Creating a world changing non profit with Thirst Project's Seth Maxwell

Seth Maxwell Story Project

Seth Maxwell, Thirst Project

Los Angeles

Interview by Laura Piety

A Rverie Conversation with Seth Maxwell, Founder of the Thirst Project. Seth was recently named as one of Forbes' '30 Under 30' Social Entrepreneurs and the organization has committed to providing the entire country of Swaziland with clean, safe drinking water in the next decade.  

I first connected with the Thirst Project after attending one of their annual galas held at the iconic Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. The Gala was an impressive one, bringing celebrities, donors, students and influencers together in one room to participate in helping end the global water crisis. Headed up by Seth Maxwell, the Thirst Project is an innovative organization that works to provide clean water to those who need it and has worked in a host of countries across the world, from Columbia and Ethiopia to India and Swaziland; to name but a few. Their incredible work has been recognized by everyone from YouTube, VH1’s Do Something Awards as well as Forbes when this year Seth was named as one of their '30 Under 30’ Social Entrepreneurs to follow. 

Apart from building wells, and impacting the lives of thousands in doing so, Thirst have also achieved enormous success in mobilizing the high school and college generation around this cause (wholeheartedly debunking the intimation that millennials only care about themselves). In fact, the organization is the biggest water-related student-activating cause at the present time.

I met Seth at his apartment in Los Angeles, hot off his latest visit to the Beverly Hilton where they a are scheduled to return for this year’s Gala. He’s one of the most affable individuals I know and told his story with great honesty, generosity and expression. Thirst’s commitment to providing clean water to a whole country- Swaziland- is an also unparalleled, generous feat that we should all rally around. Read more about this commitment below. As they say, Love Requires Action. For more information check out their website.

Give us an overview of the Thirst Project and where you are today.

Even today, almost 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. What that actually means, aside from just being a huge number, is that every day in developing countries women and children walk for miles and miles to fetch dirty, contaminated water from mud puddles, ponds, streams… whatever standing water they have available in their communities, because that’s all they have access to. As a result of drinking this water they contract easily preventable, but incredibly severe, water borne diseases. Things like dysentery, cholera and diarrhea kill more people every year than AIDS, malaria and famine combined. So at Thirst, we build fresh water wells in developing countries and communities to give people access to safe, clean drinking water.

This isn’t necessarily unique as there are a lot of water organizations in this space, but we are, without question, the world’s leading youth water activism organization. We have a school program that travels across the US speaking at middle schools, high schools and colleges to educate students about the global water crisis and challenge them to take acton, fundraise and build their own wells. 100% of their money goes directly to the wells so we don’t take any admin or overhead from that.

Over the past 5 ½ years we have taken our programs to 320 campuses where we have built active Thirst Project Chapters and Clubs. We now have a membership of over 300,000 students who have raised $8 million, 100% of which has been used to give over 250,000 people in 11 countries (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, India, El Salvador, Columbia and Haiti) clean water.

Can you talk about your mission in Swaziland?

Almost 2 years ago we announced a commitment to a very bold declaration. We had completed a 2 year feasibility study in Swaziland prior to assess their water situation. Swaziland is a tiny country and has the single highest density HIV/ AIDS population in the world. Over 53% of 18-30 year olds have AIDS. What people don't realize is that water plays a critical role in effectively treating and managing AIDS. Even if you have access to great medical treatment, antiretrovirals and AIDS clinics, but go home and drink dirty water, your immune system is already so compromised that the diseases in the water will kill you faster than the AIDS itself. 

So for us, the ability to impact two issues at once was really attractive, as well as the fact it’s a small country with only about 1.4 million people. These elements combined and gave rise to the question, what would it look like to give the entire country safe water? To provide 100% coverage? This has never been done before.

Even if you have access to great medical treatment, antiretrovirals and AIDS clinics, but go home and drink dirty water, your immune system is already so compromised that the diseases in the water will kill you faster than the AIDS itself.

Our 2 year feasibility study, which was completed alongside the Swazi government, discovered it would cost just over $50 million to give the entire country safe water. So we built out a plan to raise the money in 10 years. It will take a decade to do what no-one has ever done before, and change the face of a nation. We are aggressively working towards that goal, in conjunction with the Swazi Government, and a number of different participants and players in that space in the country. 

Thirst Project

What has been the financial reception to this goal?

Amazing. It’s interesting to observe. I think part of it is just natural growth of the organization, but is also due to our commitment to a particular country. Prior to us announcing the goal the most we’d ever raised in one year was $1 million. Since announcing, we raised over $4 million the following year, and $3 million last year. This is more in those two years each than any of our previous years combined. 

I think the idea of reaching a very clear goal is exciting and tangible for people to wrap their minds around.

What strategic elements have you implemented to grow, especially in your relationship with students?

