my 100 team members and the flights
and the office costs, and the insurance, and the toner for the Epson copy machine.
So that's called the overhead bank account, and 130 families pay for all that overhead.
And it's the founders of Shopify, and Twitter, and Facebook, and Spotify, and WordPress. It's a bunch of people, honestly, and half of those people are founders. They love paying for software engineers, or UI and UX designers. They don't mind paying for that kind of nasty infrastructure.
The second bank account is the water bank account. And that's got a million donors from 147 countries, who give into that bank account, and every single penny, pound, euro, krone, you know, goes directly to the water projects.
So they're actually both audited by KPMG, and it's pretty simple—the accounting. You have your overhead money and your public money. And, you know, never the two
TYLER: Yeah. So 100% of the donations money for water is going to water operations.
SCOTT: And what people don't even know, is there is a little complex accounting. So if you were to go in right now, and make a $1,000 donation on our website using your AMEX card, sadly, I only get $970. AMEX is going to take the 3% cut. And we actually pull $30 from the overhead account, we add it to your $970, so that we can send the entire $1,000 that you intended to give to the field.
So that's one added complexity. So when we say 100%, we really mean 100%.
And you know, if I'm honest, 15 years ago, I thought, This is just going to be
a great brand idea. Let's pay back all credit card fees. Now, this year, it's going to cost me almost $700,000. I will have to go raise almost three quarters of a million dollars of extra overhead money to pay back the public's credit card fees incurred, so that there is true and total integrity when we say 100%. And it's worth it.
TYLER: Can we create a campaign to just pressure the credit card companies?
SCOTT: I've tried, Tyler. I've been on the phone with the CEOs. You know, the problem is, it's a billion dollar-plus industry for them. I mean, if they say yes to charity: water, well, the Red Cross and Save the Children and everybody else is going to come and say, we want it too.
SCOTT: They’re in business, as we're reminded.
TYLER: Do you guys accept crypto?
SCOTT: We do. In fact, we've taken in over 650 Bitcoin. We started taking Bitcoin in 2014. We've taken ETH and many other coins. We actually have a pretty interesting model. It was more interesting a year ago where we launched a fund to hold Bitcoin until at least 2025. And we actually got 50 people to donate 50 Bitcoin—The Winklevoss twins matched the 50 and we locked up 100 Bitcoin in cold storage to get through a whole four-year cycle. That 100 Bitcoin was worth about six million. I think now it's worth, you know, two million.
But you know, we've always really tried to innovate in that space and we're working on some interesting ideas around smart contracts with a lot of our wells and the sensors that are attached to them. We've invested about 11 million dollars now in R&D creating smart wells. So the next frontier for us is not just building a well in Ethiopia, but building a well that's a connected well. So almost think of Nest where you can control your thermostat in a second home and know whether it’s freezing at night or hot. But we're trying to make sure that water continues to flow at these 100,000 water projects we now have around the world and using sensor tech to do that. So there's some interesting crypto applications we think in that as well that we're exploring.
TYLER: Fascinating. So you send out to the 700 people that came. By the way, I mean, I think we breezed over this—but like, you're a pretty popular guy at 700 people.
SCOTT: Well, I was a nightclub promoter for 10 years, Tyler, and I had a big list, right? Email open rates back then were like 95%.
TYLER: Yeah, exactly.
SCOTT: It was fashion week, it was a new club, people wanted to go to his open bar. I mean, you know, it was not hard to get people to turn up.
TYLER: Was there a moment where all these people show up, and they see Scott, the club promoter who disappeared—you know, some of us don't know where he went. Some of us knew that he went to Liberia. He shows back up in New York, throws this big party, stands up on stage and says he's dedicating his life to clean water. Did you get any weird looks?
SCOTT: Yeah, dude. I got a lot of people that were like, Oh, he's doing this for the girls. Like this is not for real. What a stunt. Oh my gosh. Like Scott Harrison that I used to do blow with, you know, he's now a humanitarian. You know, I was at After Hours with this guy at noon, two years ago.
