by Anne Brock, Program Manager
Last Thursday middle school students gathered early to get a selfie with Scott Harrison to use for their Water Week fundraiser next month. College students and recent graduates arrived to hear ideas about philanthropy that resonate with their own experiences. Long-time Lake Lecture attenders glanced around noticing all the young faces in the audience. From 11 to 80 years old, they all came together – 550 in all – for one night to hear Scott Harrison, CEO and founder of charity: water, recount how he started a nonprofit and through the process came to play a role in reinventing the face of charity.
No matter what organization we represent, Scott Harrison made clear the key issues he believes are affecting charity and philanthropy in the 21st century. First of all, charity: water is very clear on its mission. As we teach in our Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising course, clarity about mission and vision are crucial for engaging others in your work. It is easy to say yes to everything that comes your way, but in so doing, it is also easy to lose focus. For example, both during the lecture and on a radio show earlier that day, Scott was asked about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. He agreed that more needs to be done to make major changes in that city; however, he was also clear that their mission is to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. charity: water isn’t equipped to work politically or engage in infrastructure issues in American cities. By staying on mission, charity: water keeps focused on the work they are equipped to do best while inviting others to do their own unique work well.
Another aspect of this new vision of charity involves transparency. When Scott started building his company, he discovered that almost half of Americans distrust charities. They did not believe charities were spending the money the way they claim they do. They did not believe the money was going directly to the mission. So, Scott took this as a challenge for charity: water to promote radical transparency. 100% of donations go directly to the mission of providing clean water – even the credit card fees are covered. Donors can follow their money – funded projects are viewed through photos and GPS markers. All of their financials are on the website for anyone to view. All of the operational costs are covered by private donors and, just in case anyone doubts this, the audit is right there on charity: water's website.
Mission and transparency lead to storytelling. When you know your mission and you are transparent about your work, it’s easy to invite others in through a good story. For those who were present at the lecture, it’s clear that Scott is a gifted storyteller. Right away he established his credibility by sharing his background: his mother’s illness, becoming a caretaker at an early age and being engaged in his church throughout his childhood. At the age of 18 he left this foundation to jump into the nightlife of New York City as a nightclub promoter. Eventually, however, he realized there had to be more to life, and he shared how this led him to experience the suffering of others around the world. Throughout his journey, he didn’t just tell us this story – he showed us with hundreds of images. And for all of us present in the room, we were captivated – eager to come along on the journey with him.