From the archive: This episode was originally recorded and published in 2018. Our interviews on Entrepreneurs On Fire are meant to be evergreen, and we do our best to confirm that all offers and URL’s in these archive episodes are still relevant.
Scott Harrison is the Founder/CEO of charity: water, a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries.
Your Big Idea: Successful Entrepreneurs have One Big Idea. Follow JLD’s FREE training & you’ll discover Your Big Idea in less than an hour!
Thirst – Snag a copy of Scott’s book and 100% of the author’s net proceeds will go to fund charity: waters projects!
3 Value Bombs
1) In an age of technology, we have so much. We are so innovative. Yet 1 out of 10 people alive on the planet is drinking dirty water today.
2) When you see people who don’t have access to clean water, electricity, or a doctor, you can’t unsee that.
3) You need people to believe in you.
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Today’s Audio MASTERCLASS: Thirst: How a former nightclub promoter’s desire to do more led to the ultimate career change with Scott Harrison
[01:04] – Scott shares something about himself that most people don’t know.
- One of his first jobs was working the drive thru at McDonald’s
[03:15] – Scott takes us to the moment he decided to turn his life around.
- He had all the things that were “supposed to” make him feel deeply fulfilled. But he realized instead that he had become the worst person he knew. He was living the most meaningless legacy that a person could live.
- He realized that what he had done left him morally and spiritually bankrupt.
- He went to Liberia in West Africa as a volunteer photo journalist. He was suddenly in a country with no electricity, no running water, and they only had one doctor per 50,000 people that lived there. That was the moment his life changed; he found the purpose he was looking for.
[06:47] – One in 10 people, or twice the population of the United States, live without access to clean water. What makes water such a compelling issue – the one that you wanted to dedicate your life to?
- In an age of technology, we have so much. We are so innovative. Yet, 1 out of 10 people alive on the planet is drinking dirty water today.
- When you see people who don’t have access to clean water, electricity, or a doctor, you can’t unsee it.
[09:00] – How close are we to Day Zero — the day when the city’s water will go dry?
- 663 million people are drinking dirty water today. But even if you hear a statistic that big, there’s no feeling behind it. So, what they try to do is to tell a story of actual women and children who are caught in this statistic.
- In Ethiopa, women are walking 6 hours a day, 7 days a week to a far away swamp or river. Then they walk all the way back only to bring dirty water to their children.
- The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of one million is a statistic.
[14:08] – One of the things that sets charity: water apart is that it gives 100 percent of all public donations to fund water projects – unheard of for most charities. John asks how they make this possible…
- Scott’s mission was to work to bring clean drinking water to every single human being alive on the planet.
- 42% of Americans pulled by USA Today said they actually don’t trust charities.
- 70% of Americans that were polled by New York University believe that a charity they donated to wasted their money.
- The most powerful thing we can do is to answer the objection around money in the clearest way possible, and say “100% of all donations will always go directly to build water projects – to give people water.”
- They created 2 bank accounts and tell people exactly what is done with their money. They put satellite images of water projects up for people to see.
- They also work with local partners in each country. It shouldn’t be Westerners that drill the wells. For it to be culturally appropriate and sustainable, it has to be led by people of these countries.
[22:24] – Scott talks about the monthly giving community called “The Spring”. Where did the idea come from and how does that work?
- It came out of necessity – out of our first down year. It was when we couldn’t repeat the previous year’s fund raising success that we knew something had to change.
- Scott’s team thought, “What if we could build a community of givers so generous that the world hasn’t seen anything like it before, and create a pure giving experience, where 100% of what people give every month would get passed directly on to people who needed clean water?”
- They made a 20-minute web video to tell the story of water and their business model. 18% of the people who watched the video joined The Spring.
- He didn’t have content he could deliver like Netflix. He also didn’t have storage to offer like Dropbox. But what he can offer is inspiration and the sense that your money really does matter.
- Embrace action over empathy.
- He hopes that his personal story might just inspire people to turn the page and realize what is possible – and to think about how they might redeem some of their past mistakes and use those experiences for good.
- He believes in working together to realize a day on this planet where every human being has access to this basic need for life, health, and survival met – where everyone has clean drinking water.