No, it definitely took some time, I think, and consistency to win people over. It took time not smoking with them or not getting wasted or not doing drugs. I remember there were people, five years in, saying, We're still waiting to see if this is real.
But hopefully, 18 years now since I got on the ship—now with a wife and kids and an 18-year track record—hopefully that's enough time to let people know I wasn't doing it for the girls.
TYLER: Yeah. This would be the ultimate long play if that were true. It's like some, it's like a Barney stunt from How I Met Your Mother.
SCOTT: I coach baseball now, you know?
It's funny, actually. My wife and I, a couple years ago, went out to a nightclub that a friend of mine was working at. I mean, we're typically in bed between 9 and 11. I remember we went out to a late dinner in New York City and we were so excited. We got to the club around 11:15 and I think there were six people inside. I think we waited around until 12 and maybe there were, you know, 30 people. We were like, We just have to go home. I felt so old. You know, typically I'd be getting to the club in my former life at 12.
TYLER: Yeah, it's crazy. We're having a baby in March, so my wife and I are–
SCOTT: Oh, congrats. It'll change your life in the best ways.
TYLER: Yeah. I'm looking forward to it. I sort of rationally understand what the other side is going to look like, but it's just this abyss where it's going to happen and I have no idea what's on the other side and I'm excited and scared.
SCOTT: Someone said to me once, imagine like you're on an island and you think you know all of the real estate that there is in the world. You know, all of the land that there is in the world and you're kind of looking out at the sea. Then you have your first child and like this giant land mass comes up that you didn't even know existed. You didn't know that you could care about something that way.
And then you say, Okay, I understand this. And then you have your second child and then it’s another giant island. Something completely different turns up—like lands from the sea. I love that analogy and found that to be true, at least with my children.
TYLER: I love that. I'll keep that in mind. Yeah. Emerging soon.
So you fly over to Uganda, you build this first well, and you send everybody pictures. Everyone's really excited. You've brought clean water to this refugee village. So you fly back to New York and you think, I only have a birthday once a year. So what happened then, right?
SCOTT: A flurry of activity. No, I was energized by that. I was energized by how encouraged the 700 people were when they saw where $20 went and the discovery of the issue of clean water that resonated with people.
I mean, Tyler, who's not for clean water? Let's just assume most of the people listening today—95% of the people listening today, maybe 100%—woke up today and took clean water for granted, right?
You turn on the shower, you brush your teeth. Maybe you put filtered water into the coffee machine, maybe you grab the bottle of water for convenience on the way to the gym or yoga. You know, most people take it for granted.
Then you're faced with the fact that 10% of the planet right now is drinking disgusting, diseased, contaminated water—literally risking their lives. So 10% of the planet is poisoning themselves, today, because they weren't born into the middle class opportunity or affluence that you were. Or even the lower class opportunity a lot of people were born into where they at least had clean water in their house.
So I think when people are faced with that idea—no one wants humans to drink dirty
water. There's nobody listening that's like, Oh, that's good for them. They should die. Let the women walk eight hours to the disease swamp so that they can then watch their children die of diarrhea in their arms.
TYLER: It’s pretty uncontroversial.
SCOTT: And there are less of those these days. I mean, it’s a splintered country, with the Republicans going farther right and the Democrats going farther left. It feels like the middle is disappearing. Everybody can stand for clean water. Humans need clean water.
So I think—armed with the universal, inarguable good idea for the planet, for humanity, and then some of these business model learnings—we had a flurry of activity.
In month two, I launched an outdoor exhibition where I put dirty water from New York City ponds and rivers in giant Plexi-tanks. I juxtaposed that with images of people drinking dirty water on the world. I said to New Yorkers, Imagine drinking this, imagine if you to drink from Central Park Pond. You wouldn't like green water. Well, 10% of the world is drinking this. Will you donate? I raised $20,000 through that exhibition.
