Crain’s New York Business
March 13th, 2012
By Anne Fisher
Consider, if you will, something most of us rarely give much thought to: clean drinking water. Roughly 1 billion people, or one-eighth of the world’s population, don’t have access to it. By some estimates, about 80% of all disease in developing countries could be prevented if safe water were available to everyone.
On that one simple idea, Scott Harrison built a nonprofit called charity:water, based on Varick Street in Manhattan. Since its start in 2006, the group has raised more than $40 million to fund 6,185 projects, like wells and filtration systems, that bring clean water to more than 2.5 million people in 19 countries.
Mr. Harrison’s story is one of the case studies in a fascinating new book, Good Idea. Now What? Author Charles T. Lee is founder and chief executive of Ideation Consultancy Inc., a firm that advises both business startups and fledgling nonprofits on how to turn their promising ideas into viable enterprises. A cornerstone of rapid growth, Mr. Lee says, is simplicity.
“This is not to say that successful ideas aren’t complex,” he said recently. “In any field, you need a wide breadth of knowledge and understanding. But simplicity allows for complex concepts to be clearly communicated and easily understood. It may be the determining factor in whether someone comes on board and supports your idea.”
Charity:water’s success so far, Mr. Lee noted, is due in large part to Mr. Harrison’s constant efforts to keep the organization’s mission clear and simple. One example: “We’ve made the often-asked question, ‘How much of my donation will actually help people?’ simple,” Mr. Harrison wrote in an email from West Africa. “The answer is 100%, all the time.”
That’s because charity:water has two groups of donors. One, dubbed The Well, is a network of philanthropists—like entrepreneurs Michael and Xochi Birch, who have donated $3 million so far—whose gifts cover all overhead and administrative costs. That allows charity:water to spend 100% of donations from the public, many of them as small as $20 (the average cost of supplying clean water to one person), on funding water projects.
“We’ve also committed to showing people exactly what their donations did,” Mr. Harrison added. Using digital cameras and “inexpensive $100 GPS devices,” he explained, workers in the field document every project in real time, so that donors can visit charity:water’s website to view their dollars in action.
“It works because it’s so simple,” observed Mr. Lee. “If you give $25, then $25 goes to provide water to a community. The Well even covers transaction costs on credit-card donations.” That simplicity and transparency, he noted, helped charity:water attract more than 200,000 donors worldwide in its first four years.
How can you tell whether your own business idea is simple enough to grab the attention of customers, investors and others (the media, for instance)? One way, Mr. Lee said, is to write it down. “If someone can ‘get it’ just by reading it on paper or a screen, without your having to talk it up, that’s a good sign,” he said. “Also, once it’s in writing, you can go back and keep editing it down to its core essence. Sometimes, removing a feature is more important than adding one.”
[Source: Crain's New York Business]
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