We began doing monthly campaigns over the past year. Every organization defines the word ‘campaign’ differently, but for us campaigns were started as a specific tool or resource for students. We began realizing that we were reaching more and more students on a daily basis and the response was always, ‘This is amazing! I want to be involved, I just don’t know how to do it.’ Initially we were engaging pretty much only self-starters, those who saw our school tour presentation and knew intuitively what to do, whether it was fundraising, starting a club, or just engaging their community in a positive manner. As we reached more students, fewer of them were self-starters and didn't immediately know to activate. So, we had more people who wanted to activate, but needed the resources from us to help them do so. We wanted to walk that out sensitively. We didn't want to be the organization that gives students a box of candy to sell and fundraise with. We needed to make sure that when we did resource students, the tools were cool, sexy, and relevant. 

So, now we launch a new campaign every month. Each one has a very specific genetic make up. It lasts for one month and has a direct action that students can do to raise funds or awareness for the water crisis. We also alternate between a fundraising campaign one month to an awareness campaign the next. 

Great. So you’re not overwhelming people by constantly asking them for money?

Exactly. Many of our awareness campaigns are tied to a brand sponsor. The action that a student takes is tied to a brand or someone else donating on their behalf. This makes it easy for students to take action and make a significant impact. Students don’t have to do any of the campaigns, or they can do all of them. They exist as resources and tools to increase our rate of conversion from the time they say they want to help, to the time they actually take action. 

Each campaign also has a specific celebrity supporter or series of supporters that are the face of it…  these are the ‘messengers’ of the campaign and they explain to students what we want to do and how they can do it. We shoot a series of PSAs or commercials with these influencers. After tying all those resources to a micro site built specifically for that campaign, we build a press strategy to get as much coverage as possible, in addition to a digital campaign to push it out to our own networks as well as our influencers’ networks. 

Our goal is to activate as many people as possible in the different spaces and prongs of reach around the campaign.

Thirst Project

You work alongside sponsors, celebrities, influencers and brands. How have you cultivated those relationships?

A lot of the strategies we initially started with are still true today, from the way we tell the story of the water crisis to the way we engage people and influencers to get involved in easy, tangible ways. We meet people where they are at. If you’re an influencer, I’m often not going to come to you and say ‘Hey! You may make a great deal of money! Can you donate?’ My ask may not be for $100,000. If I can build your trust around the water issue and make you willing to participate with us in other ways than asking you to give money, you may be more willing to promote our product and let me take you as an influencer to a brand that wants you to be part of a campaign. It might be as simple as asking an influencer or celebrity just to be in the room and to push the message out with us, our partner sponsors [who include brands in both education, media, entertainment spheres and beyond] and their network. I can also go to another sponsor and get them to give $100,000 on an influencer’s behalf if they engage in this way. 

Even though we’ve grown and done that, and are meeting people where they’re at, it’s still very much of just telling the story of the water crisis. The things that's great is that it's not a political issue, it's not religious. It's a human rights issue. it doesn't polarize. No-one gets up in arms about the idea of giving someone clean water. 

It makes it easy because it’s so palatable and relatable to everyone. 

What are some of your favorite Thirst success stories?

There are so many. Each year and every few months exciting things happen. We kicked off 2014 and found out that we had won the Project For Awesome event hosted by YouTube. Basically any user in the world could submit a video about their favorite charity, explaining why it is important. You can then donate over a 48 hour period to the Project For Awesome ‘pot’. People watch the thousands of submissions and vote for their favorite video or charity. The top ten charities split the pot. So we were one of the winners of this. 

We’ve also been nominated and then awarded with the VH1 ‘Do Something’ Award. 

From an individual point of view I was also named one of Forbes’ ‘30 under 30’ Social Entrepreneurs this past January (2014), which of course was wonderful. 

We have students that say, “Before the Thirst Project, I didn’t know what my major was. Now I’m studying water engineering or non-profit management... I feel like I have purpose now.”

I think those are some of the really big, ‘high spotlight’ moments, but it’s not only those. It’s every day when we go to a school and see a student who I didn’t know a year ago, and they come back 12 months later and they’ve grown their chapter from 4 students to 40, or 400. This happens all the time.

We have students that say, "Before the Thirst Project, I didn't know what my major was. Now I'm studying water engineering or non-profit management... I feel like I have purpose now, you've given my life meaning." There's no award equivalent to that. 

Thirst Project

What about a success story on the ground?

A great one is around a man called Sibu, one of my favorite people in the world. He runs our on the ground operations in Swaziland. I’ll never forget this. We’d been working in Swaziland for a year and a half. I’d been there maybe 6 times. We were on one of our data collection trips to assess communities to see whether they were viable for us to work in. In his own timid way Sibu asked if he could leave a little early because his daughter needed to go to the hospital. I inquired why she was sick- I’d met her, she was 3 years old- and he said she sick with diarrhea and he was worried she would contract cholera. I probed further and he told me his community didn't have access to clean water!  I was like ‘Hold on! I’ve been here for the past 18 months, working with you directly, we’ve been to a dozens of villages together, given them clean water, and not once did you tell me your village needs clean water!’ It was about 6pm and I decided to go to his community right then to assess it.