And then we went out to Sundance and we got a gallery on Main Street donated. We drove a rented truck out—actually a donated truck—out to Sundance with a bunch of pictures. And we raised another $20,000 there through the gallery in donations.
So we just kept going. We shot our first public service announcement where Jennifer Connolly and her children donated their time and they walked to Central Park Pond from their fancy Tribeca apartment and they got dirty water. And then we took our PSA that was really good and we put it on the homepage of YouTube for launch. And then we got it on American Idol and it was seen by 30 million people.
We went to Saks Fifth Avenue and we said, Hey, can we take over your windows for a week and put up our pictures and can we build wells in Saks Fifth Avenue stores and introduce our idea to a luxury customer? So it was just this kind of flurry of activity.
We raised $2 million in the first year by just trying a whole ton of different things. We raised $6 million the second year by trying even more things. So I think it was $2 million, $6 million, $ 9 million, $16, $23, $28, $35, $45. It just grew every single year as we would take those learnings and we would expand the movement. And, you know, ask people to invite their friends.
TYLER: Yeah, it's incredible. And so, that's on getting the donation side flowing. Talk to me about the well side.
TYLER: And, you know, it sounds like fairly quickly you're getting beyond the capacity for Scott to buy an economy flight to Uganda to find a will.
SCOTT: Yeah. You have to find a well driller. Well, I'll tell you, that was—I wrote a book a couple years ago, and this was a serious part of the book. My first premise was challenged, and it was wrong.
I thought all we needed to do was raise awareness and money. And then there'd be all these drilling organizations out there. That would be their proficiency. They would be really good at that.
Well, we learned very soon that there were a lot of bad drilling organizations out there. You know, there were a lot of organizations that just didn't do quality work, and we got burned early on with a project in Kenya where we'd sent a bunch of money to Kenya.
They drilled all the wells, but half of the wells had fluoride in them and were unusable—so the naturally occurring groundwater fluoride was so prevalent. We just expected that if we do 30 wells, we're going to get 30 good wells. And we hadn't prepared our donors for any sort of breakage or failure possibility. It was a really big learning for us, early on, that we would need to build an entire portion of the organization. We would need to build teams and functions in the organization that would go out and, not only vet partners and weed out the good from the bad, but then audit them both from a fiduciary standpoint and also a programmatic quality standpoint.
That turned out to be tens of millions of dollars as an overhead cost center, which we have today, and is getting us a 50x or 100x return on our donor dollars because we now have 49 highly vetted, high functioning suppliers. I guess you could think of it in terms of a business model, where there might be 500 suppliers out there and 400 would be really lousy.
SCOTT: So, that was hard and you're right. It wasn't my skill set and I wound up hiring for that early on. Some really skilled people who then built a highly competent team of hydrogeologists, auditors, and people who have deep expertise in the water sector, which is not what I have.
I'm kind of a creative ideator. I’m a storyteller.
TYLER: Yeah. So, I mean, going back to the very beginning of this story, right? You're this club promoter…but, listening to you reel off going to Sundance, driving a truck around, filling up an aquarium with pond water, going to Saks Fifth Avenue… it sounds like that skill set.
I mean, being a top promoter. Being creative.
SCOTT: The skill set was promoting, really. I was a promoter.
It was kind of that simple. And I was promoting the wrong thing for 10 years. I was promoting the idea that if you got past the velvet rope, you spent $1,000 on booze in the nightclub, and you left with a pretty girl or a pretty guy, your life had ultimate meaning.
You know, you had arrived.
For the last 17 years, I've been promoting the idea that if you are looking to use your time and your talent and your money in the service of others—if you are looking at the world and saying, I want to do something to end needless suffering out there—we have created a vehicle that can be an extraordinary steward of that energy, of that time, talent, and money. You get outsized humanitarian results that are transparent and effective and provable.
So, I'm still promoting, I guess. It’s 27 years later after I promoted my first nightclub—it's just, it couldn't be more different.
