Unlikely ideas that have transformed the water sector

Bacon-flavored ice cream, chili-infused chocolate, balsamic glazed strawberries; in the food industry, success hinges on the unlikely combinations that grip people’s taste buds. For the social entrepreneurship sphere, Scott Harrison is that unlikely combination. Promoting New York City’s most exclusive nightclubs for a decade, Harrison was surrounded by money, drugs, and extravagance when a moment of self-loathing catalysed a major life change. Harrison left New York City and headed to Liberia where he spent almost two years volunteering for a humanitarian organization. Upon return from this trip, Harrison launched the non-profit charity: water, and the social media and marketing expertise he acquired behind the velvet ropes have proven to be the ideal, yet unlikely, skill set to unleash massive social change. charity: water has relied mostly on internet donations, sleek video campaigns, and social media to raise over $50 million and deliver over 6,270 water projects in 20 countries.

On Harrison’s 31st birthday, the party aficionado asked all his friends to donate $31.00 to charity: water in lieu of a celebration.  The simple idea has become integral to fundraising; to date 14,201 people have pledged to give up their birthday. Upon learning that some children lack clean water, the soon-to-be nine old Rachel Beckwith asked friends and family to donate $9.00 to charity: water. Rachel fell $80 short of her $300 goal that would’ve helped 15 people access clean water.  Mere weeks later, Rachel was critically injured in a 13 car accident and was ultimately taken off life support. In the wake of her death, over $1,000,000 of donations poured in, far exceeding the $47,544 garnered by Justin Bieber’s 17th birthday. Therein lies the magic of unlikely combinations. Most people could not fathom how an unknown little girl from Bellevue, Washington could possibly touch the lives of over 50,000 people across the globe.  Social media and technology harnessed Rachel’s touching story and propelled the clean water cause. 

Harrison’s innate gift to leverage social media and other technologies is not a typical job qualification of development practitioners.  Yet he dispels donor’s doubts about transparency by providing pictures and GPS coordinates of wells on the website. Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund keenly recognised the value of unlikely combinations. “Scott is an important marketing machine, lifting one of the most critical issues of our time in a way that is sexy and incredibly compelling—that’s his gift.” All too often, the creativity of development practitioners gets quelled by the benchmarking craze and the need to constantly prove impact. Today’s development practitioners should take a lesson from applying counter-intuitive skill sets to today’s most pressing development issues. The next bacon-flavored ice cream of the development agenda could be one unique combination away. 

For a slick, concise version of Harrison’s journey in building chairty: water, please visit http://www.charitywater.org/september07/

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