Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Save-the-World Field Trip for Millionaire Tech Moguls

When Harrison founded charity: water in New York City in 2006, he initially intended to counter the cynicism of his club buddies. “I wanted to create a model that would put all the excuses aside,” Harrison says — a charity, in other words, for people who didn’t trust charities. To pre-empt objections to high overhead and waste, Harrison set up two bank accounts: one, raised chiefly from a handful of wealthy individuals, to pay for administration and fund-raising; and the other to finance the digging of wells and other water-related projects in the developing world. Today the organization’s heavily promoted “100% Model” allows it to claim that every dollar donated to water is actually used that way. (Some consider this more a matter of marketing than anything else, but even so, charity: water is a relatively efficient organization, earning a nearly perfect rating from Charity Navigator, a sort of Consumer Reports for the nonprofit world.) Many donations are earmarked to specific projects, so if a church group gives, say, $5,000 for a well in Ethiopia, its members are not only told where their $5,000 is spent, but they also receive pictures of the well they financed and its G.P.S. coordinates. All of this information is publicly available on a section of charity: water’s Web site dedicated to “proving it.” Most donors who happen to visit their well will find their names on a plaque there.

In just seven years, Harrison’s organization claims to have raised roughly $100 million — $33 million in 2012 alone, up from $27 million the year before and $16 million the year before that. Today it is the largest nonprofit in the United States focused on water, with revenues that are four times as great as those of, the group co-founded by Matt Damon. Charity: water doesn’t drill wells or buy water filters but acts as a fund-raising clearinghouse for locally based charities, which it subcontracts to do the actual work. It markets its partners, mostly using its Web site and social media. “You could almost imagine us a or an Expedia,” Harrison says. But charity: water promises to do more than a mere online travel agent does; it claims to verify that the wells its donors buy are actually completed in a timely fashion. “We create an experience,” he says, “a pure way to give.”

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