TYLER: Yeah. It's just a different message.
So, back in those early days, who was “we”? How did you form the team?
SCOTT: I mean, if you had a pulse and you could speak English and you were willing to work for free, that was the first year. You know, Can you do anything? Can you enter receipts into QuickBooks on a PC on this donated, used Dell Computer? Great, we'll take you.
My first hire was someone actually out of UNICEF to work on the water program side of things. And then my second hire was a graphic designer to help me build this brand that I had imagined. And then, for anybody that's read the book, I wound up marrying my second employee and having kids with her.
So, my second employee, Victoria, became a co-founder of the organization and was the
creative director for about the first decade of charity: water. So, I joke that I married the brand. That was inseparable.
Then it just kind of grew and I would raise $45,000 and I would go and try to hire a $45,000-a-year team member and say, Well, I'd love to pay you $55,000 and maybe I can, you know, if you built this thing. But it just grew and grew, and now there are 14 engineers, UI, and UX designers, and 22 people that are water experts. It kind of grew organically over time as these departments filled out and scaled just as the organization scaled.
In the early days, it was a lot of generalists. We all did everything. And we all worked 100 hours a week. There was no work-life balance because we were going to die at any minute. We were going to run out of money at any minute. We were pushing just to keep the lifeblood in the idea.
You know, now I want to coach baseball. I'm not working the 80-hour weeks. I'm in a very different season of life as a husband and as a father. But, you know, it was all in all the time for those first five years, maybe eight years.
TYLER: I love that though. This is why I tape. I mean, that’s why I love doing the shows.
I just talk to people who have actually put that work and focus in. I've never once talked to somebody on the show and they're like…
SCOTT: Yeah, I mailed it in.
SCOTT: I watched Netflix a lot. You know, I just Netflixed and chilled for my first few years.
TYLER: Yeah. It was just a lot of hanging out.
SCOTT: A lot of TV, yeah.
TYLER: The last episode I did, the founder was telling me two months before raising their seed ground, he was four months late on rent and got evicted. Similar to you, I think all great companies out of New York start in some sort of weird New York sleeping situation.
SCOTT: Yeah. It's expensive. Rent's expensive!
TYLER: Instead of a closet, he had a friend who had a Harry Potter nook underneath a staircase and he just lived in that nook for a year and would go to Starbucks every morning to buy the cheapest coffee, get Wi-Fi for the day, and just kept building it.
And the question I asked him then—and I'll ask you the same question—is… Well, we just went through the highlight reel, right? Where someone listens to this and they're
like, Oh man, charity: water sounds like a breeze, right? Like Scott worked a hundred hours, but it sounds fun. He was out Sundays on Saks Fifth Avenue and building wells and traveling and all of that.
Not representative of most days, right? Or hard times? Like you said, that stress of like feeling, We are imminently dead at all times. How did you keep the fire alive?
SCOTT: Honestly, my faith was a big part of coming back to this. I mentioned I was a preacher's kid and then I was a degenerate for 10 years. I came back to spirituality in a different way as an adult, being able to opt back in. This may sound a little strange, but it felt like a calling. This felt like it was—in some ways—like it wasn't my idea. And I wrote a book about this, you know, trying to give it more context, because some of this stuff can sound so trite. But there was a lot of prayer keeping me going in the early days.
Like, God, we're about to run out of money. You’ve got to do something. I'm working as hard as I can, but you’ve got to send somebody.
There was actually this moment about a year and a half in, where we had almost a million dollars in the water account, and we were about to miss payroll in the overhead account. And a complete stranger came into the office, sat with me for two hours, and wired a million dollars in the overhead account.
So we just had all these crazy moments where we'd be at the end of our rope and something uncannily miraculous would happen. It was typically an answer to some Hail Mary prayer I'd thrown out, whether it was an office or some sort of breakthrough.