It was combination of things that held him back from telling me, his character and humility for one, but also because he knew his was a difficult community to build in. Situated on a mountain range it would have been the largest water scheme that we’d ever completed. He knew it would be costly. Most of our wells in Swaziland cost $12,000. This one cost $75,000. Sibu knew it was a big job. Admittedly, it was a challenge to find the right combination of donors to fund it, but when we reached the goal, because it was such a big challenge and because of how personal it was to us, it was an amazing victory point.

Let’s talk about you. You were 19 when you started Thirst, what do you think was different about the water crisis that caught your attention and enabled you to commit your life to it?

I became aware of the water crisis when I was preparing for graduation. I wasn't really sure what was going to happen in my life. I would say I was one of the most selfish, introspective people that I knew. So really, it was the last thing on my radar. It was a striking contrast between what was occupying 100% of my thought life at the time… ‘How do I make money? How do I advance my acting career?’ I didn't even realize the water crisis was an issue. I couldn't fathom people not having water. I took hour long showers! When I found out it was so shocking it was hard to ignore. It broke my heart. And it also came at a perfect time in my life when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I never thought I was going to start an organization, it just happened. I couldn’t not engage with it. And then opportunity after opportunity came up to do this one event or awareness thing, and we were asked to go to one school, and then another one. We couldn't say no, especially if it meant $500 more raised or one more person learnt about the crisis. This thing begot that thing… which begot that thing. It happened very naturally. We could have said we don’t have time, or, we want to do another job. We just knew we had to do it! We didn’t know how we were going to do it, or how we were going to pay for it, we just had to. I think it was that combination of my heart being broken for the issue, opportunity after opportunity coming cyclically, and not being able to say no. 

I became aware of the water crisis when I was preparing for graduation. I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen in my life. I would say I was one of the most selfish, introspective people that I knew. So really, it was the last thing on my radar.

Being a pioneer must be an amazing experience, but also isolating at times. How have you negotiated that journey?

It’s difficult. Admittedly I’m still not the best at balance, although I am much better than I was. There are key moments I can look back to and identify as significant jumps in Thirst’s growth. For us they have tended to ride out in 2 year increments. Right now, we’re in one of those times of intense growth and I can recognize it happening. The next 6 months will set us on the trajectory we’ll be on for the next 2 years or so, it’s a very busy season now.

I think if I’m honest, I haven’t always walked out these periods with as much balance as I could have. The first significant growth period was when we went from being an organization that raised $100,000-$200,000 a year to $600,000-$700,000. It was so new I didn’t know how to manage it properly! There was a season when I’d work at the office from 8am-8pm and I had so many emails it was overwhelming. I’d finish work, eat, go home and start working immediately again. That was my cycle everyday. I also craved a bit more anonymity and wanted to be around people who didn't know how much money we were raising or who our celebrity supporters were. I just need to learn how to healthily adjust to this new life and organization that was building quickly.

I’m now able to recognize when periods are going to be busy and surround myself with the right people and habits to balance me and allow myself to recharge. I can navigate the work/life exchange much better. 

What advice would you give to a student or young social entrepreneur if they want to help end a humanitarian issue like the water crisis or trafficking?

I’m going to quote one of my favorite people, Nancy Lublin, the CEO of Do Something. She says:

"If you want to start a venture or a non profit organization that's going to serve a need, don't start it unless you're going to be the first, or the only, or your service will be done in a way that will be better, faster or cheaper than everyone else in your space."

If it can't be one of this things, find someone who is already doing what you want to do and align with them. It may sound really hypocritical of me to say that given how may water organizations there are in our space, but I can conclusively say there is no-one that is activating students the way we are. We’re not focused on getting every Wall Street Banker to give money, or only interacting with churches for example. We love working with everyone and of course we’ll take their money if they want to donate it, and we really love it when their hearts align with our mission, but we are able to say that we are certainly the first and definitely the leading activator of young people around this issue. 

If there isn’t someone working in that space, pave the way by doing it in a new, better, innovative way.

I would also advise someone to learn as much as they can about the issue they care about and then find someone doing good, sustainable work in it already and find ways to support them. Because we need your help. And if there isn't someone working in that space, pave the way by doing it in a new, better, innovative way. Also build a team. Much of what we’re doing at the moment is bringing in more people passionate about the water crisis. It works well because now we have a solid platform to allow them to really engage. 

What is the dream for Thirst?

The ideal of course is to eradicate the global water crisis. On the surface this sounds completely idealistic, but it’s one of those things, as shocked as you were to hear that its only $50 million dollars to give Swaziland clean water, it’s estimated that it will be $18 billion to end the global water crisis. To put that in context, yes it’s a huge number, but we spend $450 billion on Christmas just in America! And obviously it’s much more than just money- it’s time, infrastructure and on the ground  resources. No one agency or organization can implement it, but I do think we’ll push this issue into the history books in our lifetime.

I want Thirst to become irrelevant to the point that we are no longer necessary. And of course getting Swaziland 100% covered with clean water within the next 8 years, before taking that as a model and platform to the UN, the US Government and other water organizations and implementing it on a global scale.

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Images courtesy of Thirst Project