The Hustle and The Craft with Scott Harrison

Scott Harrison is a legend. He’s not even 40 years old, and he’s already built one of the most well-known and well-loved charitable brands in history. There’s no denying that charity: water is one of the most compelling (not to mention design-savvy) nonprofit organizations out there today. Scott Harrison has already been interviewed by ForbesFast CompanyInc. MagazineThe New York Times — the list goes on.

I was surprised just how easy he was to talk to once I got on the phone with him. He was nonchalant, present, engaged. As it turns out, even with all his fame and success, Scott Harrison is still just a really nice guy. What follows is an honest conversation about hustle, craft, determination — and, of course, water.

People: Here’s Scott Harrison.

Scott: Sorry I’m late. I had a doctor’s appointment with my wife. We’re expecting a baby in a few months, which is exciting.

WELD: That’s awesome.

First one.

That’s a big deal.

Definitely a big life change.

How far along?

She’s four months; so we’re about halfway there.

How long have you guys been married?

About four years, four and a half years.

That’s about how long my wife and I have been married, and people keep telling us it’s time to have kids.

How old are you?


Yeah. I’m 38, so it felt like it was time. I don’t think you guys should rush it, and don’t listen to anybody else. Nobody else has any idea what they’re talking about.

Are you glad you waited?

For us, it was actually kind of sudden. We’d just stopped trying not to, and then we got pregnant almost right away. You hear about a lot of people, they’re trying forever. So we were really fortunate in that respect.

Well congrats, man.


So I think I’m most interested in hearing about the time in your life between leaving Mercy Ships and actually getting charity: water off the ground. I’m interested in the hustle of creating something that actually works.

Okay yeah. So at the time, when I’d come off the ship, I thought I wanted to make Mercy Ships famous. I’d spent almost two years volunteering for them. I had 50,000 photographs. I’d been email blasting my nightclub lists [note: Scott was a night club promoter before joining Mercy Ships] over those two years to responses of either, “Take me off the list,” or “Oh, my gosh! This is amazing and I want to help.” I was going to do these massive photo exhibitions in major cities around the world. I’d actually done some legwork and found a train station in Berlin, the Old Truman Brewery and a huge factory in London…all of these kinds of spaces. I think it just wasn’t the right idea for Mercy Ships. I hate churchy language, but the Mercy Ships door was very much shut in my face. It wasn’t an option anymore.

At that time, I was really just a photographer taking pictures, trying to connect people and make the world a better place — maybe move people toward generosity, compassion. I was really fortunate when I was with Mercy Ships that my job was staff photographer. I was responsible for documenting everything that happened on the ship, so most of that was in the operating theatres, down on the ward, But a small percentage was following this guy who was their well digger out into these rural communities. I watched him work with the locals, train them how to dig wells and then how to maintain them. I remember just being struck by the atrocity — the sheer horror — of watching what people were drinking from, these nasty, scummy, algae-filled, bacteria-ridden ponds and lakes and rivers and swamps.

When Mercy Ships said no thanks to future help, I already had another issue I was passionate about. At the time, there were 1.1 billion people in the world who didn’t have clean water — 1.1 billion. That’s an addressable market. And I had a bunch of different ideas about how a nonprofit could be run and operated.

So the beginning of charity: water was literally me running around with a laptop, giving 10 presentations a day, one-on-one, to anybody who would listen. I would say, “Here are my pictures. Here are my stories. Here’s what I’ve seen. Here’s the vision for the organization. Here’s what the money that you’d give us would do. Will you help?”

Do you remember the very first thing you did?

I think the first thing I did was write down the name. And the irony is nobody really knows the name. I started with just “charity:” and I called it “charity: is.” It wasn’t even “charity: water.” The idea was we’d start with water, but then we’d do many other things in the future, which is still on the table. I wrote a mission statement. Here’s why we exist: We want to raise awareness about important global issues. We want to restore the public’s faith in giving. We want to raise money for these causes and then connect donors and supporters directly with their impact and try to create a virtuous cycle of a feedback loop.

charity: water offices, NYC.

charity: water offices, NYC.

So you take that out and start pitching people on it?

I take it out and start pitching. Looking back on it now, it was crazy and almost impossible because we were starting two businesses at the exact same time, and we’d have to run them in perfect balance. To some people I was saying, “Will you please give me money to hire staff and eventually have an office?” And to others I was asking, “Will you donate money where 100 percent of it goes to water projects?” It was a little bit of a dance for the first few years, and it was incredibly challenging.

Were there any moments when you felt like Oh my god, this was such a dumb idea, what was I thinking?

It’s a fair question. There were definitely low points, but I don’t think any moments where I thought it was a bad idea. I really believed in it, and I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Africa connecting with our partners. I spent a lot of time in the field. Even though we were raising very small amounts of money, I was getting to see the impact of that even on a few communities at a time. That was certainly motivating.

Was there a moment when you felt like you’d made it?

No. Not even today. T. D. Jakes has this great quote. He says, “For every level there’s another devil.” There was no moment when we felt like we’d made it. In fact, we almost didn’t make it. You may have heard me talk about this story where we almost ran out of money for the operating account. I was going to shut off the lights in five weeks. A donor named Michael Birch ended up contacting us and said, “I really like what you’re doing. You’re about to run out of cash. I want to give you some oxygen to see if this idea’s really viable.” He wired a million dollars into our account for operations. Finding a donor like that was so huge.

charity: water offices, NYC

charity: water offices, NYC

So. You seem like the kind of guy where everything you touch turns to gold. Does that seem true from your end?