So, that was what kept me going. I should say, charity: water is not a faith-based organization. We've never been a religious organization. That was really clear to me, that you shouldn't have to be interested in what I do on a Sunday to give, or to work or to volunteer at the organization. This is a big vision. I get to personally live out my theology through my work. But, it's not exclusionary at all.
So I think in the early days, that was a big part of it—a lot of me praying, a lot of Hail Marys, and a lot of feeling miraculously rescued and then that really encouraging me. Thinking, Maybe there's something else going on here because this really is an important mission. Maybe I'm not the only one that thinks people should get clean drinking water.
TYLER: Yeah, I love that. I think that’s something that's not discussed enough. Again, we live in this highlight reel society. Any company that you personally admire, or think is a great success story, or would aspire to build, had way more than you’d think “we almost died” moments. Like you just said, with the day that guy walked in and just donated a million dollars and saved payroll. We don't know what's on the other side of that fork in the road. But we wouldn't be where we are today if that didn't happen.
And it just came out of nowhere.
TYLER: So, Scott, I'm really interested. Go a little bit deeper into the actual impact of charity: water. I think you're probably one of the best people in the world to answer the experience of what you guys have seen. I’m curious what your observations, and your sort of illustration, of the downstream impact is. We talked about how people don't have access to clean water, right? It's a noncontroversial topic. I'm interested in the concept of the Maslow's hierarchy of downstream impacts for these people who get access to clean water. Their health improves, their life expectancy goes up, but it's also a really important foundational stone for other important things to be built on top of. I'm curious as to your insights there.
SCOTT: You mentioned a couple of them. I mean, if you don't have water, your health is deeply and negatively impacted.
I remember when I first lived in Liberia, I learned two things: I learned half the country was drinking dirty water, and half the disease in the country was because people were drinking dirty water and didn't have access to sanitation and hygiene. So, at the time, half the hospital beds in so many of these countries were occupied simply because of this one thing not having the most basic need for health meant. So I think that just makes a lot of sense to people.
Again, almost everybody listening probably just went through their day taking clean water for granted. But, you know, if you looked out at your pond or river or nearby swamp and if you and your family had to drink from that, you probably wouldn't expect to be that healthy, right? You'd probably expect to have diarrhea or parasites or worms or be in the emergency room puking your guts out if you had to drink brown, viscous, disease- and fecal-contaminated water.
TYLER: I think a much different Thursday, right? The impact would be immediate, not like, Smoking kills you longer.
SCOTT: It'd be hours. I've been there. I've been to 71 or 70 countries now. I've been to Africa more than 50 times. I've gotten very sick. I travel with a lot of Cipro to try to get it as quickly as possible.
Number two is education. One out of three schools in the world don't have clean water to drink. One out of three schools in the world! So imagine sending your teenage girl to a school with no water, no toilets. Well, what happens is, when she gets her period, she stays home. She stays home for five days every month. So people don't even think of that, right? Something as basic as the privacy and dignity of a teenage girl. Well, that's just not available. So this deeply impacts girls' education throughout the world. It impacts time and, therefore, money.
So when I started charity: water, the stat that was kind of being thrown around was that 40 billion hours are wasted by women in Africa, alone, fetching dirty water. So that’s 40 billion lost hours.
Think about this, Tyler: It's a seven-day-a-week job. If you're a woman taking care of your family and getting water, you don't get to take Saturday and Sunday off and like, you know, chill.
SCOTT: You know, you don’t have any water to cook or clean with or drink on Saturday and Sunday. So it's not uncommon for a woman to walk seven hours a day, round trip. Imagine wasting 49 hours—more than the American Work Week—getting water that's not even useful for your family. It's not even helpful.
But then imagine having clean water five minutes from your home, and one day you just got 49 hours back. What do you do with that time? Well, women start businesses. They start selling things at the market. They start brick-building businesses. They start earning income to buy school uniforms and keep their kids in school. That time turns into productive labor, and then income to a community that has clean water.
So, you know, those are kind of the three big ones.
