How I started a non-profit organization dedicated to tackling the world’s water crisis, activating millions of young people to provide clean water to over 500,000 people

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Seth Maxwell
Founded: Aug 2008
No of employees: 8
Location: USA

Meet Seth. He’s the brains behind Thirst Project, an organization he founded to address the world’s water crisis. It started back in 2008 when he realized just how significant the scale of the crisis is. Right now, Thirst Project has one clear goal: to provide safe, clean water and sanitation to the kingdom of Eswatini by 2022. Shockingly the country has the highest global prevalence of HIV among adults aged 15 to 49, driving the mortality rate of this essential working group up to alarming rates. 

After turning an initial $70 into $1700, Seth was able to fund the organization's first-ever freshwater well rehabilitation project. And in the 10+ years since its inception, Thirst Project has raised over $10 million and funded projects to provide over 400,000 people with safe, clean water. Seth’s story is so inspirational, we had to find out more. 

Who are you and what brand did you start?

HI there! My name is Seth Maxwell. Back in 2008 I embarked on a journey to address the global water crisis by building freshwater wells in developing communities that need safe, clean drinking water.

Back in 2008 I was bright eyed and unaware of the journey I’d started, but today I am the proud to have been the founder of Thirst Project, a not-for-profit organization tackling the clean water crisis those most vulnerable in this world face.

Thirst Project has an ambitious but very achievable goal - provide safe, clean water and sanitation to the entire Kingdom of eSwatini!

We work primarily with students as they are the most powerful body to make real impactful long lasting change in the world. The youth activist movement is powerful and takes many forms. Through Thirst Project we aim to harness that energy by supporting socially minded youth so change can happen.

Since I embarked on my journey with Thirst Project, the organization has spoken to over half a million students in the USA and raised millions of dollars in the fight towards ending the clean water crisis. So far this activism and fundraising has helped bring clean water to 13 different countries and over 400,000 people.

With the help of our partners as well as our energized community of young clean water warriors, we believe we can continue to make a difference, end the clean water crisis and improve the lives of millions around the world.

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BRAND IDEA - how did you come up with the idea for Thirst Project?

Thirst Project all started back in the summer of 2008 when I was a bright eyed 19 year-old college student. A series of conversations about the global water crisis opened my eyes to the reality of those around the world without clean water, and in turn, the privileged life I was living. Determined to not stay ignorant to the issue, I began educating myself.

To say I was shocked at the standards others lived in was an understatement. I learnt such things like; that for many people their only option for hydration is to drink from rivers, earth dams, swamps, mud puddles, or whatever available water source is near people’s communities. But it was when I found out that around 1.1 billion people did not have safe drinking water - that was my catalyst into action.

This new knowledge then made me appreciate why waterborne diseases in these countries are such a consistent issue, especially for children who are the biggest victim.

When thinking about the brand name and logo, the issue the ‘brand’ was trying to address really overshadowed any brand and marketing needs we had. In saying that though, we did need to ensure that the name and logo aligned with the purpose and mission we were on.

We initially wanted to call the organization ‘Thirst’ however that name was not available, so we attached ‘Project’ to it as that made sense and really helped speak to the purpose of the organization in our mind.

Our logo is relatively simple. We added in the aqua drop to tie in the water element of the organisation to the logo, however apart from that we just wanted a clean and simple logo as for us it’s more about what we’re doing as an organization than what our logo looks like.

BRAND LAUNCH - take us through how you launched Thirst Project.

After my “ah-ha moment,” I quickly got to work recruiting a bunch of my friends to work on this new and important initiative. We started by educating as many people as we could about the issue whilst gathering donations. At the time we didn’t really have an idea of the long term strategy, all we knew was that we needed to take action.

Using the money we gathered, we decided on a unique way to drive the ‘clean water’ message home...we bought 1000 bottles of water > went to Hollywood Boulevard > and just gave them away to any passer by.

Pretty quickly people started getting curious as to why a bunch of 19 year-olds were giving away water for free - which allowed us to to talk to and educate them about what is happening. Most people who stayed to listen then promptly gave back for the water and promptly asked how they could help / donate.

In this initial run, from memory we turned the about $70 we started with into $1,700 - which we gave to an organization that was building freshwater projects.

This was a real moment, as we saw the power of knowledge and action. That was all we needed as a collective to know that we couldn’t stop there, we needed to continue and work to educate as many as possible especially young people which is why we started to focus on schools.

As an organisation, we never went from that moment into a formal launch persée. We just continued to evolve as we went and focused our energy on getting out to as many schools as possible, and using those events as a way to continually re-launch the brand with new young faces and in turn refine our launch.

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ONLINE STORE SETUP - what are your top 2 tips for successful Ecommerce store setup.

