Mobilising Young People to Change the World – A Conversation with Seth Maxwell, Founder of the Thirst Project & Legacy Youth Leadership.

Mobilising Young People to Change the World – A Conversation with Seth Maxwell, Founder of the Thirst Project & Legacy Youth Leadership.

Seth Maxwell is an extraordinary leader. He founded the Thirst Project and currently serves as the Founder & CEO of Legacy Youth Leadership — two creative, diverse non-profit organizations headquartered in the heart of Los Angeles, leading the world’s work to end the global water crisis, and, working to develop young peoples’ leadership skills, respectively. Seth is a storyteller at heart, and has spoken internationally at over 300 schools, countless churches, and numerous conferences, including Keynote Speeches for the TEDx Hollywood Youth Conference, the Master’s of Science in Communication Commencement Ceremony for Northwestern University, Vancouver Tech Week (“IMPACT”), Envision’s Global Youth Leadership Conference in Washington D.C., the Nexus Global Youth Summit, and meetings with Obama Administration Officials at the White House to discuss how to activate Millennials for social justice and social change. Seth serves the United States Department of State as a member of their U.S. Speaker Program for International Programs representing the United States as a leader in his fields at events and conferences abroad. Seth challenges people to fulfil their true purpose in life & become an engaged and socially-conscious human being. Additionally, Seth serves on the Board of Directors for Heartland Film, on the Advisory Board for the Purpose Awards, and the Board of Directors for the Andrew Gomez Dream Foundation.

In this interview I speak to Seth Maxwell, Founder of the Thirst Project & Legacy Youth Leadership. Seth is one of the world’s most successful campaigners and activators of youth leadership & advocacy. His work has mobilised millions of young people to create change, and in this discussion I speak to Seth about how we can, and why we must, mobilise our youth to create the change we need in our world.

Q: How do you choose where to make an impact?

[Seth Maxwell]: … the world is indeed rife with needs, injustices, inequalities, and suffering. What particularly captured my attention about the water crisis—both its timing and the issue itself—was firstly, its sheer scale. When I initially became aware of the water crisis, it was estimated that around 1 billion people globally lacked access to basic, safe, and clean drinking water. Presently, that number has been reduced to approximately 700 million, marking significant progress in a relatively short span for humanity and our global community. Yet, the vastness of the issue still struck me, especially considering that I, at 19 and fairly well-informed or educated, had been completely unaware of it.

Moreover, the water crisis intersects with numerous other critical issues. For instance, if you’re passionate about addressing educational or inequality issues, you quickly realize the futility of efforts to improve education—be it through constructing schools or providing them with teachers and supplies—if the children are spending several hours a day collecting water. Thus, a concern for education inherently involves a concern for water. Similarly, initiatives aimed at combating hunger and ensuring food security are untenable without access to safe water.

To me, the compelling aspect of the water crisis was its broad impact across various sectors like economics, health, and education, yet also its solvability. Unlike other global challenges where we may hope for a breakthrough cure or grapple with finding solutions, the water crisis presents a problem we have the means to solve. The progress made by the Thirst Project over the last 15 or 16 years stands as testament to our collective ability to tackle this issue effectively. It’s this potential for real, tangible improvement that resonated with me profoundly.

Q: How did you realise that youth were key to tackling global challenges?

[Seth Maxwell]: To be perfectly honest, while I’d love to claim it was a stroke of strategic genius, the truth is, at 19, my most accessible audience was my peers. Frankly, I had no idea how to engage politicians, government officials, or established leaders at that time. What I did know was how to start conversations with my peers, raising awareness about the issues at hand and suggesting that we should take action and encourage our friends to join us on a larger scale. Our efforts initially encompassed just 10 schools, which then expanded to 40 the following year, and surpassed 100 the year after that, continuing to grow by 100 schools annually.

Looking back, I am now firmly convinced that young people are the most potent forces for social change. However, our initial focus on this demographic wasn’t a calculated decision but rather a matter of convenience—these were the people I had direct access to.

Q: How do you prevent bystander effect?

[Seth Maxwell]: Bystander effect isn’t necessarily due to a lack of willingness or ability to make a difference. Rather, the real challenge, as you’ve pointed out, stems from feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the issues we’re passionate about. They’re vast, and against them, we often feel insignificant.