And there's a whole safety aspect. Many women and girls are raped, or attacked by animals during these long walks away from their village to a water source that's often shared with hyenas or lions or, in the worst case, crocodiles in some of these rivers.
We've heard it all now. Death by crocodile, death by hyena. Women or girls torn apart by lions at night, because they got to the water hole too late.
Again, if you just remove the thing that so many of us take for granted and you really thought about your life, it would be so radically different.
SCOTT: So it's a basic building block on the Maslow Hierarchy. Water is life. Some people can go months without food, but you're dead in days without water. You dehydrate and die.
TYLER: It’s one of the only things—if you were to take it away from people—it would immediately and necessarily become your only priority. Everything else that you're stressed or worried about would disappear, and not matter anymore.
TYLER: You know, I've done the Cipro days, but I also do a lot of trekking. Once, we were out on the Appalachian Trail, and we were supposed to have these checkpoints along the way. But we got a text at the top of the mountain: Hey, the road's blocked because of falling logs. Conserve your water. You're going to have to go another 15 or 20 miles to make it. Then we get to the top of the next peak, and my buddy’s CamelBaks has ripped open and leaked all over him, or whatever. We're eight or nine hours out into the woods, bent over with a LifeStraw, drinking out of a melted snow creek.
That situation, compared to what you're talking about, is infinitely better. But it becomes such an anxiety-inducing and immediate need. We still had LifeStraws. We still had access to clean, melted snow water. But it was the only thing any of us could think about. Everything else in the world disappeared. I was not anxious or nervous about anything else.
SCOTT: Yep. So true.
TYLER: Well, Scott, this has been incredible. And, I mean, what a kickoff to the social entrepreneurship week.
SCOTT: All right, we've got to get some more on. Listen, what I've found about a lot of social entrepreneurs these days is they have the same ambitions as a tech startup founder, but no access to capital markets, right? We are playing, in some ways, with two hands tied behind our back. I can't pay competitive salaries. I have no stock options to give out. But a lot of people are still trying to innovate, and be creative, and work really hard in the service of others.
TYLER: Yeah, of course. I think it's deeply important work. Actually, I'm reading The Road to Character right now.
SCOTT: Yeah, David Brooks, right?
TYLER: Yeah, right. It's good. And it's this concept of Adam One and Adam Two. Adam One is egotistical. Adam Two is service-oriented.
SCOTT: My favorite book in that vein is called Sacred Fire, by an author called Rolheiser, that kind of talks about the different seasons in your life. In the early years, it's all identity building. You're kind of fighting for your own identity.
And then, in later seasons, you can turn into this mentor or coach or sage. So if you like the Brooks one, I think you'll like that one as well.
TYLER: Yeah, I'm adding it to my list. My father-in-law recently retired, and he talks about this transition from “success” to “significance” and sort of changing his internal compass and his goal-setting mechanisms from achieving success, to leaving a lasting impact, and investing in his children, and his grandchildren, and things that will be around when he's gone.
I like the concept of seasons. So in that vein, Scott, two questions for you that I wrap the show up with. And this one's particularly pertinent: Who are some other social entrepreneurs that I should have on the show?
SCOTT: Yeah, I think Brett Hagler on, from New Story. He's really talented.
And a guy named Alexander from what used to be the African Prisons Project, but now is called Justice Defenders. He is absolutely amazing. My wife and I support them, not just financially, but also with a lot of time. Those are two talented young social entrepreneurs.
TYLER: And then, books on the shelf?
SCOTT: Oh, man. I almost have to look in Audible because I'm such an auditory learner.
You know, I'm reading Rocket Fuel at the moment. I really like The New Map by Daniel Yergin, about the energy movement in the world.
There’s an interesting book called Deep Survival about the people who survive and thrive in absolute seasons of crisis, versus the ones who don't, and what the first do right.
And then Sacred Fire is one I try to read every year, which is pretty good.
TYLER: Fantastic. Well, I'll make sure to link all those and add them to my list.
