Innovation & Recasting Your Life
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 charitywater.org/profg 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.