However, what has been incredibly beneficial in our case—though not a reflection of our brilliance or foresight—is recognizing that the water crisis, for example, is a problem that can be tackled effectively on a smaller scale. Whether it’s initiating a WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) program for a community of 300-500 people, or even breaking it down further to the fact that, on average, it costs around $25 to $30 to provide one person with water for life, these are manageable, tangible actions.

This approach of identifying “micro” ways to demonstrate impact has been remarkably motivating, helping individuals move past the bystander effect of feeling too small to make a difference. And while there are plenty of clichés about the impact a single person can make, especially when joining forces with others, we’ve witnessed this effect at scale. It might be that the most someone can do is raise awareness through social media, or donate a modest amount like $5 or $25. Yet, as we’ve seen over the last 15-16 years, these contributions accumulate in significant, meaningful ways.

As much as I’d like to credit my leadership, the progress we’ve seen is largely a testament to the collective action and impact we’ve observed in this area.

Q: How do young people get to the table and get taken seriously as changemakers?

[Seth Maxwell]: The inquiry you’ve posed is indeed fascinating, as it delves into how a youth movement can ensure its members are taken seriously. My initial thought is that if it’s genuinely a movement by and for young people, it likely consists of members who already regard each other with the respect and seriousness they seek from others. However, when considering organizations, institutions, or leaders in positions of authority pondering how to engage young people effectively and with genuine respect, it becomes a matter of intrinsic respect: do you, or do you not take them seriously?

The underlying question seems to be about mitigating the perceived risks associated with taking young voices seriously. In my view, this presents a dual challenge for both sides. I often tell students we work with that there will be moments when they, as newcomers, propose ideas or approaches that are innovative and correct simply because they bring a fresh perspective, uninfluenced by established norms or the supposed limits of what’s possible. Conversely, there will be times when their lack of experience leads them to suggestions that are off the mark.

Identifying which situation you’re in isn’t always clear-cut, but I advocate for speaking up regardless, preferring the risk of being wrong over the regret of silence. The key for young individuals is to balance seeking wisdom from those who have preceded them—being open and receptive, yet not confusing confidence with arrogance—while offering their insights and ideas for collaboration.

This principle applies reciprocally to the older generation. To achieve different outcomes, to address issues anew, or to transform communities, it’s crucial to be open to engaging with and seriously considering perspectives from those who represent a departure from traditional approaches. This means valuing fresh ideas and listening as much as, if not more than, speaking, without entirely dismissing proven knowledge or practices that have stood the test of time.

Q: How do you encourage people to realise they have the power to make change?

[Seth Maxwell]: For young people pondering how they can effect change, the insight comes from one of my dear friends, Ziad Ahmed, a figure of remarkable brilliance who not only heads a leading Gen Z marketing agency but is also a fervent advocate for social justice. Our conversations often revolve around the historical truth that young, diverse individuals have always been at the forefront of cultural trends and progressive advancements. It’s these young people who dare to challenge the status quo, embodying the belief that just because things are a certain way, doesn’t mean they must remain so.

My message to young individuals doubting their ability to make a difference is to recognize that in trying to effect change, they are continuing a rich, human tradition. This tradition is about those who inherit the world taking active steps to improve it, even slightly. And here’s a little secret that we, the older generation, have come to understand: at the highest levels of government, corporate, and community leadership, nobody truly has all the answers. Really, nobody does.

The key, then, is to find the right balance. Be open to learning and adapting without being stubbornly fixated on your mistakes, and don’t be too hesitant to voice your ideas. If you can navigate between innovation and humility, you’ll join the ranks of those young pioneers who’ve historically steered societal shifts for the better. Remember, you possess just as much potential as any of the young leaders before you who’ve propelled us forward as a species and a global community.

Q: How do you effectively engage social activation?

[Seth Maxwell]: The essence of your question touches upon how we conceptualize the mechanisms of social engagement—whether we focus on our ‘achievements’ in social media metrics and the proficiency of our execution, or on the deeper, more meaningful activation you mentioned. In our approach, we don’t see these as distinct avenues. Rather than having two separate strategies for discussing our work on social platforms to spark engaging conversations, and for deeply and meaningfully activating young people, we see it as a unified mission.