[33:54] – Scott shares a story that you can relate to in your business.
- He never wanted to run a charity that borrowed a penny, or even compromise the tiniest bit of their public promise. If they did take 1 penny from the money they promised the public would be going to water projects, there would be a crack in the foundation.
- He was determined not to compromise the charity’s integrity.
- Like entrepreneurs, you need people to believe in you.
[38:15] – Scott’s parting piece of guidance
- People should not die because of bad water.
- Thirst – Snag a copy of Scott’s book and 100% of the author’s net proceeds will go to fund charity: waters projects!
JLD: Who is ready to rock today, Fire Nation? JLD here coming at you with a special audio master class because we are going to be talking about thirst and water. The specific audio master class title is thirst, how a former nightclub promoter’s desire to do more led to the ultimate career change, and we're going to be talking with Scott Harrison who is a founder of charity: water. It's a non-profit organization that brings clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. It is an incredible organization, it is an important organization, and today’s master class, Fire Nation, is not to be missed. So, stick around. We'll be right there when we thank our sponsor.
So, Scott, say what's up to Fire Nation, and share something interesting about yourself that most people don't know.
Scott: Dude, what is up? It's so great again to be back. Thanks for having me back on. Oh, gosh. What don’t people know? I guess I'm going to go back to first jobs. McDonald’s, I worked at the drive-thru in Flemington, New Jersey at the McDonald’s. I had another job selling keyboards in New York City at a place called Sam Ash, and one of the most notable parts of that job for me was one night Stevie Wonder came in, and I got to sell him $50,000.00 worth of keyboard and synthesizer gear and make a commission, make a little commission because he got a pretty good deal on it.
JLD: Oh, man. That is something I definitely did not know about you. Quick question: favorite item on the McDonald’s menu. Go.
Scott: Back then, it was all quarter-pounder with cheeses and those apple pies.
JLD: Ah, the apple pies.
Scott: I would eat – they were the ones that had the slits in them. I don't know if they still do them anymore, but they were crusty. I could eat three or four of those things.
JLD: I remember getting those with a sundae and just using the ice cream and the apple, one bite for one bite. It was just incredible.
Scott: And they would burn you. They came out hot. They could literally burn the roof of your mouth, those things.
JLD: I think they actually got sued by a couple of people for that very reason, literally.
Well, Fire Nation, we're talking with Scott Harrison. As I mentioned of course in the amazing intro I gave for him, he is the founder of charity: water, and his book Thirst has recently just been tearing up the bookshelves all around, and we're going to be talking today during this audio master class about how a former nightclub promoter’s desire to do more led to the ultimate career change because, Scott, let's break it down. In 2018, you are hardly the typical philanthropist. That's just a fact. You spent 10 years as a hard-partying New York City club promoter before you started charity: water with no money, by the way, no experience by the way. You had no experience in non-profits. Now, charity: water has gone on to become one of the most widely admired brands in the non-profit world.
So, your story is incredible. We touched upon it in the last episode, but what I want you to do right now is just take us to the moment you decided to change your life around.
Scott: So, there was a moment. I'm 28 years old and I've worked at 40 different nightclubs over the last 10 years. My life looks great on the outside. I'm wearing the Rolex watch, I'm driving the BMW, I'm dating the girl on the covers of fashion magazines, I've got the grand piano and my New York City apartment, I've got the Labrador Retriever, all of these things that were supposed to make me happy, they were supposed to make me deeply fulfilled. And I realized on a vacation in South America this separation, if you will, from my nightlife life for a couple of weeks. I realized that I've somehow become the worst person that I know. I've become the most hedonistic, selfish, sycophantic maybe even degenerate person because I'd been only pursuing me. It was a pursuit of me for 10 years, and I realized, I had this moment of clarity that there would never be enough. Somebody would always have more. There would never be enough girls. There would never be enough parties. There would never be enough money. There’d never be enough status and that I was leaving perhaps the most meaningless legacy that a person could live.
