Scott Harrison’s story is now famous in the world of humanitarian work: one of the top ten nightclub promoters in NYC sold everything he owned, went to Africa, and now runs one of the most impactful non profits in the world.
After experiencing a midlife crisis and spiritual awakening, Scott Harrison launched charity: water in 2006 with the goal of providing clean, safe drinking water to the six hundred and sixty-three million people who currently live without it. In a radical move at the time, he created a business model that gives 100% of all donations directly to work on the field. (charity: water even refunds credit card charges.)
IVY Members were so moved after Scott Harrison’s presentation at a recent IVY Ideas Night that they pledged to build a well in Africa together. We raised over a quarter of our $10,000 goal in a matter of hours—check out our donations page to participate and help us built an IVY well!
Scott’s story is a testament to the ability of one person to change the lives of millions of people and demonstrates the power of tight-knit communities to champion a cause. IVY Magazine caught up with Scott to hear his story—read his insights below!
“I realized I was the worst person I knew”: The transition from nightclub promoter to humanitarian
My epiphany took place over a couple of months. I had been a very dark, decadent nightclub promoter for over a decade. I had moved to New York City when I was 18 and spent ten years getting people drunk and getting as wasted as I could, rebelling against my very conservative Christian upbringing. Then, after years of just selfish living, I was in South America on a ‘perfect’ vacation: my girlfriend was on billboards, I had a Rolex watch, I drove a BMW, I had a Labrador retriever, and I had a grand piano in my New York apartment. And I realized I was the worst person I knew. My legacy was simply that I got people drunk for a living. My tombstone might have read, “Here lies a man who managed to get 10,000 people wasted.” Unless something changed, I realized I might not even make it to be an old man.
So, it was a complex situation, but there was a spiritual awakening. I began to rediscover faith and the values of a childhood that had been very lost. It took me a few months, but I quit my job and sold all my possessions. I made this deal with God that I would give one of the ten years that I had pissed away to try and serve him with integrity. I would try and serve the poor. Then, I began applying to all these humanitarian organizations, thinking it would be easy. “The nightclub promoter is ready for you, humanitarian world!” Of course no one took me because they were serious people and I got people drunk. But finally, one gave me a shot if I paid them a lot of money to let me volunteer and start a new story.
How to find your calling
I think about “calling” and what you do with your life through a humanitarian lens. It’s hard to say I had a calling as nightclub promoter—it was about having a lot of fun and wanting to get drunk. I think you have to find that thing that just really unsettles you. I heard a pastor once say it’s like this holy discontent, this thing that gnaws. For me, that was kids drinking nasty water. I realized that I had been selling $10 Pellegrinos in nightclubs to people who didn’t even drink them. I would say this to you: if you look at the world, what is that thing that makes you say, “This isn’t ok”?
The trick to galvanizing millions of people? Tell a really good story
Storytelling is probably the most important key to the success that charity: water has had. We look for stories in unusual places, and we see stories everywhere. We used to drill live every year on our anniversary, on September 7, to connect our community and our supporters and to say, “This is what you’re doing.”
The stories aren’t always rosy. I have a story I share sometimes about a thirteen year-old girl who walked eight hours each day for water in Ethiopia. One day, she came back, and she spilled her water. She broke her pot, and she hung herself from a tree instead of going and getting more water. We’re not afraid of the tough stories out there. We’ll use that as an illustration of the problem. 663 million people is a mind-numbing statistic. It doesn’t make you feel anything. But the desperation of a thirteen year-old girl who felt like there was nowhere else to go and her fear that her carelessness caused her family to go without water—we can all feel that. It awakens something inside of us. It might move people to action.
One of my favorite stories is this story of a woman named Helen Appio, who lives in Northern Uganda. She got clean water from one of our water projects. When we asked her how her life was different, she said that she felt beautiful for the first time in her life. It took our team a while to understand that and unpack that, but essentially, she had so little water—she had a husband and two kids—that there was never enough to cook, clean, wash her husband’s body, her husband’s clothes, or her kids clothes, so she never used water for herself. She always put her family first, so she was dirty all the time. And her clothes were dirty. So when she got all the water that she needed, she could wash her clothes and her face and her body. She felt beautiful. I thought that was so powerful to think that water could restore dignity and could make a woman feel beautiful and special.
