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Silicon Valley Well Backs World Water Charity

Silicon Valley Well Backs World Water Charity

Scott Harrison is the founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. In seven years, with the help of more than 400,000 donors worldwide, charity: water has raised over $100 million and funded over 8,000 water projects in 20 countries. When completed, those projects will provide over three million people with clean, safe drinking water:

At age 28, Scott Harrison felt he had spent a decade of his life selfishly.

For 10 years he had been promoting nightclubs and wanted to give back to the world. So he volunteered with a group that exposed him to poverty and disease around the globe.

Most afflictions, he found, started with water.

“We would see people drinking from swamps and ponds and rivers, sources so unthinkable,” said Harrison, now 38. “It seemed simple to attack the root cause by giving people clean water.”

He founded Charity: water in New York to tackle the world’s water crisis after returning from a volunteer trip to Liberia in 2006. The organization relies heavily on large donors from Silicon Valley, who are responsible for one third of its funding.

9,000 water projects

So far Charity: water has spent more than $55 million on more than 9,000 water projects in 20 countries, including Ethiopia, Rwanda and Malawi. This month, the charity will support Gram Vikas, which is dedicated to eradicating caste systems by providing rural communities in India with clean water and sanitation. It’s the organization’s 600th campaign.

Harrison recruits people to start their own fundraisers, and all of the money raised goes directly to the cause. Overhead costs are covered by “the well,” which is made up of 100 donors who pledge anywhere from $24,ooo to $2 million for three years.

Well donors are largely Silicon Valley tech titans, like startup tycoons Michael and Xochi Birch. The couple have donated more than $10 million to Charity: water. Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic, the San Francisco Web development platform behind WordPress, has also been a consistent donor.

“I’ve seen a lot of nonprofits and charities, and Charity: water continues to strike me as the most effective,” Mullenweg said. “A dollar spent there goes a lot farther than anywhere else.”

Mullenweg has traveled to Ethiopia with Harrison twice since becoming a donor to “the well.”

“Every day was a rush of emotions and experiences,” Mullenweg said. “We visited villages that didn’t have wells yet and then those that did and it was night and day.”

Raising influence

The charity partners with local organizations working in struggling communities to bring villages clean water.

“We try to find the local leaders who have been influencing their communities through water,” Harrison said. “Our mission is to raise money and to raise influence for them.”

The nonprofit uses various technologies to bring water to communities: hand-dug wells that tap into groundwater 50 feet deep, drilled wells up to 1,000 feet deep, filtration systems, rainwater harvesting and mountain spring protection.

Gram Vikas is a nonprofit founded by Indian social activist Joe Madiath in 1979 to create inclusive and sustainable societies in Orissa, India, through water and sanitation. Gram Vikas means “village development” in Hindi and Oriya, the official languages of Orissa. By requiring that all the families in a village work together to build a clean water system, Gram Vikas also eradicates caste systems that have lingered in rural communities despite the Indian government making the hierarchical social system illegal. Charity: water also contributed funding to Gram Vikas in 2008.

Madiath “said something years ago that really struck me,” Harrison said. “The poor don’t deserve poor solutions. We really wanted to tell his story, not only to honor 34 years of service but to help him grow his organization and scale his impact.”

By Jessica Floum/, 2013