  1. FOCUS ON YOUR UX - for most businesses, especially now, having great UX is key. However for us, given the majority of our community are youth, it is especially important that our UX is exceptional AND that we’re tapping into new age technologies where we can connect, speak and engage with our community. .
  2. OMNI CHANNEL - also for us, having a seamless UX across channels is also very important. I think any business wanting to ‘up’ their digital game, having a seamless digital experience across channels is vital.

CUSTOMER RETENTION - what has worked best to attract and retain customers?

Salesforce - we use this for our CRM and it is critical for us when it comes to engaging with our audience. When thinking about CRM, I should note that we actually didn’t have one for the first four year or so!! Everything lived in spreadsheets. In hindsight I wish we had adopted the power of that technology soon as it really is a game changer. Once we did and I realized the power of tools like Salesforce, we realized how amazing they are at helping you achieve your goals as an organization.

Now with Salesforce in mind, if you integrate a tool like this, make sure you learn about its power, as there are so many amazing things these tools can do so all I’d say is make sure you harness their power.

SOCIAL - what are your top 2 tips for successful use of social media to engage with customers.

  1. Storytelling - this is really key
  2. Opt for the channels which work for your business / niche / target audience (Don’t feel like you need to be EVERYWHERE.)

BUSINESS GROWTH INSIGHTS - how has Thirst Project changed and evolved?

It has been more than 10 years since I began work on Thirst Project. We have come so far, grown so much and impacted so many, but the work is not done yet.

As an organisation, we continue to focus on travelling around to middle schools, high schools and college campuses speaking to people our age to educate students about the global water crisis, and challenge them to take action to end it.

Every time we visit a school, we leave knowing that we’ve helped educate more of the youth in America about the reality of the global water crisis AND educated them about how easily they can help be a part of change.

In the 10+ years since inception, Thirst Project has raised millions of dollars and funded projects to provide over 400,000 people with safe, clean water.

Our key goals now, aside from addressing the crisis in Eswatini, is to

  • Continue working with schools through our water crisis education programs.
  • Engaging with students and identifying who those students are with activist minds that can help us on the ground to effect change

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MANAGING CHANGE - what are the top 2 tips you’d suggest others adopt to safeguard their business.

  1. For me I think about the Stockdale Paradox which says that we must be willing to confront the brutal reality of the conditions on the ground, while also never losing sight of the ultimate truth that we ARE going to prevail.
  2. For me this is how I approach my thinning when it comes to Thirst Project and what we’re trying to achieve. Continually reminding myself of this is key.


FUTURE BUSINESS PLANS - how is Thirst Project doing today and what does the future look like?

Right now we have a clear goal to provide safe, clean water and sanitation to the entire Kingdom of Eswatini. Now for anyone reading this who is not aware of Eswatini, it is a landlocked country in Southern Africa that is bordered by Mozambique. Sadly and shockingly for this country, as of 2016 it has the highest prevalence of HIV among adults aged 15 to 49 in the world (27.2%) which is driving the mortality rate of that group up to alarming rates. This is especially problematic, as this age group is the country's most productive in terms of labor and economic contribution, so addressing this issue is key for the countries economic prosperity.

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ENTREPRENEUR INSIGHTS - what has been your biggest learning experience since starting Thirst Project?

I think for myself, and anyone starting their own brand, you need to realize that you can't do everything. Sad but true. Given this it is key that you cultivate a community around you who possess strengths that are your weaknesses, and who support your goals, can help you get there, AND from whom you can continually learn from.

ONLINE BUSINESS TOOLS - what are the business software tools you couldn't live without?

  • Salesforce
  • Mighty networks
  • Classy - powers online giving and also allows users to create their own personal fundraising profiles

See what tools other founders use here.

SELF DEVELOPMENT - what are the educational resources you’d recommend?


  • Patrick Lencioni - ‘The Advantage’ / ‘Getting Naked’
  • Craig Groeschel - ‘Winning the War in Your Mind’

INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE ‘shout-out’ - who have been the most influential people for you during your brand journey?

  • Wyck Godfrey & Dr. Mary Kerr Godfrey – Wyck & Mary are my dearest friends and have been steadfast supporters in this fight. They are our largest donors and the FIRST people to give when there is a need or a new initiative that we are working on and they are constant sources of encouragement and support.
  • My best friend, Michelle O’Droske - Michelle has been the Chair of our Board since the beginning. I can think of no one with more integrity or wisdom than Michelle. She has seen us through every challenge we have ever encountered and is sold out for the work we do.
  • Taylor Shupe – Taylor is exactly who you want in a Board Member. He is one of the smartest people you could ever meet. A consummate entrepreneur, he pushes me and us to think smarter, innovate, and grow to new heights.
  • John Boiler – John is the friend everyone wishes they had. He and his incredible wife Kari are two of our largest donors, and they are unbelievable champions of our work.

FINAL WORDS OF INSPO - for other aspiring entrepreneurs.

Make sure you know who are you serving intimately.

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