In 2004, Scott Harrison’s life looked great from the outside. He’d spent 10 years in New York City working as a night-club promoter and was driving a BMW and dating models. “But on the inside I was rotting,” he says. “I’d betrayed the faith that my parents brought me up with and picked up all the unsavory behaviors that can come along with climbing New York City’s social ladder.
“At just 28 I’d become the worst person I knew,” the now 43-year-old social entrepreneur recalls. Fearing the path he was on could lead to self-destruction, Harrison decided to make a 180-degree turn.
He applied for volunteer opportunities with humanitarian-aid groups, but countless organizations rejected him. Then Harrison got a call from Mercy Ships.
The organization’s floating hospitals provide no-cost, life-saving surgeries for people living in countries where medical services are nearly nonexistent. The group offered to let him serve as a photojournalist in Liberia — a country emerging from a 14-year civil war with no running water — in exchange for a $500 monthly donation.
“I said, ‘Sign me up!’” Harrison remembers. “What could be more opposite from a nightclub promoter’s life than living in a country that had been decimated by war, serving alongside these doctors?”
During his two-year stint, Harrison encountered people suffering from leprosy, cleft palates, cataracts, and burns from the war. But it was the lack of access to clean water that left the biggest impression.
“I saw people drinking dirty water and getting sick from it,” he says. “This was after I had been selling Voss for $10 in nightclubs. Sometimes people wouldn’t even open the water because they were drinking champagne.”
That juxtaposition, along with a restored faith, left him feeling a responsibility to do something to change what he had seen. In 2006 he founded charity: water. Since then, the organization has funded nearly 30,000 projects, bringing clean water to 8.5 million people in 26 countries. It has also become a leader in restoring public trust in charitable foundations.
Experience Life | How is charity: water’s model different from other nonprofits, and how did you come up with it?
SCOTT HARRISON | When I started, I was 30 years old and had never worked at a charity. But the mission was very clear: We’re going to bring clean drinking water to everyone on the planet.
As I was talking to everyday people or my friends, however, I realized there was huge cynicism and skepticism about donating. Everybody seemed to have a horror story about a charity that had mismanaged funds or overpaid its chief executives millions of dollars.
I thought that this was a shame because “charity” means “love.” The act of charity is helping your neighbor in need and getting nothing in return. I thought we needed less cynicism and skepticism and more people engaged in helping their neighbors in need.
So, as I talked to my friends, I asked, “What would the perfect charity look like for you? How would they handle money? How would they show you your impact?” We came up with a few very simple ideas that turned out to be very different from how most charities behaved, and these changes brought in a lot of new people.
First, we’d use 100 percent of every donation we’d ever collect from the public to directly fund water projects.
To ensure that happened, we opened a separate bank account and asked a small group of visionary individuals, business leaders, and entrepreneurs if they’d donate to pay for unsexy overhead costs like staff salaries, office rent, phone bills, and the Epson copy machine.
Once we had funding, we wanted to show the wells being drilled, the rainwater-harvesting systems being constructed, and the clean water flowing. We do this by putting up satellite images of every project on Google Earth and Google Maps so people can see that they exist. We’ve also started wiring some of our wells with sensors so that they’ll tell us exactly how much water was flowing the day before.
Finally, we believed that our work needed to be culturally appropriate to be sustainable. We could raise money and awareness, but the work had to be done by local hydrologists, technicians, drivers, and geologists, and they’d get the credit.
EL | In your book, Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World, you mention that your identity was often tied to your work. Is that still true?
SH | When you’re on a social mission, it can be difficult to separate your personal identity from your life’s work. I write about a period of time when after having eight years of consecutive growth, we had our first year of not raising as much money as the prior year. I took it really hard because I felt like I’d let people down.
But I learned through that process that nothing goes up forever. You have great years and some where you need to reinvent or pivot.
This experience also showed me that I was more than just the leader of charity: water. I was a father, husband, and son. That realization helped me look at the bigger picture and see that we didn’t compromise our values or integrity as an organization, and I hadn’t as a person. We just didn’t raise quite as much money, and the downturn gave us a chance to figure out why and to solve the problem.
EL | How did you solve that fundraising challenge?
SH | We built a brand-new community of monthly givers called The Spring. We saw people subscribing to Netflix, HBO GO, and Spotify every month and wondered if we could get a community of people to do the same for clean drinking water.
So we invited people to do it. We explained that it costs us $30 a month to get clean water to one human. That’s just one dollar a day, which is less than a cup of coffee.
Over 33,000 people from 104 countries have joined. They include people who are donating their pensions, college kids who are donating 10 bucks, and young kids who are giving their allowance to their parents to support what we do. It’s an amazing community born from what seemed like a failure but was actually an opportunity to grow and try something new.
EL | How do you prioritize yourself and your family with all the travel and commitments that charity: water requires?
SH | My wife was really a co-conspirator in building charity: water, so she understands the work. She’s traveled to Ethiopia with me 13 times, and it’s something we’re also trying to involve our kids in. My 4-year-old son has been on about 40 flights already. This allows him to see what I do for a living and why I believe the work is so important. It also helps integrate my work into my life and vice versa.
We live in a very small apartment in New York City that’s a seven-minute walk to the office. This cuts down commuting time, allowing me to spend more time with my family at the zoo or museums.
EL | How has serving others influenced your ideas about leadership?
SH | I never thought of myself as a leader, but as a promoter. I’d become successful promoting this idea that getting past the velvet rope and inside a club and sitting with the right people sipping expensive champagne meant your life had meaning.
I switched to promoting something completely different, but it’s still telling a story. Now I promote the idea that if you’re looking for ways to give your time and money to end suffering around the world, then joining this community that helps bring people clean water can give your life more meaning. So far, over a million people have heeded the call and joined us in solving this problem.