Now, for all that to make sense you kinda have to go back to childhood. I was brought up a really good Christian kid, playing the piano in church on Sundays, taking care of my very sick mom. I was an only child thrust into a caregiver role, so my foundation was really one of virtue and morality. I had cold-rebelled against that. I'd given the church, my family, I'd given everybody the finger for 10 years, and then I had this moment where I want to come full circle. I want to come home. I realized that what I had done just didn't work. It left me empty. It left me morally bankrupt. It left me spiritually bankrupted. And I decided in South America that I was going to come back and I needed to make a change, and I asked myself what might the opposite of my life look like. Very simple question. What would – not a pivot. Not like a little change, 25 or 45-degree change. What would a 180-degree opposite look like? And it took me about six months to find that, but six months later I wound up selling almost everything that I owned and applying to do of one-year humanitarian volunteer service to the famous aid organizations I'd heard of over time, and at first nobody would take me and then finally one took me, and that took me very quickly from this life of disco balls and $500.00 of champagne and bottle service, took me to war-torn Liberia in West Africa on this humanitarian medical mission as a volunteer photojournalist in a country with no electricity and no running water, a country where there was one doctor for every 50,000 people that lived there, and my life changed.
My heart broke. I put in a different context, put in a context of people who are using their gifts in service of others and that unselfish pursuit of others. I said, “I gotta have this. This is the meaning. This is the purpose that I've been looking for.”
JLD: One thing that really blows me away watching your journey, looking back to the past interview that we did, is just how little we as just humans – and I guess we should even kinda maybe more specifically say first-world Americans know about the lack of water that people are dealing with right now. In fact, one in 10 people – that's twice the population of the United States, Fire Nation – they live without access to clean water. This is something that is a mandatory necessity that we get on a day-to-day basis, and one in 10 people? That's nuts.
Scott: It's true. In an age of technology and an age of internet balloons and self-driving cars and the boring company and an age of flamethrowers, we have so much, we're so innovative, and we're inventing so much, but yet one out of 10 people alive on the planet is drinking dirty, disgusting water today that risks their life and it does feel like a disconnect especially because we travel back and forth and we see this and that's what we've been working hard to try and fix for 12 years now.
JLD: You had me at flamethrower by the way, so Fire Nation, just recognize the importance of just knowledge, what knowledge can bring. Now that you know that by the way, Fire Nation, you can't unknow that. When you see people who don’t have access to running water and when you see people that don't have access to electricity or doctors, you can't unsee this. I've spent four months in Guatemala and five months in India. I've spent 13 months in Iraq. I've been these places and I have seen that, and you just don’t unsee this. And of course I saw what happened to Puerto Rico because I live here after Hurricane Maria and just what people were dealing with going from one day being a semi-first-world country being in American territory to all of a sudden then being thrown back literally to the dark ages literally overnight, and what's scary – and Scott, this is something that I actually wouldn't mind going on a little side tangent with you on right now – is how creepily close we all are to this. We are just three or four days away from some major catastrophe of being thrown into the dark ages again. I lived that in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Talk about where even a first-world country like the United States could be so quickly – because you've been to those places like the Liberias of the world where you've seen all of that jazz.
Scott: I think the water shortages here around us have certainly helped elevate the conversation around water, and certainly Flint in Michigan, while that was an issue that was political, it was an issue of really sending water down the wrong pipes and contaminating lots of water for a whole city and an area, the droughts maybe in California where people go on water rations, even Cape Town. A lot of people were talking about this day zero in Cape Town when Cape Town the city would run out of water and all of the things that people were trying to do to prolong day zero.
So, I think we have realized how precious this resource is and that even wealthy countries or wealthy cities are not immune to it. I guess what I would say is that Cape Town did figure that out and it wound up raining, and Flint is in the process now of ripping up those pipes and putting in new pipes, and the California droughts, it's never really people going without bathing themselves or drinking clean water and that's actually what we're seeing. So, if I just take you into our world just for a minute, it's one thing to say 663,000,000 people are drinking dirty water, and we just kinda numb out. You hear a statistic that big. It's just twice the population of the country. Okay. One in 10. Okay. But there's no feeling behind that, and what we've tried to do is tell the stories of the humans, the actual women and the children that are caught in this huge number.
