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Innovation & Recasting Your Life

Scott Galloway@profgalloway

Published on January 29, 2021

7-min read

Anxious. Anxious about the markets, the virus variant, whether I should give in and let my youngest quit piano lessons. Anxious, and in need of a break from the markets/news/etc.

So, one thing always inspires … and renews me: charity: water.

I Know There’s Something Cool Going On, and That I’m Not There

In 2000 I had just moved to New York City, where it felt like I knew nobody. What I did know was that every night there was something great going on in the city, and that I wasn’t there: I needed a Sherpa of Cool. That turned out to be Scott Harrison, a club promoter who made a living by being dialed in. Scott knew where to go, and who was there. Soon, I did too.

A few years later, we heard that Scott had “freaked out” and was working as a photographer on the Anastasis, a charity hospital ship sailing off the coast of West Africa. While there, Scott saw the dire need for greater access to clean drinking water, and decided to do something about it. So, he came back to New York, threw a party, raised some money, flew to Uganda, and built a well. Wash, rinse, repeat. Fourteen years later, Scott is a source of profound personal inspiration, and his organization, charity: water, has brought safe drinking water to over 10 million people in 29 countries.

Innovation, Not For Profit

What is so compelling about charity: water, and why I’ve been a supporter since day one, is that Scott is likely the most innovative business leader I know — he’s just applying those innovations to an organization with a 501(c)(3) tax status. 

The organization uses 100 percent of every dollar it raises from the general public for its charitable mission to build and maintain wells. How does Scott do that? He has a separate fundraising track for overhead: a tight network of entrepreneurs who appreciate his maverick approach but also know that building an organization is hard and expensive work. Their support of his overhead enables Scott to make a rare promise: 100 percent of donations from the public go to a clean drinking water project. 

From the first fundraising party Scott threw in New York City, charity: water has focused on efficient, innovative tactics for raising those public donations. Word-of-mouth marketing, aggressive use of social media, and peer-to-peer giving all drove strong growth in donations during the organization’s early years. 

But in 2015, charity: water’s growth plateaued. That’s when Scott made his most value-creating pivot.

Forcing The Spring

In 2015, charity: water introduced The Spring, a subscription-based donation “product.” One sign-up, and you are a monthly donor. (You can give just once, though they have considered removing that option entirely.) More importantly, The Spring is more than just a recurring hit on the credit card. As Scott says, “We don’t ghost you.” 

charity: water follows up with photos, stories, and data that bring to life the impact of each well. Spring members receive monthly Good News emails that detail the ongoing impact of the programs they fund. Every Spring member has a personalized dashboard that shows their “Lifetime Impact,” a metric that recognizes all their contributions and tracks their impact as it grows. Internet-connected flow trackers installed on the wells monitor for potential maintenance issues — a significant challenge in rural areas — and also provide donors with visibility into the impact of their individual donation via a data map on the charity: water website

In the for-profit space, I call that “vertical content.” With it, charity: water creates a direct-to-consumer strategy: Donors can consume the product (knowledge that they are making a difference) in real time on their own terms, instead of just watching an impact video at a yearly fundraising lunch.

The website, newsletter, and videos showcase another dimension of charity: water’s success: great design. For a while now, tech has been dominated by the engineers, but design will likely reassert itself. From Apple (where it has always been a priority) to Snap to Airbnb, design talent is a key competence among great founding teams. Tellingly, charity: water’s second hire was its creative director, Scott’s wife Viktoria, a designer. Great design knows when to break with convention: the organization’s 19-minute(!), announcement video for The Spring has racked up more than 55 million views, and continues to bring in new subscribers.

The Spring program jumpstarted charity: water’s flagging growth, and helped smooth out giving cycles, which allowed the firm to be more aggressive re long-term capital projects that could bring water to millions. After just four years, donations through The Spring totalled $18.2 million per year, which accounted for two-thirds of charity: water’s growth in donations from the public. What’s more, those donations are reliable: The average monthly churn rate is just 2.7 percent, comparable to that of Amazon Prime. This gives Scott and his team the predictability they need to raise more overhead funding and strengthen the organization.

