2012-12-10

How The Founder Of Charity: Water Went From Packing Clubs To Building Wells

Scott Harrison talks about his crisis of faith and a journey that took him from a debaucherous world of club promotion to becoming a powerful force for clean water in Africa.

In 2004, Scott Harrison was a nightclub promoter in New York City when he experienced a "crisis of conscience" over what he felt was a decadent, empty life. So he ran away and spent the next two years volunteering on board a hospital ship offering free health care in West Africa. In Liberia, he learned that most of the diseases they encountered were due to unsafe water. Back stateside, he threw himself a 31st birthday party and raised $15,000 to build wells in Uganda. That was the start of Charity: Water, a non-profit with the lofty mission of ensuring safe, clean drinking water for every person on the planet. Its "100% Model" ensures all public donations go directly to the field for wells and water; wealthy angel investors and foundations take care of staff salaries and overhead.

You call Charity: Water a new model for giving. Viral videos, GPS tracking, and email make it possible for your donors to engage with the results of their generosity intimately. How far back were you a social media wonk? Did you realize its power for change at the beginning?

I think honestly, it just came naturally to me. Remember, my background was 10 years of getting people drunk in nightclubs. This was before Twitter. We basically emailed and called people, and tried to create an illusion that their lives were meaningful if they came, spent money, and spent time on the other side of our velvet rope. We told stories about who was there, and tried to get people jealous of what they’d missed out on if they hadn’t been there.

After my transformation, I tried to redeem some of the things I learned during my decade of nightlife. And as I was always an early adopter: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, they just became part of our communication language. They seemed like great ways to bring people together, and most importantly, tell stories.

The stories were all just different this time: Meaningful.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.

Rachel Beckwith, an extraordinary 9-year-old girl, tragically died soon after her birthday and a little short of her $300 fundraising goal for Charity: Water. The outpouring of support resulted in a million dollars for wells in Africa. Why do you believe that happened? How does a mass expression of generosity like that soothe a collective grief?  

I still have a hard time trying to put into words what Rachel’s story means to me. I think Rachel showed people a generosity, an unselfishness, and a way of thinking so much wider and deeper than herself. Rachel was a Christian, and took the commandments of Jesus to serve the poor at face value. Before coming across Charity: Water, she’d learned that kids lost their hair when they got cancer. She grew her hair long, and cut it off so she could donate it to Locks of Love. Then she did it again.

She was an incredibly special girl, and I think many of us were just humbled by her spirit; by the simplicity of heart this little 9-year-old had; by the hope she had that maybe if she really did give up her toys or things most kids her age would feel entitled to in a birthday, a child’s life in Africa could be saved. And through her tragic death, she was able to bring clean water to more than 60,000 people in Ethiopia.

You say that before you decided to go to Africa, you were "the worst person you knew." What accounted for the radical shift? Was the dedicated servant born in that dark moment you describe in interviews or was he hiding in there all along?

My transformation had to do with a faith journey that began for me at this bottom. I was the worst person I knew. I’d walked away from all the spirituality and morality I’d embraced as a child, and felt completely bankrupt. I got people wasted for a living in nightclubs, and effectively the drunker they got, the more money I made.

I started reading a book on theology by A.W. Tozer called The Pursuit of God, and it just really rocked me. Here was an author trying to serve God desperately, living a life of submission and a life of service, and my life looked exactly opposite. Everything was about me. How much money could I make? What car could I drive? How famous was my girlfriend, really?

I decided to embrace faith, and live completely differently. In many ways I felt like the prodigal son in the Bible that had soiled his clothes and was eating pig scraps (even if they came with $500 dinner bills). I offered my life to God in service, and that led me quickly out of nightclubs, and to Liberia for a new journey volunteering with Mercy Ships.

I do think it’s important to point out that Charity: Water is not a religious organization and has no religious affiliation. We work closely in more than 20 countries with people of all faiths, and our mission is simply to make sure every single person on Earth has clean and safe water to drink.