So, Scott. For people who are listening. How can people get involved?
SCOTT: Yeah. Go to charity: water.org. Go to thespring.com. We have an amazing subscription giving program that is really propelling a lot of our growth for $40 a month. You can get one person clean water.
But there's a video on thespring.com that's been seen over 100 million times now and across different platforms. It's a great way to see what I've been talking about in the images and see the wells being drilled. See what some of these communities look like that don't have clean water. And it's just a great way to share our story with others.
So, obviously, charity: water.org. But, specifically, thespring.com has some great content there.
TYLER: Fantastic. And then, do you guys have any need for volunteers, as well?
SCOTT: Every once in a while we'll get software engineers in for a little work on different projects. But all of our work across 29 countries is led by the locals.
So it's Ethiopians in Ethiopia. It's Cambodians in Cambodia.
We don't send volunteers over to drill wells. We really believe the work to be culturally appropriate. And you've seen this too, I'm sure in your travels. There were lots of wells drilled by people in Texas, and when the well breaks, the community says, Well, I wonder if they'll ever come back and fix their well.
We've taken a wildly different approach to that kind of outside intervention. We employ 2,000 local team members from the countries where we work. You won't see an expat on staff in almost all of these programs that we have.
TYLER: I love that.
SCOTT: If they're there, they're in support of project management and in a coaching, backseat role. Not the leadership role.
TYLER: I love that. One of the guys that I went on these mission trips with when I was in high school is a stand-up comedian now.
TYLER: He's breaking through. One of his absolute, funniest jokes is talking about these mission trips, right? The whole setup is, you know, I was a mission trip kid.
SCOTT: Oh, dude. Yeah. Tell me one of the jokes, because I think I know where you're going before you're even going.
TYLER: Yeah. He's like, Whoever came up with the idea? Like, I've got a really good idea. Let's take a bunch of horny 13-year-olds with no construction experience, and send them to Mexico to build houses for people.
It really just tears apart the whole premise of it. It’s a shtick to get young kids to want to go, but it’s really not useful. I like the word used “appropriately.” It's not an appropriate way to help or serve these communities.
SCOTT: Right—To send a bunch of spoiled 13-year-olds. I use the joke that the school building would get painted six different colors every year, right? One youth group comes in and is like, Let's paint it blue. And then the next youth group comes in, Let's paint it yellow, right? The school building doesn't need six coats of different paint, you know?
But that's what kids could do. They could paint, right?
TYLER: Yeah, exactly. And it's just like the spirit of it all. I do remember, looking back, I think the most egregious thing that I ever did was that they gave us all these little pocket bibles. And then they said, We're having a big cookout. We're gonna cook all this food. Walk around this village and tell people if they take a Bible from you that they can come. The premise was if they took a Bible from you, they could come to the cookout. So, I took all my bibles and walked around this village.
Thinking back on it, you could have taken all that energy, and the goodwill, and actually served it in an appropriate manner to help those communities get access to the things they needed. It could have been a lot more effective.
TYLER: But I love that. Also, the assumption that I struggle with is it assumes there's no capable adults in those communities that could do this with the proper resources and the proper support, right?
SCOTT: Correct, yeah. And there are, as you know. All over.
TYLER Exactly. Great. Scott, this is amazing. I really appreciate you coming on. It was fantastic to meet you. Congratulations on all the amazing work that you guys have done, and good luck with all the work that remains. It's awesome. It's inspiring to talk to someone that has so much passion and fire for what they're doing and such a truly important mission. So thanks a lot for coming on and sharing it.
SCOTT: Thanks, Tyler. Hopefully we can keep it up.
TYLER: Yeah, for sure. All right, Scott. We'll talk to you soon.
Hey, everybody. It's Tyler again. Thanks so much for listening. If you're interested in building a venture-backed company like the one you just heard about, we would love to help. To learn more about our founder studios that we run around the world, please find more information at antler.co.
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