Proposing and entering into a recurring revenue relationship with your customer promotes consistent growth and offers opportunities for deeper engagement and innovation. In the for-profit context, the market rewards recurring revenue firms by valuing them at a multiple of revenues, as opposed to a multiple of profits. 

Innovation in Your Life

charity: water pursues a meaningful goal with innovative strategies. We hear the word “innovation” a lot in business, and it has cheapened with overuse. The success of charity: water reminds me of the good that true innovation can do. 

For me, though, Scott’s personal story of innovation is even more profound. Along with bringing water and hope to millions, he has transformed himself — from a party-seeking kid to a man of grace and power. I think about Scott and his journey often, and I see three learnings regarding how people can innovate across their own lives:

  1. Reset. Self-determination is a struggle. Economic class, family commitments, and geography pre-determine so much about our lives. But even when the opportunity comes to hit the reset button, it is often fear that holds us back. Scott left behind the easy pleasures of money, status, alcohol, sex, and drugs for a hard bed on a foreign sea. He is a testament to the truth that your life, if it’s yours … is yours.

  2. Religion. An important part of Scott’s personal reset (charity: water has no religious affiliation), and how he found himself on a hospital ship off the African coast so many years ago, was a return to his Christian roots. I am an atheist, and as a younger man leaned on my atheism (meaning I judged people I thought had an invisible friend) to wallpaper over my own insecurity and limited understanding. I’m still an atheist, and something I appreciate about Scott is that he’s built charity: water in the spirit of his faith, but not in any formal connection with it. But I have also come to recognize how powerful it is to embrace something bigger than yourself, something that provides you with a code — and also with comfort. Scott taught me that religion isn’t as much about a particular being, idol, or scripture, but about the person a religious belief helps you become.

  3. Comfort. If you’re a regular reader, you know I think a great deal about those nearing The End, and what actions I can take now to make it comforting, or even glorious. Jesus said “love the poor.” Scott, more than anybody I know, is living that lesson. It’s rewarding to think about Scott at the end: the comfort he’ll register having improved the health of millions, enhanced the prosperity and the dignity of so many people who will never even meet him. I like pondering the notion that, at the end, Scott will look up and know his god has his arms extended and is eager for his embrace.

I don’t normally ask readers to give to any cause. However, I hope you join me in supporting charity: water. If you sign up for The Spring at in the next 30 days, I will match your first month’s donation — $250k in matching funds. 

Life is so rich,

P.S. My seventh Strategy Sprint with Section4 is open for registration. Join me for two weeks where we’ll go deep on the frameworks and strategies that make today’s corporate giants successful, and then turn those insights into actions you can apply to your own career and business. The Sprint runs March 2 – 16. Sign up now.



  1. Groov Malbecsipperston says:

    Over the course of 5 years, this one simple tip helped my penis grow over 5 inches and increase its revenue by $500 a week—hint, it involves wearing a Lawrence Taylor jersey with no pants and taint massaging a bottle of hot sauce. Astrocash9000!

  2. Andrew Paterson says:

    Scott, look deeper, whoever did your research didn’t go far enough, remember the outdoor rules – whatever shines is not natural. Keep up the great work! Andrew

  3. dan springer says:

    Scott, always love your work, but this time it is different. Been a fan of Charity:water for over a decade and even joined the Well (so hard to say no to Scott and team). DocuSigners have embraced the mission just as Responsys folks did. The world needs more of this, and I never even got to the brilliant marketing part….. Godspeed

  4. Sarah Hasselbeck says:

    Dear Scott, Sherpa to Cool has to be one of the greatest descriptions of Scott I have heard! You nailed it! Thank you for supporting Charity:water and LOVING THE POOR through extending your influence to raise money through your obviously devoted readers and your own personal sacrifice of money. May you know and EXPERIENCE God’s good blessings on you and your family. Warmly, Sarah Hasselbeck (humble member of The Well)

  5. Cam says:

    I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this organization before, thank you for sharing Scott’s story. I watched the intro video on the website and signed up to be a monthly donor together with my husband. Knowing that we will help one person per month get access to water feels amazing. And it won’t even make a dent in the bank account. Now off to planning how we can involve our community to do even more.