What it looks like if you were to travel with me, and I've been to Ethiopia 30 separate times now, and I'm in villages where women are walking six hours every day, not five days a week or seven days a week. So, imagine 42 hours of your week spent walking to a far away swamp or pond or river, sometimes even farther during the peak of the dry season, and then you're hauling back 40 pounds of water with leeches in it, water with horse manure in it or cow feces, and then you're giving that water that you know is actually not clean and you're giving that to your children, and we hear shocking stories, John, of women being attacked by hyenas, by wild animals, often raped on their way to the waterholes, women giving birth down at the disgusting swamp because they need the water during that process. It's an unbelievable hardship.
In the book, I talk about this village I lived in where a 13-year-old girl hung herself after spilling her water one day. She'd been walking eight hours. At the end of her trip, she slips and falls, she breaks the clay pot that she'd been carrying the water in, and she watches this water, this precious resource, spill into the dust and get dissolved, and she just ties a rope around her neck and jumps from a tree and not wanting to go back for more water. So, it's a huge emergency this issue and it faces to many people, but yet officially America has 100% water coverage, and I dare say there probably isn't anyone listening that has experienced that kind of hardship around water. Maybe you've been in a drought area, but I doubt people have held a loved one in their arms, watching a loved one die of diarrhea, completely preventable if there was clean water nearby.
JLD: And those statistics that you threw out there and the comment you made behind it so true. We can say 663,000,000 or one in 10, but until you're there and you see it, Fire Nation, it's hard to really comprehend this. There's a quote by Stalin that actually jumped through my mind when you were talking about that, Scott, which is “The death of one person’s a tragedy. The death of 1,000,000 is a statistic,” and that's what people like Stalin and Hitler did to kind of be able to push under the rug all of what was happening because one person’s a tragedy. If you see one person dying of diarrhea and of thirst, that is an absolute tragedy, but when you're hearing on this podcast right now that 663,000,000 people don’t have access to clean water, is that really being able to be comprehended by our ears and our brain? That's the question.
So, it's something to definitely think about, but one thing that I do want to dive into next, Scott, because this is so important. We hear a lot of people in today’s age be like, “Oh, I would donate more money, but so-and-so, all of these non-profits, they have CEOs and founders that make six and seven-figure salaries. Where is that money going? I don't want to pay for somebody’s yacht or vacation,” but charity: water gives 100% of all public donations to fund water projects. That is unheard of period. How is that possible?
Scott: So, if I rewind it to the founding kind of principles, I had come back from two years in West Africa as this volunteer photojournalist, and my heart was changed. I had seen many issues. I'd seen people with flesh-eating disease. I'd spent time in leprosy colonies. I was with doctors who were working on cleft lips and cleft palates, but the one thing that kinda stuck with me was the fact that people were drinking dirty water, and I think that was ‘specially relevant to me because in my clubs I used to sell Voss Water for $10.00 a bottle, and some people wouldn't even open the water. They would just order a bunch of bottles on their table and just let it sit there and go drink champagne or vodka instead, and when I had the advantage of being 30, having a clear mission, my mission was going to be to work to bring clean drinking water to every single human being alive on the planet, and at the time there were actually a billion without water. It's come down to 663,000,000 over the last 12 years. So, progress has been made, but a billion people.
So, I have this mission and I'm telling my friends who are 30 and they're working at MTV or Goldman Sachs or Chanel or Gucci, just people in the workforce, and I realized they were cynical. They were skeptical. They were not giving to the big charities maybe that you hear about on TV and some of the things that you mentioned “The CEO is making millions and millions of dollars and hiring their cousins and nephews and husbands and wives to work at their charity” or “I don't know where my money goes. How much is actually going to reach the people in the end?” Everybody seemed to have a scandal that they can pull out of their back pocket showing why they weren’t giving, why a charity had disqualified itself, maybe sitting on billions of dollars after a natural disaster that it just couldn't spend and 10 years later it comes out that all of those $50.00 donations we all texted in are just still sitting in some bank account.