In the past month, social media has played a dramatic role in first-response Sandy efforts. What can we all learn from this?  

About half of the Charity: Water staff were affected by Sandy, and our office lost power for a week. I was doing my best to use my social network to highlight others doing great work, and was surprised when I learned that a tweet of mine led to a truck being packed in Ohio and delivered in New York. It became this incredible tool to share needs, meet them, and connect people.

Why is giving time different than giving money?

Your time is the most valuable thing you have. You can’t get it back. You can’t earn more of it. It’s truly more valuable than most people think.

What does generosity mean to you?

My wife Viktoria and I have been exploring this a lot recently. As I’m the chief fundraiser for The Well program (made up of the donors that give on the other side of the 100% and support all our staff and operating costs) I’m out there a lot asking for big gifts that often involve sacrifice. Vik and I have always been happy givers, but we’ve recently been exploring radical generosity, giving more than 20% of our income away each year. Sometimes we give anonymously, sometimes publicly to inspire others. We always give against direct costs and in support of the organization, getting nothing back. I don’t want to help sponsor a child that writes to me in Uganda, I want to help the organization pay their phone bills, or upgrade their copy, or be able to afford insurance for their staff traveling around the world. The "ugly costs" to run an organization for some are the fun ones for us.

Many people think that our only form of giving is sacrificing big jobs and paychecks in the corporate world to work at a nonprofit. But I’m a big believer in eating your own dog food: not asking someone to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself. My favorite kind of generosity is "surprising." The kind that can bring two people to tears because it comes at such a cost, and it’s so meaningful.

Tell us the names and stories of three individuals who inspire you most with their generosity.

Gary Parker is the chief medical officer and head surgeon for the humanitarian aid organization Mercy Ships. He left his practice in California on a medical mission to serve the poor onboard a giant hospital ship, and planned to do a short tour. He saw extreme poverty for the first time, and became "sick in body and grieved in mind and soul" from what he witnessed. That volunteer tour lasted 25 years, and today he still operates for free on those who have no access to medical care. I had the honor of spending hours in surgery with Gary in Liberia and Benin and never have I met someone with such a heart of compassion for the poor. Gary’s 25 years of service have been motivated by his Christian faith, and what he believes is "God’s heart for the poor" but never came with any strings attached. Gary is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, and was instrumental in inspiring me to start Charity: Water.

In July of 2008, Charity: Water almost ran out of money. Our 100% model had helped us raise millions for clean water, but we hadn’t yet worked out a sustainable funding model to help pay for our staff and operations. We had about five weeks left, and thought we’d failed. Maybe all the critics were right, and we could never sustain our model. And then Michael and Xochi Birch came along, and in a radical act of generosity, wired a surprise $1 million into our account for staff and operations. We went from five weeks in the bank to 13 months in the bank, and used the extra time to build a sustainable group of supporters for the "other" side called The Well. Six years and $70 million dollars later, I look back on this as a defining moment for the organization, and would hope one day to be able to pay-it-forward and personally impact another organization in such a meaningful way.

The story of the prodigal son in Luke is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament, and I think speaks so much to generosity and grace. The prodigal son asked his father for his inheritance, which in those days was like saying, Dad, I wish you were dead. You just didn’t do this. Generously and sadly, the father obliged and his son ran off to sleep with prostitutes and gamble and booze his dad’s money away. Years later, the son comes to his senses, and says he’d be better off as a servant in his father’s house than eating pig slop. He comes home, and when his father sees him, he goes running. For a man back in those days to run was undignified, but his father was so happy to see his son even after all that he’d done, that he embraced him, and prepared the best food and wine, invited all the neighbors, and threw him a wild party. No talk of the past, just grace and radical generosity. If only more people lived like this.

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1 Comments

  • Jlw75014

    Kudos to Scott for making a huge change in the direction of your life! Thank you for understanding the importance of supporting general operating funds when you make charitable contributions. It is often the hardest "cause" to raise money for but equally critical to serving an organizations mission.