  6. Amanda Le Roux says:

    Completely agree with your 100% support of Charity:Water. I have heard Scott speak many times and every time I am inspired and motivated. We partner with him at Aveda and I love the association. PS Don’t let your son give up his piano lessons – I didn’t, my son flourished and now has a successful music business – he will thank you!

  7. Andrew Molitor says:

    The recurring donation model has been working very well for various “support kids in the Global South” for a long time.

  8. Chrys Hutchings says:

    Another beautiful post Scott. I had donated to Charity:Water before (but only once, like most people). This is such a brilliant idea and your explanation is exceptional and gives me so many ideas. I am the assoc dir of an entrepreneurship/leadership center at a small, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest and LOVE the challenge you pose to higher education–keep it up! P.S. I just cost you some cash–I donated thanks to your challenge!

  9. Brent Payne says:

    Thanks Prof G! I’ve supported Charity Water for the last 5 years. I like thinking about being able to relieve the burden of dirty water for people, vastly improving their lives by providing something so important that we take for granted, clean water. Please watch the Charity Water video which tells the founder’s story and highlights the relief that Charity Water provides to millions.

  10. ScottZ says:

    Last year I saw It online and thought what an amazing journey from one way of life to another with purpose that helps so many. Thanks for sharing his story its worth telling. The 250 match generous!! Cheers

  11. Ana Assis says:

    What a great post after just another crazy week. Don’t let your boy quit his piano classes. I did that when I became a teenager and till this day I blame my Mom for allowing me to quit.

  12. Charlie says:

    Because of your interest in peoples lives nearing the end I strongly recommend ” Being Mortal ” by Atul Gowande. There’s a reason it’s been on the NYT Best Seller List for 10 years.

  13. Joshua Kesselman says:

    In 2010 Charity:Water rejected my donation and sent back my check. They said “we won’t take money from a smoking company” in a very judgy tone. Since then we’ve donated literally millions to other organizations. I’m still unhappy about the way they treated us. We’re just a rolling paper company and they passed a very negative judgement against us. We tried to explain, but they kept repeating their judgemental words. That really wasn’t right! (I’m the founder of RAW rolling papers)

    • doug champion says:

      That is a pity. Your papers are the best I have had in 40 plus years. thank you for that.

  14. jeff reid says:

    thank you for this Scott. I’m a mentor and board member at 100 Black Men of Greater Detroit, and we’ve been looking for ways to scale our impact and increase community engagement and resources for our mentoring program. This post gave me an idea I will present to the rest of the board. Thank you again for opening my eyes!!

  15. Tom McCallum says:

    Love it, love it, love it! Great and powerful newsletter as ever, and putting skin in the game too as you encourage us to follow the story and donate. A note.. I just donated and it took me through to the UK site, so just noting that in case their affiliate link does not track UK people who join The Spring

  16. Arthur Aranda says:

    I enjoy your posts and the podcasts. I was not aware of this clean water project until now. I signed up. I feel better already for helping out.

  17. Chris Macrae says:

    Thoughtful and sentimental is a good look on you

  18. Don says:

    Great work Scott!

  19. Creativemf says:

    GOOD WORK Scott. I know many club kids who saw the light (and the water ) late in life. I’m one of them! 💪🏿💪🏾💪🏼🙂

  20. Roberto Passariello says:

    Thank you. Very inspiring. We need more stories like this in these disturbing times.