So, everybody had issue. The data behind this was shocking. Forty-two percent of Americans – I think it was polled by USA Today – said they actually don’t trust charities, and 70% of Americans that were polled by New York University at Stern actually said they believed – 70%, John, believed that charities wasted their money or badly wasted their money. So, 30% of people thought charities did the right thing with money but that's all that charities are supposed to do is to do the right thing with people’s money. So, I realized this was a huge new market opportunity. This was an industry that was ripe for disruption for a new mental model, a new business model, a new way of doing things, and I thought the most powerful thing we could do would be to answer the objection around money in the clearest way possible and say, “100% of all donations will always go directly to build water projects that get people clean water, and we opened up a second separate bank account where we would raise all of the overhead, all of the salaries, all of the office rent costs and the phone bills and the Epson copier machine, the flights, all of that stuff separately from a very small group of business leaders and thought leaders who wouldn't mind paying those unsexy overhead costs.
So, we had these two bank accounts. They would have separate numbers. They would be audited separately, and we could go to say to people “What's your next objection because we just told you you're not paying my salary, you're not paying anybody’s salary, and you're not paying rent. Every penny you give, even if you could only give $1.00, that full dollar is going. If you could give $1 million, that full million dollars is going to go and have an impact.
\ So, the second thing was we'd created effectively two bank accounts that were separate, a non-fungible business model. We said, “Let's just tell people what they did with their money, where their money went, the people that it impacted,” and for us we just started by putting the satellite images of each of these water projects up for people to see, and this seems so basic, but charities just weren’t great at closing the loop. Often you give money to charities and they send you a thank-you note or a tax receipt and they just keep asking you for more money, and we said, “We have a responsibility to show people the impact of their donations.” And then the third very basic idea or the third pillar was just working with local partners in each of these countries. We believed it shouldn't be westerners like me flying in to go drill wells in Kenya or Malawi. For this work to be culturally appropriate, for it to be sustainable, it had to be led by the people in each of these countries, and we just put these three things together. Let's give away 100%. Let's build the most hyper-transparent charity ever by proving where the money goes and the impact of those donations, and then let's work with the locals.
Again people listening to that are like, “That's not that innovative. It doesn’t sound like it should be that innovative,” but it just was at the time and it led to this explosive growth pattern just because it felt different. It didn't feel like your parents’ or your grandparents’ charity.
JLD: Fire Nation, this is not your parents’ or your grandparents’ charity, and in fact, as soon as we get back from our break, you're going to hear Scott talk about some really cool things that they're doing that are continuing to bring charity: water and just we're keeping it cutting edge and bringing new incentives and new awesome things that are coming down the line, so stick around. We'll be right back when we thank our sponsor.
So, Scott, we're back and something cool that you've done fairly recently definitely since the last time that we talked on this show was you started a monthly giving community called The Spring. Talk a little bit about The Spring. Where’d the idea come from and how’s that working out?
Scott: The idea really came out of necessity out of our first down year. We had eight years of consecutive growth, and these were – we'd raised about a quarter of a billion dollars in our first eight years, and then we had this year where we could not repeat the previous year’s fundraising success and it felt terrible, John. We went from getting a million new people clean drinking water in our eighth year to then 820,000 people in our ninth year. I actually felt like I'd led 180,000 people down personally, and I had this existential leadership crisis. I talk about this extensively in the book just in the hopes that it might encourage other people who felt like they failed because they couldn't grow the thing anymore, and I try and bring on a professional CEO and I wind up almost quitting to move aside to let somebody else come, a real leader take us to the next level, and I wind up just taking a month off to think about things and spend some time with my family.
After that month, I just said, “Well, hey, I can't quit in year 10. I've gotta finish out the decade strong, and rather than whining about this problem, why don’t I actually trying to address it? Why don’t I try and solve it? Why don’t I try and innovate?” and it wasn’t a really difficult realization. We had just gotten too big to start at zero every year. To raise $45 million in a single year and then have January 1 see the ticker roll back to zero and have to climb that $45 million donation hill again and then grow, it was unsustainable. We were building an organization based on one-time gifts, one-time fundraising campaigns like the birthdays some people know us for, and I said, “Well, if I look at the companies that I respect that I think are crushing it, they're not starting at zero. Netflix does not start at zero January 1. Spotify doesn’t start at zero. Dropbox doesn’t start at zero.” They're building communities of people who are showing up month in and month out for their services and they're getting a value exchange through that.
