A Quick Chat With Scott Harrison of Charity: Water


You might have read my post ‘Why I Don’t Donate To Charity: Water’. Despite loving everything else Charity: Water do and thinking that their founder and CEO Scott Harrison is great, I hate their ‘100% Model’.

I had a drink and a gossip with Scott and asked why I’m wrong. I also ask him how he feels about the ‘special’ attention Charity: Water gets at fundraising conferences.

Scott Harrison, I’m here on a date with you, in this beautiful hotel.

Listening to wonderful piano music in Dublin.

Are you enjoying Ireland?

I am.

Good. I just want to ask you a quick question. You know that I think…

You’re a huge fan of our 100% model?

You know I’m a huge fan of you. You know I’m a huge fan of Charity: Water. And despite what I said, I have donated to you in the past. But you know what I think of your 100% model. I don’t really like it.

I know you don’t.

Tell me why I’m wrong.

I don’t tell other people to follow it. For us, 9 years ago, the problem I was trying to solve was to reach out to a group of people who weren’t donating to charity and the number one thing I kept hearing was, “I don’t know where my money goes.”

So…I’m an extreme guy…I just wanted to say You can’t ever use that excuse with us. We’ll create two bank accounts, I’ll make overhead my problem, and every penny will go to the projects.

If you donate to the overheads then every penny will go to overheads. But you’re going to know where your money goes in the most clear, shadow-of-a-doubt way.

I was really trying to say You can’t use that excuse. What’s your next excuse? And believe me they have lots of them.

But it was unique to the problem that we were trying to solve which was my friends, 30 years old at the time, were saying, “I don’t give ‘cos it goes in to one big pot. I’m sure they work some joo joo magic.” and they don’t believe those ratios.

We have overhead. We’re 80/20. We’re the same as most charities.

If anything it’s been incredibly difficult. I have to go raise money to support the entire organisation. We have to run two funding streams in perfect balance. So we’ve made life incredibly difficult for ourselves.

But you know what you get. And we mean it. We actually pay back the credit card fees…that’s how serious we are. So if you donate $1000 actually go and raise that 3%.

From the other bank account?

It’s 106 people. There’s no mystery to this. There’s 106 people who’ve signed up to pay for the overhead. We treat them like investors. And I just want it to be clear.

And it works? It brought in donors that wouldn’t have come in anyway?

I think so. We’ve had a lot of donors say it’s the first charitable gift they’ve ever made. It’s the first charity they’ve trusted.
And then I think the unintended positive consequence is I can then with integrity track the dollars. I can show you…I actually know where they go.

So if you give $20 I can tag it in the system and say it went to this country. So we’ve been able to do cool things by connecting donors to their impact.

You’re happy with it.

It’s hard! Most days I wish I didn’t have to do that. I wish I was like everybody else!

But it’s worked for us. It’s funny, we had this internal conversation. We’re almost shy about it. We don’t put it out there that much. It’s just there. It’s actually subtle.

OK. I’m going to donate to your overheads only.

Good you’re allowed to! My wife and I, when we started giving around this time we were able to give more generously, all of our personal giving goes to overheads. So we purposely unrestrict it. We’re like Please use our money to pay for the phone bills. I think that’s a cool way to give. I would much rather support the overheads of an organisation I believe in, if I trust them and I trust their values, then get my name on some project or have some kid in Africa writing me a letter.

I want to pay for that extra flight home for the aid workers so they can go see their family.

I must remember you as a potential donor.

Yeh, I’m there. I give to everyone that asks.

Brilliant, I’ll do it off camera.

It’s not even tax-deductible!

The other thing I wanted to ask you is, at every fundraising conference I go to…I don’t think you’ve seen this…

No, because I don’t go to fundraising conferences.

What are you too good for us?

I just…I don’t get invited!

OK, we’ll invite you. You guys are always mentioned as the ultimate example of digital fundraising. You guys do e-mail great. You do on-line video great. Your website is brilliant. You’re what people compare themselves to at fundraising conferences. It got to the point where we have a ‘Charity: Water Klaxon’, where every time someone mentions Charity: Water we kind of like all go on Twitter and says, “Fucks sake”.

Oh, gosh.

How do you feel about that?

I don’t actually think we’re that good at digital. We look at our products and say this doesn’t work, we’re testing conversions and stuff. We think that there’s so much room for improvement.

We just had someone come in and do an entire workshop on ‘story’. And people think that we’re good at storytelling. And we had someone come in and teach us.

I think the positioning of the organisation is…fundamentally…We don’t believe we are the hero. We really believe our donors and our supporters are the heroes. And we’ve gotten criticised for being too donor centric.


Oh my gosh, so much. I feel like so many organisations look at their donors as a means to an end.

We LOVE our donors! We love 6 year old girls selling lemonade! We love people who write us in to their wills.
We recently had a guy propose to his wife with a well in India. He didn’t buy her a ring! How can I not love Sid and Sarah and their marriage? And they got to see their well right as their first child was born!

So we’re constantly looking to celebrate, in an authentic way, our donors. We don’t look at them as a means to an end. We love them and we love telling their stories. And I think that’s just a little different from what we see out there. But we mean it. It’s at our core. It’s not wordsmithing. It’s ingrained with the culture. We’re just grateful people.

It’s good. It’s good fundraising.

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