Our strategy revolves around building a community engaged in the activities we advocate for. This community then serves as the foundation for what we discuss on social media, avoiding the dichotomy of crafting a visually appealing social media campaign on one hand and figuring out activation strategies on the other. Instead, we focus on fostering a community where participation in social discourse and meaningful action are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

[Vikas: and is that also how you engage brands?]

[Seth Maxwell]: Absolutely, a key takeaway from our discussion is that our approach to one aspect of our work mirrors our approach across the board. Whether we’re engaging with brand partners, individual donors, students, or volunteers, our method remains consistent: we introduce who we are and what our community stands for, then invite them to join us. The question we pose is, “Would you like to be a part of our mission, and if so, how can we collaborate to create a meaningful impact?”

In the context of brand partnerships, just as with any relationship, we aim for mutual benefit. There’s a tangible, reciprocal value that emerges—not just for us, but for the brands involved. This value extends deeply into the experiences that students and young individuals have with us, and it’s reflected in the tangible outcomes of water projects we’re able to implement worldwide. Our goal is always to foster relationships where everyone involved benefits significantly, contributing to a broader, more impactful cause.

Q: How do we encourage more people to look at careers in change, and impact?

[Seth Maxwell]: Absolutely, the points you’re raising echo the themes of Dan Pallotta’s work, “Uncharitable,” along with its recent film adaptation. If you’re not yet familiar with it, based on our conversation, I think you’d find it resonates deeply with your views. Pallotta, who delivered a TED talk over a decade ago under the same title, delves into how the nonprofit sector is often at a disadvantage compared to the for-profit world, particularly in areas such as attracting and compensating top talent.

In a nutshell, Pallotta’s argument, which he expands upon in his book and film, identifies five key ways the for-profit sector ‘discriminates’ against nonprofits, with leadership and compensation being prime examples. While I could delve deeper into this topic, my personal view is that there’s a critical need for both sectors to thrive. I say this with all humility, but through numerous discussions with friends urging me to consider a political career, my response has always been a firm no. Not out of any disillusionment with government, but rather a belief that my greatest impact lies elsewhere, and, candidly, it’s where I choose to focus my energies.

We need highly successful, affluent, and ethical business leaders who can revolutionize commerce, just as their contributions are as crucial as those in government and the nonprofit sectors. It’s less about funneling the best and brightest solely into social impact, though their presence there is invaluable, and more about fostering opportunities for these individuals to ethically transform how various industries and sectors interact.

Considering that the nonprofit sector represents a small fraction of the U.S. GDP, even a slight reallocation of resources from the for-profit sector could have a significant impact on health and human services initiatives. This brings us back to Pallotta’s TED talk, which critiques the structural limitations that keep the nonprofit sector marginalized. The real challenge, then, is finding ways to channel the most talented, affluent, and impact-driven leaders into roles across all sectors, fostering a more integrated approach to solving the world’s most pressing issues.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Seth Maxwell]: I can’t help but share a cheeky grin as I mention that about four years ago, I initiated an organization named Legacy. Indeed, the concept of leaving a lasting impact is something I ponder often, though that’s a tale for another time. My thoughts on this might seem simplistic or overly sentimental to some. However, as I’ve delved deeper into the concept of legacy and considered what truly lies within my grasp—not just in terms of immediate control but also in addressing the bystander effect—I’ve come to believe in the profound impact of personal interactions.

When I contemplate the legacy I wish to leave, or how I hope people remember their encounters with me, my greatest desire is that each person who crosses paths with me, in any capacity, feels uplifted by the experience. To put it more expansively, I hope they feel they’ve experienced love in its purest form. This might sound overly idealistic or vague, not tied to any specific cause or measurable outcome, but I’m convinced that adopting this approach to every interaction—be it with a team member, a donor, a partner, or even the barista at the coffee shop—can lead to truly remarkable outcomes.

This emphasis on seemingly trivial, ‘touchy-feely’ aspects often stems from their underlying truth. The clichés about the ripple effects of our actions bear weight because we tend to underestimate the impact of our daily interactions as we navigate through life. While I can’t quantify these effects, my goals have shifted from once tangible, ambitious targets—like aspiring to be the Secretary of State or resolving the water crisis within a set timeframe—to focusing more on what I can directly influence. This shift isn’t due to a diminished interest in addressing global issues but rather a refined focus on leveraging my immediate influence to make a difference, however I can, in the interactions I have each day.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.