So, I said, “Well, what if we could build a community of givers so generous the world has never seen anything like this before and create a pure giving experience where 100% of what people gave every single month would directly get passed on to people who needed clean water?” and we said, “We're going to be so crazy about the integrity of this 100%, we're going to pay back credit card fees.” So, if somebody who’s giving $100.00 let's say and we got 97 because they gave it on their AmEx, we would make up that difference. We would send the full intended donation every single month, and then we would show impact. We would tell stories of the people whose lives were being changed around the world with clean water as people showed up giving what they could every month. So, we weren’t sure if this was going to work. We called it The Spring. I love double entendres as you can tell by the title of the book Thirst. It's a time of new beginnings and it's actually the literal place where so much clean water comes on the planet from springs, and we just put this out. We just told the story, and we actually made a 20-minute web video.
Again everybody said, “You guys are crazy. The attention span these days is 30 seconds at best. You're going to do a –” and I'm like, “I can't convey any emotion, any sense of story or narrative in 30 seconds. It's going to take me at least 20 minutes to tell the charity: water story is, to tell the story of water and our business model,” and we put out this 20-minute video and it just all works. People said, “I'm moved.” They watched it. I think 18% of the people that finished the film actually joined The Spring. We saw extraordinary conversions, and it quickly grew to people in 100 countries around the world. The beauty of the internet is this thing just got passed around and the film got over 12,000,000 views and the community – excuse me – has just kept growing and growing and growing and it's transformed the organization. So, I didn't quit. We grew 40% last year. We've been up 40% this year. We're going to get 1,500,000 people clean water this year for the first time.
At the beginning of next year, we're going to cross over 10,000,000 people served and that's not thanks to me. It's not thanks to our team. It's really thanks to the charity: water community out there, everyday people, people just like the ones that are listening now who said, “Well, I never really thought about water before, but rather than embrace the paralyzing apathy with a huge global issue like this, I could do something. I give $30.00 a month or $10.00 a month,” or whatever they could give, and we've seen people embrace action instead of apathy, and this thing just continued to grow which allows us to impact more people. So, it was really this transformative moment, and I remember later Googling business S-curves and just realizing we needed to find that next growth idea. What got us here wouldn't get us to the next level, and it's been really exciting to now put our time and our resources into The Spring community, and we still don’t think we're killing it. We still think there's a greater opportunity to connect out members with each other. I should connect you to the members in Puerto Rico and it would be cool if the 19 of you got together and shared charity: water stories or talked about water.
We just did an event recently in Atlanta where over 100 people that were giving every month just turned up and got to meet each other. So, I think there's a lot of opportunity for us to grow the community and then both steward our relationship with these people. I don't have content I can deliver like Netflix. I don't have storage I can offer like Dropbox, but hopefully, we can offer inspiration and this sense that your money really did matter, that as it moved from sitting latent in your bank account in this accumulation process and it was released to help other people around the world, it really did matter. It really did end needless suffering and you were a part of that by taking action.
JLD: Fire Nation, I love that phrase that Scott used “Embrace action over empathy,” and you actually kind of struck a little bit of a cord right there too, Scott, at the very end when you were talking about are we just sitting here, Fire Nation, in an accumulation phase? Are we just sitting here hoarding our dollars and our cents for what? For some future where we can maybe leave an estate to our kids that then gets cut in half right off the bat and then just gets whittled down even more or can we today right now utilize some of that hoard, some of those dollars and cents that are doing nothing right now and unlock awesomeness and clean water and amazingness around the world. And if you want to learn more about Spring, Fire Nation, you can do a lot of things, but of course just Googling The Spring charity: water is going to get you right there, and I want to just kind of double down on what Scott said. When he was in that tough situation as an entrepreneur as the CEO, he looked to run the businesses that he admired. What were they doing to succeed like a Netflix, like a Spotify, like a Dropbox? What were they doing? He applied their principles to his business and that's where The Spring came from. It's a great lesson for you to learn.
