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Two very different views on charity:water

Scott Harrison
Scott Harrison

You’ve probably heard of charity:water, one of the more successful philanthropic organizations out there working to help bring clean and safe water to poor communities around the world.

The reason you’ve probably heard about charity:water is because the media, in general, are enamored with the founder — his story of personal redemption and his compelling fund-raising strategy that some say represents a revolutionary new way to pursue humanitarian goals.

A recent story in Wired, Scott Harrison’s mission to solve Africa’s water problem, is a good example.

There are many successful water charities working in the developing world. But it is the way that charity:water has gone about fundraising that makes it notable — and that has attracted active and enthusiastic support from the tech world’s leading founders, from Spotify’s Daniel Ek to Square’s Jack Dorsey.

“Scott is awesome,” says Daniel Ek, Spotify founder and now long-term donor to charity:water. “He runs charity:water like a great startup. He understands virality and evangelism better than most folks in the industry. He’s disrupted the whole charity model.”

Others like Marla Smith-Nilson of Water 1st International say Harrison’s approach — though clearly a massive (and awesome) success when it comes to messaging — is actually just a hipper, newer and web-based variation on a well-worn theme in the history of philanthropic fund-raising.

The problem, Smith-Nilson says, is that raising money and getting everyone enthused doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term improvements. It may actually undermine sustainable progress. Read her post.

Truthout recently went even farther, with an investigative report  The problem with charity:water:

Charity: water is widely praised for its innovative approach to raising money to provide safe, clean drinking water for people in developing nations. But questions about its impact and methods remain.

It’s  bit of a ramble, the Truthout piece, but it does make some fairly disturbing points.

  • First, charity:water raised something like $27 million last year but cannot tell donors how many of its water projects are still working (water projects have high failure rates).
  • Secondly, charity:water’s ‘innovative’ dual bank accounts (one for funding water projects, one for operations) make it difficult to know where a lot of the money actually goes.
  • Finally, the simple messaging — $20 per person gets them clean drinking water — promotes a simple fix mindset that is both a bit misleading and undermines the increased recognition within the humanitarian water sector of the need for systemic, infrastructure changes if people are to get reliable access to clean water.

Read these two pieces for two very different views on charity:water. And then read the guest post by Smith-Nilson.

The concerns raised are not unique to charity:water, or even to just the water sector of the humanitarian community. But it’s easier to see when done in high-profile.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.