The first thing you are offered upon arriving at the SoHo headquarters of Charity: Water in New York is, unsurprisingly, water. For the last three-and-a-half years, this has been the organization’s sole mission: to provide safe, clean drinking water to communities across the globe. Currently, Charity: Water has aided more than one million people in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, India, Central America and Haiti. Fashion folk like Rachel Roy have gotten involved through fund-raising and event chairing and, as a result, the company is up 40 percent from 2008. It’s growth worth noting in an economy that’s left several charities struggling.
WWD spoke with 34-year-old Charity: Water founder Scott Harrison, hours before he left for India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal, to discuss the importance of branding, social media’s role in fund-raising and why the fashion crowd make such good donors.
WWD: Why do you think Charity: Water has been so successful?
Scott Harrison: I think it’s because we use 100 percent of public donations to directly fund projects, and that’s attractive to people. I also think that water is a really simple thing for people to understand. There are tangible, provable solutions. If I was out there raising money for research, that would be a lot harder. I don’t know what the cure looks like. I don’t know how much it costs. Here, I know for $5 or $10,000 we can bring clean water to the community. I can take a picture of [the well].
WWD: How have Twitter and Facebook impacted your fund-raising?
S.H.: We probably raised $400,000 just last year using Twitter. Every day we put out a photo. Sometimes it’s from a community without clean water. Sometimes it’s a well being drilled. Sometimes it’s a kid drinking clean water for the first time. When the earthquake hit Haiti, what was most needed was supplies. So we said, let’s turn the office into a drop-off location. For the last four days, just using Twitter and Facebook and social media, we’ve had hundreds of people coming to the office with bottles of water, blankets, tents, feminine products, everything we said we needed. We filled up three 24-foot trucks [with supplies] and 10 40-foot trucks with water. It’s a whole new way of ideas spreading.
WWD: Going forward, what other ways do you see yourself using social media?
S.H.: I think you’ll see us explore the donor-to-beneficiary connection in new ways this year. We had a lot of success with doing something called the “live drill.” We collect money and fly to Africa with a satellite unit. In real time each day, we shoot a video and send it out across the world to the people who have supported it, showing to them that this is their money at work today. We even allow people to ask questions on Twitter that our drillers would answer in the next day’s video. So this is real time connection.
WWD: How have your collaborations with fashion companies helped?
S.H.: Our most successful campaign has been with Saks Fifth Avenue. [Since 2008, the retailer has sold $5 rubber bracelets at various outlets, with 100 percent of proceeds going to Charity: Water.] We raised about $700,000 — enough to bring clean water to 140 communities. You’ll see us continue to do more with Saks. We’ve done stuff with Miss Sixty. We did a great campaign with Theory that raised $80,000 for Ethiopia.
WWD: How would you characterize the fashion industry as opposed to another group in terms of fund-raising?
S.H.: I think the fashion industry has very high standards for the kinds of organizations that it’ll support. I think that might hint at why we’ve been successful. When we started this, design was so important to us. Just because we’re a charity, why should our Web site look bad? Our attention to detail, to design, using large-scale photography [has helped].
WWD: Do you think branding is one of the most important things in fund-raising right now?
S.H.: I think design signals excellence, so I think people in the fashion community might look at an organization that has spent no time on their Web site and say, “I bet they don’t do great work.” Whether we’re designing a sustainable Thermos or a bracelet, it’s really important to us.
WWD: How important are products and merchandise?
S.H.: It’s not a huge part of the bottom line, but it’s really important for awareness. We’d like to work with more brands. I think there’s a merchandising piece that we’ve started to explore with Saks but there’s a lot more. We haven’t really gone to full scale.
WWD: What are your plans for growth this year?
S.H.: Our 10-year plan is to raise $2 billion that will help us give 100 million people clean water. We think we’re living in a new world where that kind of scale and growth is possible online.
WWD: How do you motivate people to give?
S.H.: I’m trying to addict people to what giving feels like. It’s not about guilt. It’s great that you make tons of money and buy expensive things. I’m not really trying to judge. It’s about, what if you could spend $5,000 and give a community clean water. Maybe you can’t have your handbag, but most people probably can do both. Diane von Furstenberg’s customers can all build wells.