And Scott, something that you should be rightly so very proud of is your first book Thirst. Why did you write this book now and what is your hope for it?
Scott: Oh, man. First of all, years ago it was not time to write a book because we were just trying to build this thing. We were in survival mode. I think as early as year three or four of charity: water people would say, “Oh, crazy story. Drug addict nightclub promoter becomes” – I don't know – “water warrior,” or whatever, and they were looking for the headline like, “You should write a book.” I'm like, “Man, I don't know that this thing is even going to exist three months from now. If by the time I started writing and ended writing, there might not even be any charity: water.” So, I think there was something about turning 40, the organization celebrating its 10th anniversary in a period of really exciting explosive growth now as we move into the next decade, becoming a father to two kids and really just saying, “You know what? Now maybe at this moment in time maybe there are parts of my story or maybe there are parts of what charity: water has learned that could actually help others. Maybe on a personal level just there might be some people who feel like they are stuck or that the things that they've done in their past, the things that they're not proud of define their future,” and I would hope to be living proof like if a disgusting gambling pornography-addicted cocaine-addled nightclub promoter can raise 1/3 of a billion dollars for clean drinking water, chances are unless you killed someone you're not as bad as me.
And I really wanted that to come out in the book and that by changing the intention of my life, by rediscovering faith and virtue and spirituality and a life of service, I was really able to start over. I got a clean slate, and what was cool is that so many of the things that I had used for darkness I was able to redeem and use for good. Charity: water’s day one happened in a nightclub. We launched charity: water in a nightclub, and 700 people came to a party, they got open bar for an hour, and what was different about this is on their way in they donated $20.00 and we raised $15,000.00 and we took 100% of the money to do our first few projects, and then we sent them the photos and the GPS coordinates and video of the clean water flowing in a refugee camp in Uganda and said, “You did this.” So I was able to take some of the things – I would've just gotten those people wasted and walked away with $15,000.00 in my pocket. That's how we would've done it in the past.
So, I think that hopefully some of the elements of my personal story might just inspire people to turn the page, to realize what is possible, to think how they might redeem some of their past mistakes and use them for good. And then I donated the advance of the book. I donated all of the proceeds. I want this book to actually help end the water crisis. I believe in creating and working together to realize a day on this planet when every human being has this basic need for life, for health, for survival met where everybody has clean drinking water, and I would hope in some of the stories in the book it would move people, not just the statistics, but the stories would move people to act and to join this community and be able to say one day to their kids or their grandkids “I stood for clean water and I did what I could to be a part of this and we've achieved it. We've finally got there.”
JLD: So, Scott, we are an entrepreneurial podcast. Fire Nation are entrepreneurs, small business owners, and in this book, you cover a lot of entrepreneurial themes actually. You cover burnout, you cover leadership, the importance of branding, and there's so many different things. So, with everything that you said right now, I know we're going to get a ton out of reading the book Thirst because of the very obvious reasons we've talked about so far, but can you maybe pull out one of those things that I shared or something that's an entrepreneurial theme like that burnout, like that leadership, that you think our listeners could really relate to in their business?
Scott: There's a story in the book that I talk about where we ran out of money at charity: water. Maybe there are people listening saying, “How actually do you fund that other bank account? How do you take a salary?” We have 80 full-time employees in New York now. “How do they get paid?” and it was incredibly difficult finding those visionary donors who wanted to pay for the overhead, and about a year and a half into the organization, we'd raised millions. We had $881,000.00 in the water bank account, the bank account that we could not touch to run the organization, and we had a couple weeks left of payroll in the other bank account, and I had tapped everybody I knew for overhead. We had been skipping our own checks, making very little money at the time, and the advice I was getting at the time was “Hey, go and borrow from the $881,000.00” That's nine months of burn. That's nine months of op x cash, and “Hey, guys. This money’s fungible, right? You'll pay it back later. Write a little I owe you to that account,” and I remember just saying I would never want to run a charity that borrowed one penny that even compromising the tiniest bit on that public promise. If we took one penny from the $881,000.00 that we promised the public was going to water projects, there’d be a crack in the foundation. We would be compromised forever. We should reside in shame and never talk about the thing again.