That’s interesting. There’s plenty of stuff we do that falls flat, or at least falls short of our very aggressive and ambitious targets. We’ve hired people with pretty good instincts though, and we’re a pretty intuitive organization about what’s going to work, about what’s going to resonate with people to make them connect with us. My wife’s the creative director, and she’s got a great eye for cheese, which I think is one of the things that plagues a lot of nonprofits. Plenty of stuff hasn’t worked, but we’re always willing to try stuff, to just go for it. If we feel like it will work, we do it; and most of the time it does work.

Now that we’re getting larger, we’re bringing much more of a data-driven approach, which has been interesting. Sometimes we intuitively think something is going to work, but then we’ll have numbers that say actually that didn’t work at all.

charity: water offices, NYC.

You seem like a guy who trusts his gut, though.

Absolutely. One of the things I’m most proud of is how we celebrated our fifth anniversary. We made 250 thank-you videos for our supporters, and we didn’t pick them by amount given. In fact, we intentionally went out of our way to make these personalized videos for people who had raised 100 bucks or given a couple hundred dollars. If the data people came back and said our ROI on that was lousy, we would have said, “Great!” We’re really trying to demonstrate a spirit of gratefulness, which is not about money. It’s about honoring people.

Random question: How many unread emails are in your inbox right now?

{Laughs} I’ve actually gotten pretty good at ignoring cold emails. There’s a sense, in the early years, that you owe everything to every supporter. You try to write everyone back, and you try to write thoughtful emails. Then the business gets to a place where you realize you can’t spend all of your time doing what other people want you to do without turning into a horrible leader and letting your team down.

I think I’ve evolved personally over time. I’m much more focused. I try to do fewer things and really focus on building my own leaders, my own executives, my own team and being really strategic about when we share our ideas.

charity: water offices, NYC.

charity: water offices, NYC.

charity: water has massive goals. We helped 999,000 people get clean water last year alone, which is over 2,500 people every single day. When I think about 2,500 people getting clean water today who did not have it yesterday, and 2,500 more people getting water tomorrow, it gets easier to ignore the unimportant stuff.

Do you think people at charity: water have a good work-life balance? Or is your work your life?

It’s a great question. I’m not going to lie; for the first two years it was 80 hours a week. Everybody was working 80. I remember leaving the office one Saturday night at two in the morning, coming back on Sunday morning at 10 or 11, and just working all day until midnight.

Nobody is working at charity: water for the money. A lot of people who come here are really motivated by serving the poor, by calling, by purpose. But it’s easy to get burned out. Even though we’re serving 2,500 people a day, there are 800 million people who need help. If we work harder, we can serve 5,000 people a day or 10,000, but there’s always that 800 million out there.

We’ve been intentional about some cultural stuff. We don’t have a vacation policy. We encourage people to take the time they need to guard against burnout. I wouldn’t say we have a workaholic culture at all. A lot of people work fluidly. Sometimes people work from home. People work from the road. My wife and I — because she was employee number two and in many ways is like a co-founder — talk about work all the time. Not because it’s a chore but because we love it. It definitely feels more like a calling than work, not that that makes it any less hard.

charity: water offices, NYC.

Do you think it’ll change now with the baby on the way?

Man, I have no idea.

There will be more birthday parties.

I was really hoping to have a September baby, but it looks like it’s an August baby.

I feel like every time I bring up charity: water to a creative person, they’re always like, “Oh, man, I wish I could work for them.” A lot of people want to work for you.

Well we’re hiring. We’re hiring like crazy. We’re hiring 18 people at the moment.

What do you look for when you’re hiring a creative person?

One of the challenges when you do work like ours is that people want to work for you en masse. We’re looking for a graphic designer right now, and we’ll get hundreds and hundreds of applications from people who really aren’t graphic designers at all. At the extreme, it’s, “I designed a birthday card for my grandmother once.” Seriously. But they’d love to work at charity: water because they’re so compelled by our mission. But the reality is, what we’re really looking for is craftsmanship. If someone says, “I’ll do anything to work at charity: water,” that’s the first way to get your application thrown to the bottom of the bin.

When someone says, “I am passionate about my craft. I am passionate about video editing. I am passionate about sound editing or about shooting, and I’d love to use that craft to serve others,” that’s how we want people to lead. When we look for a creative, we are looking for a person who wants to become the best at whatever they’re doing. And then, “Oh, by the way, I love your mission.” I don’t need everybody here to be a humanitarian. I just need the best person at any given role.


How hard do you have to try at your job?

You hit on it a little bit earlier: It looks easy. Some people have said I make it look so easy. Everything turns to gold.

In no way is it easy.

It is incredibly difficult. We have 11,000 water projects at the moment. We’ve got volunteers and teams out there constantly. That’s one of the things we’d love for people to understand is just the sheer difficulty of working in 20 countries, the complexity of the work we do. We have so many smart, amazing, dedicated people out there making it happen every day, but we have to try really, really, really hard. A lot of that is because our goals are so aggressive. Last year we raised $37 million. This year our goal is $60 million. We have these absolutely aggressive targets.

charity: water display in Chelsea Market, NYC. 

charity: water display in Chelsea Market, NYC. 

So where does it end?

We’ve got this goal out there, this big, fat, hairy goal of helping 100 million people get access to clean water. We’ve helped about 4 million. We want to get a lot farther down that path of taking a massive chunk out of the water crisis, of transforming the lives of 100 million people through clean and safe drinking water, and then keeping that water flowing. It feels like we’re at the beginning of a very long journey, and there’s so much more work to be done.

Scott Harrison is, I think, the perfect combination of dreamer and pragmatist. He has big ideas and he gets them done. I think that’s why it seems like everything he touches turns to gold. It’s not just that his ideas are truly inspiring, it’s that most of his ideas happen. Check out to see how you can help end the water crisis. And don't forget to check out their careers page. I hear they’re hiring. 

Doug Klembara