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So, You Want to Start a Nonprofit? Part 1

Advice from five organization leaders on getting started, setting goals and what they’d do differently a second time around

Nonprofit organizations are the culmination of passion and practicality. While some may choose to join an organization or volunteer to do whatever they can, others want to forge their own way and found a new nonprofit for their chosen cause.

But what are the challenges of starting one? And does the world need another organization fighting [insert crisis here]?

In this series of articles, you’ll hear from people who either joined an organization or founded a new one. Each offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on what they’ve learned, what keeps them going and their hopes for a new generation of advocates.

These nonprofit leaders are answering Christ’s call to care for the least of these—and they’ll explain how others can, too.

Seven years ago, Scott Harrison traded in his job as a club promoter to instead focus on promoting sanitation and health around the world. Here, the founder of charity: water discusses his organization’s unique financial methods, what a “typical” day looks like and his thoughts on clean water in heaven.

You went from being a club promoter to starting a nonprofit organization. Did you have any preconceived notions about what that would be like?

I think I knew more about what I didn’t want charity: water to look like. Most of my friends thought nonprofits were bureaucratic, inefficient and not transparent. They were often bad at telling stories of hope and impact, and typically weren’t very good at branding or marketing either. I wanted charity: water to be transparent in how the money was used, to prove each project using GPS technology and photos, and to develop a killer, redemptive brand.

What did you learn from most when charity: water began?

I think not knowing too much about the nonprofit sector helped us succeed in ways many new nonprofits fail. In the beginning, and even today, we feel so much more like a technology startup than a charity. I learned early on how important those key distinctives we were chasing were to success. Transparency, the use of exceptional photography and rich media to tell stories that mattered was so important in capturing the imagination of potential donors and supporters in the beginning.

What role does social media play in charity: water’s work?

Social media is a great way for us to tell our story easily with photos, graphics and words, as it’s such a simple one: “Almost a billion people don’t have clean water to drink. Here are the solutions, and you can see the results. Please help.” That simple idea spreads. And I guess having 1.3 million followers on Twitter helps, too!

Charity: water is unique in that 100 percent of public donations go to the field. How difficult is that to maintain?

It’s terribly difficult. But I truly believed one of the best ways to restore people’s faith in the process was to come up with a “pure” way of giving. Now, of course, there’s a cost to running any organization. You need to pay your hard-working staff, you need to spend money on things like an office, computers and phones, and flights around the world to develop and monitor water projects. But we decided to make funding those important costs someone else’s responsibility, and not [that of] the general public. I spend about a third of my time building and developing relationships with the visionary small group of people that fund the incredibly important behind-the-scenes costs of the organization.

Is there a particular story that summarizes what you hope to do and why you’re doing it?

I think the person that stands out most to me is Harris, a man I actually met before starting charity: water during my time in Liberia. It was a watershed moment for me and set the course for what I hope to have the health and strength to do for the rest of my life. I’d been a volunteer with Mercy Ships for about a year, and one of my favorite things to do was take patients back to their village after surgery and experience the joy as they were welcomed back into their communities and families minus tumors, goiters and cleft lips. Many of our patients had been outcasts in their villages because of their deformity, and it gave them such joy to return home whole. On one of these trips deep into the Liberian bush to take a patient named Joseph Jones home, I’d said a very specific prayer to God and asked Him to give me an opportunity to meet someone that might not have heard about the ship or our doctors. A few hours into the journey, I stopped to buy a bag of rice as a gift for Joseph’s village chief and overheard a conversation in Liberian English about a man that lived in the town with a huge tumor. I asked if we could meet him and piled a kid from the store into our Land Rover. Ten minutes later, I met 34-year-old Harris and his six-pound-tumor. It took me a while to tell him about the ship and convince him to come with us, but he finally agreed, and his story unfolded incredibly in the following days and weeks. The doctors thought Harris was only weeks from death after testing his blood count, and the tumor was literally beginning to suffocate him. A month and an eight-hour free surgery later, I took him home to a wild celebration where he was greeted by hundreds of people as a prince. I threw him a dinner party for 50, and then we threw a party to celebrate his miracle for the whole town. It struck me so clearly. Had I been partying in a nightclub, Harris might have never been helped. I felt so grateful to be used, to play a small part in his story.

What does a typical day look like?

NYC: Alarm at 7:45. Coffee. Bible. Office. Emails. Phone calls. Meetings. Maybe a presentation. Late dinner with my amazing wife, Vik. Reading or a little more work. Bed by 1 a.m.

Africa: Roosters at 5 a.m. Toss and turn for an hour. Breakfast. Pack camera gear. Jump in Land Rovers. Drive three hours. Meet the most amazing people at a village water source. Hear their stories. Speeches. Drive another two hours. Walk an hour to two more villages. Repeat stories and speeches. Drive another hour. Walk another hour to another village. Run out of light. Walk, then drive home in the dark and fall asleep with head banging against the window. Local food for dinner. Bed.

What do you ultimately wish to achieve?

I want us to make a huge dent in the water crisis. We often talk about serving 100 million people with clean and safe drinking water. We’ve helped close to 2 million in our first couple years figuring things out and think, while it’s certainly an audacious goal, it’s a doable one. While we’re not a faith-based organization and serve people of all religions, I believe personally that God smiles each time someone gets clean and safe water to drink. I believe kids don’t die of diarrhea in heaven and moms don’t walk five hours a day to fetch water from dirty ponds.



Jeff Dolan commented…

Excellent and powerful interview! Thank you.


DWEB commented…

Sweet interview...super encouraging work Scott. I understand your desire to keep "donor funds" from going to administrative costs and overhead. Given your vision, talent, and personal capacity for moving the organization forward I wonder how many of your partners would mind paying you directly through organizational funds so that the organization could have your efforts for the 1/3rd of the time you are now spending on raising money for overhead.

Jessica Kent


Jessica Kent commented…

Really great article, and a great idea for a series. Looking forward to reading the next installments!

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