So, I was just going to shut charity: water down, cry business model failure, and say, “Hey, it didn't work. I couldn't find the people on the other side,” but I would send out the $881,000.00 to as many water projects as possible with that as promised, and at that moment I'm a person of faith, so I was praying for a miracle with very little faith if I'm honest, but I was just determined not to compromise our integrity. If I was going to go bankrupt with charity: water and it wasn’t going to work, at least I would have that. At least I would be able to say, “But we did what we said we were going to do.” And wouldn't you know at that moment a week later right on the brink of shutting down, a complete stranger, a young entrepreneur who had just had a successful exit walks into the New York City office, sits with me for two hours, hears what we're doing, learns about the vision, learns about the current situation of the organization, and says, “Hey, let me think about how I might be able to help you,” and two days later sends me an e-mail saying, “Hey, I wired $1 million into your overhead account,” and that decision I think was really rewarded, and that was over $330 million ago raised, and that gave us another year to work out the business model. We needed time. As an entrepreneur, I also needed someone to believe in me, to say “You're not crazy trying to reinvent charity or re-imagine the way people experience giving. You need more time. You need people to believe in you, and you need more people to come alongside.”
And today if someone joins The Spring, the way that we're able to give away 100%, the way that we're able to even give away all of the proceeds from the book is that 131 business leaders and entrepreneurs and families pay for all of the overhead, and it's been the founders of Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, WordPress, Pandora, senior execs at Apple, amazing group of people that have said “We got your back” so that people can have this pure giving experience, but it was – it would've been easy I guess to compromise, and I think we would've had a very different outcome.
JLD: Fire Nation, think about this. Where do you stand for in your business? What is your non-negotiable like Scott's non-negotiable that he was not going to even in the little tiny bit least go beyond that line which he knew that once he crossed it was going to put that crack in that foundation? It is so critical as entrepreneurs, as business owners, as leaders of our own enterprises that we have those non-negotiables too. So, Scott, break it down for us. How can Fire Nation get involved? What is your main call to action today?
Scott: It's two things. Grab the book. Again I hope people will love it. It's not a charity story. It starts in a really unlikely place. There's drugs. There's guns. There's post-war Liberia. There's some stories that I think will make people weep and hopefully stories that will make people’s hearts leap out with joy and stories of courage and heroism in the book. So, I would encourage people to get it to understand more about the issue and hopefully just be inspired by it, and then please join The Spring. That's actually – the call at the end of the book is a really generous call for people to find the thing that is not right on their watch. Maybe for some it's sex trafficking, maybe for others it's hunger around the world or domestic issues or shelter issues, but it's really a call to also join what we might – consider joining what we're doing. Join The Spring, give what you might be able to, and join this community of people who just believe something very simple.
The great thing is I bet there is no one listening that thinks people should be dying with bad water. So, it's actually something that everybody agrees to agree on especially in such a toxic, divisive, over-politicized time. Everybody, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent or Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or an atheist, everybody can come together and say, “People need clean water.” It's that simple, and we know how to solve this problem. The solutions are there. It's the will. It's the resources that haven't yet been mobilized to have this impact that we want to have. So, you're invited. You are invited to join us. We've been here for 12 years. We're continuing to fight to realize this day when everybody has clean drinking water.
JLD: Fire Nation, unlock some of those dollars and cents that are literally just right now collecting 0.01% interest and that's – can we just unlock clean water for people around the world? This has inspired me as it always does when I get to chat with Scott and other people that are doing great things around the world just like him, and I hope it's inspired you. Like he mentioned, get involved by getting this book. Thirstbook.com is the direct URL you can go to. Thirstbook.com. 100% of the author’s net proceeds is going to go to fund the charity: water projects, and of course The Spring is a great place to get involved as well. So, I just want to say, Fire Nation, you know this because you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and even hanging out with Scott for the last 45 minutes here, so you know your average is pretty awesome today, so keep up that hate. And Scott, I just want to thank you, brother, for sharing your truth with Fire Nation today. For that, we salute you and we'll catch you on the flipside.
Scott: Thanks so much for having me. You guys are awesome.
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