  21. Steve says:

    Can’t stop, won’t stop

  22. Rusty Shackleford says:

    Like a trust-fund-hedge-fund kiddie caught out on a Robin Hood short, I’mma make you pay, sucka! Well, a hundred dollars anyway…

  23. Patrick says:

    Just signed up as a monthly donor. Email was a great combo of explaination of an interesting business model applied in charity, then the ask. Prof G. is a real one for offering the match. Keep it up.

  24. Carol Vena-Mondt says:

    I am now a monthly donor to charity: water. Thank you, Scott, for sharing this story and for your 250G’s. You are the best.

  25. Sherman G Mohr says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. I knew of Charity Water but wouldn’t have pursued the additional info without your post. Many thanks.

  26. Alex says:

    nice way to throw your hat in the ring.

  27. Brian Quinn says:

    Such an inspirational story. Just signed up. Thanks for the sharing ProfG…and for your 250G’s too!

  28. Garry Grissom says:

    Awesome post Prof G! Thanks for sharing this amazing story. You got my water works going. Get out your wallet!! 😉

  29. michiyo says:

    I used to work in the office next to charity: water. It didn’t take long to get the sense of their amazing culture, people and leadership. They have been inspirational and true innovators.

  30. s murphy says:

    Scott: I’d heard of charity:water before….might have even donated. What is your view on their “dialogue” with Charity Navigator, which I usually use to vet organizations? They went from 4 stars down to 3. Thanks for this article.

    • Aditi says:

      Hi, s murphy – I lead Finance at charity: water. Thank you for your question. We have been in an open dialogue with Charity Navigator, and their current rating methodology does not account for our unique business model. We have addressed it in detail here: 

    • s murphy says:

      @Aditi Thanks…..yes, I read your dialogue on Charity Navigator…..makes sense to me; I signed up for a monthly donation. Actually, I first learned about you back in 2012 (don’t remember how) and donated a small amount then. Keep up the good work!

  31. jeff stralak says:

    Amazing cause and because of you bringing this to my attention, I joined the Spring – great initiative to match. Well done.

  32. Brian says:

    Accolades: 100%of contributions are disbursed/spent. Did I miss the destination list for their charitable outflows? Thanks for showing how to literally give back SG.

  33. Mike Gebhardt says:

    Great work on the match coach.

  34. David says:

    You are a stud, Scott. Proud people like you aren’t afraid to share your opinion and call out companies that negatively effect our country. This is a great cause and you do great things.

  35. Phil says:

    Pro G – help me understand “vertical content” better by way of a good for profit example. Love the newsletter and podcast.

  36. Jose Araujo says:

    Scott, I’m a big fan of your column and follow it with interest. I understand the importance of recurrent revenue, but it puzzles me the difference market values it according to the industry. In tech is hyped while Telcos who have changed for this model years ago are so penalized

  37. Detrick says:

    90 million seems like such a small amount when people like Bezos, Gates, Ellison, Buffett, Brin, Zuckerberg, etc. have over 300 Billion combined. These 5-7 people could make colossal changes, why don’t they? After 10 Billion, how much do you need?

  38. Ruben says:

    Just recently started reading your newsletter so pardon if you’ve previously explained this — curious about your journey and commitment to atheism and how you define it. Is it about not believing in an afterlife? Or something more? I used to lean atheist, but the more I learned about the universe, the intricacy of how atoms work to shape reality, the processing power in each of our brains (and elusive reasons for consciousness), the biggest unanswered questions in science… the more convinced I became that—whatever the reason this all exists—it’s got to be much bigger and more complex than humans. I don’t know what form or dimension, and I certainly don’t picture anything as a Christian heaven with pearly gates and angels, but the universe is what cemented my sense of “While I can explain how, I can’t explain *why* the universe is in existence or what caused it to operate the way it does. And after learning about common near-death or end-of-life experiences, I can’t conclusively tell you what happens when I die other than my body stops functioning. And I’m not sure l’ll ever know enough to conclusively explain the universe or death either way.” Curious to learn more about your journey and how it came to shape you as an atheist. PS love your newsletter!

  39. Stephen Vogel says:

    baller ending, prof. cheers to scott&scott.

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