Our stories don’t always focus on successes. One year we were in the Central African Republic in the middle of the bush, and it was a really difficult well to drill for this community. There had been a couple failed attempts. We decided we were just going to broadcast the truth, even if it didn’t work again. So, we drilled twice, and it collapsed twice, and we broadcast the bad news, which was, “Hey, these rigs are leaving the village.” None of those people were getting water—their hopes were dashed for the third or the fourth time. That’s not a typical good news story, but it became one of the most popular videos that we ever did because it spoke the truth. It spoke to how difficult this work really is. It spoke to the tenacity of our partner, who went back three or four times and wanted to get those people clean water and fulfill his promise. The story actually had a happy ending about six months later. On the fifth try, they brought back a new rig and some expert technicians, and they ended up getting clean water.
The “Why” of Water
My first exposure to poverty was in a country called Benin and then in Liberia, West Africa. I was with these humanitarian surgeons, volunteer doctors and facial surgeons, operating on a medical ship—a giant yacht that had been gutted and turned into a hospital. It was a very simple idea: sail up and down the West African coast and bring the best doctors in the world to people who couldn’t afford medical care or access facilities that could serve them. So, that was really my life for a couple of years. It was scrubbed up in these surgeries. It was documenting patients before and after. But as I spent time in the villages, I wached people drink from swamps. And I kind of put the two and two together. You didn’t have to be that smart to realize if kids were drinking nasty water, or if women were washing their faces with contaminated water with leeches and bacteria and disease in it, then they would be sick.
I started learning that 56% of all the diseases throughout the developing world are waterborne. So, over half of the disease is just bad water and lack of sanitation. That seemed like the bigger issue. At the time, there were 1 billion people who didn’t have clean water to drink. Here I was with these doctors putting on the Bandaid after the fact. When I was thinking about my life’s work—I asked myself, why don’t we go work on the question behind the question of so much of this sickness?
The future of philanthropy: Hope-based giving vs. Guilt-based giving
Giving is becoming much more inclusive—it’s involving so many more young people. I think people our age are not giving to our parents’ charities. We are not giving to these big, behemoth institutions in the same way. There’s so much more information out there; there’s so much more transparency now. You can know more about your gift, you can know more about how an organization is run, and how they steward that gift.
We’re seeing a lot of growth on the online sector. (I actually don’t write checks anymore; I finally figured out how to pay my rent online.) I would say the future of giving is going to be a thumbprint on your device when you respond to an image or a need, and there will be some way to connect with where that gift went.
We’re seeing a trend as well in opportunity giving and not the same guilt-based giving of the past. We all remember those commercials—those sad stories—and they worked. But you don’t want to be associated with that kind of organization. It doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. And I think so many of the newer organizations have made it fun. They don’t guilt or shame you into giving. They just present an amazing opportunity.
IVY, donate your birthdays!
We have clear call to actions, and I think that’s helped us over the years. The first one is actually not about money. I think most people are used to charities only hitting them up for money. Our clearest call to action is that we ask people to donate their birthday. You don’t need anything for your birthday—jewelry, clothes, new things. There are 663 million people without water. What if we all could donate our birthdays and use this as a moment to involve all our friends and family to help get clean water?
We started this initiative about seven years ago, and it has just exploded. The hook is that you ask for your age in dollars. So, a nine year-old girl asks for $9 from everyone she knows. A fifty-nine year-old man asks for $59. We’ve just seen incredibly success. The average person who donates his or her birthday to charity: water raises $1,000. The trick is that you involve fifteen of your friends, and awareness also spreads.
Individuals can give, too. For $10,000 you can sponsor an entire community and give an entire village access to clean water. We’ve now been having some people join and donate to our monthly program, so $30 can bring people clean water every single month. Obviously, we’re different in that 100% of the money, whether it’s raised or it’s given, goes directly to these projects, and it’s tracked. People can see the impact that they have made.