Charity:Water – How Scott Harrison Gave Up Wealth, Drugs, Booze and Porn to Give Millions Clean Water

by Tony Wyman


Thousands have lived without love, not one without water – W.H. Auden, poet

Despite living a life that most young men would kill for, Scott Harrison didn’t think much of himself at 28 years of age.  In fact, this young man who grew up in a Christian family in Pennsylvania, concluded that, after 10 years of being a highly-successful, highly-paid nightclub promoter, he was the worst person he knew.

“I learned, if you were interested in rebelling in style,” he said to an audience at Creative Mornings, a free breakfast lecture series designed to serve the creative community in Brooklyn, New York, “there’s this extraordinary job … where you can get paid to drink alcohol professionally.  It’s called a nightclub promoter.”

Part of the job as a club promoter was to be seen and photographed by the photographers who prowled the clubs. In this picture, taken in the VIP section of a Manhattan club, Harrison made special effort to make sure his Rolex watch was visible to the cameraman.

All the job entailed was getting the right people to visit the right clubs, creating the impression that a particular nightspot was the place to be.  Once the beautiful and famous people were filling seats at the club, owners could charge outrageous prices to patrons for the privilege of mingling with the in-crowd.

“People will pay $25 for a cocktail that costs 20 cents to make,” Harrison said.  “They will spend $1000 for a bottle of Absolut at their table that costs $30.”

Over ten years, Harrison worked for 40 clubs in Manhattan and, eventually, he and his business partner became so good at promoting nightclubs that big alcohol companies began paying them to be seen drinking their products.  “We were getting paid $4000 a month by Bacardi to be seen drinking Bacardi in public.  Budweiser paid us another $4000 just to drink Bud. We were, like, ‘This is amazing! We get paid to be seen drinking, now!'”

One might think spending his nights – every night – drinking himself drunk, partying with people willing to pay extravagant fees to be seen in New York City’s most exclusive nightclubs, ending up in the company of the most beautiful women in the Big Apple, decked out in the best clothes, wearing Rolex watches and splashing cash – a lot of cash – would leave Harrison feeling like he had it made, but it actually left him feeling empty and purposeless.

It also left him with addictions and dependencies that were ruining his life.

“So, you can imagine all the vices that might come with the territory of 10 years of debauchery,” Harrison told his audience. “So, I have a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. I have a gambling problem. I have a cocaine, Ecstasy, MDMA, marijuana-user, pornography problem, strip club problem.  You name it, short of heroin, and I’m doing it at this time.”

To his friends and business associates, Harrison’s life looked like a dream come true, a fantasy straight out of Hollywood.  But, for Harrison, it was killing him.

This is what my life looks like on the inside. On the outside it looks amazing! I’m dating the girls on the covers of magazines. I’m flying around to Milan and Paris for Fashion Week. I drive a BMW.  I have a grand piano in my New York City apartment. But I am literally rotting inside…ten years in, suddenly, I realize I’ve become the worst person I know. 

I’m emotionally bankrupt, I’m spiritually bankrupt, and I’m morally bankrupt. And I’m leaving the most meaningless legacy, perhaps, a person can leave. My tombstone might actually read ‘Here lies a man who’s gotten 10 million people wasted.

He realized that the life he was living would never be fulfilling because, no matter how much he had, no matter how many beautiful women he slept with or how many exotic vacations he took or expensive things he bought, there would always be someone who had more.  The endless pursuit of more things, more wealth, more Rolex watches and BMWs, would never be fulfilling.  In fact, it was leaving him feeling empty.

So, he asked himself, “What would the exact opposite of my life look like?  What would the exact, 180-degree opposite look like?”

Returning to His Past

His conclusion was he would have to return to his past and regain his lost faith, his lost morality, his lost sense of purpose, a sense that, in his youth, led him to want to be a doctor.  And, at the age of 28, at the top of his profession, dripping in wealth, women, hedonistic pleasures and fame, he gave it all up.

Harrison sold everything he owned.  The cars, the apartment, the expensive watches.  And he applied to “famous humanitarian organizations I had heard about over the years.”  This would be, he thought, his path back to a meaningful life, one with purpose and value.  He would dedicate himself to a charity with the same energy and commitment he put into drinking, drugs and women.

The only problem was, after applying to dozens of charities, none of them would have him.  His past as a professional partier, as a promoter of excess and hedonism, made him persona non grata at one charity after another.

Mercy Ships mission is to bring medical services, including life-saving surgery, to people living in the most depressed places on earth. The organization is Christian-based and brings treatment to people regardless of race, religion or gender, “bringing hope and healing to the forgotten poor, following the 2000-year-old model of Jesus”.

Finally, one, MercyShips.org, agrees to let him join if he was willing to do two things: first, move to Liberia and help them promote their mission there, and, second, pay them $500 a month for the privilege of volunteering.

Harrison agreed and, weeks later, boarded a ship for Liberia.

On his third day in Africa, Harrison got up at 5 AM, grabbed his cameras, and headed to a soccer stadium where doctors from Mercy Ships were going to triage potential patients for the 1500 available surgical slots the mission could provide.

Five thousands people were waiting for them by the time he got there, more than three times the number of patients the doctors could treat during their tour of the country.  Harrison was stunned, not only by the number of people hoping to get medical treatment, but also by the severity of the illnesses and conditions from which they suffered.

Flesh eating bacteria, horrific deformities, life-threatening tumors and injuries suffered during the civil war fought over a decade in Liberia, the world’s poorest country.  The pictures he took of the people he saw are so awful that I’ve chosen to not reproduce them here.  They left me, an ex-military man, in tears, especially the ones of children.

Doctors had 1500 surgical slots available for the mission, but more than 5000 people showed up for the chance of getting treatment, some walking hundreds of miles through dangerous territory, carrying their children,

“I realized in that moment, we didn’t have enough doctors,” he said.  “We were going to send people home. I later learned many of the people in this photo had walked for more than a month, some from neighboring countries with their children.”

Over the course of the year Harrison spent in Liberia, he photographed all the patients the doctors were able to treat, recording the surgeries they performed, preserving the images of people before the operations and showing what they looked like after doctors treated them.  He took more than 50,000 photographs of people so badly disfigured their images are heartbreaking to see. This man who had spent 10 years partying in the best clubs in New York, surrounded by some of the most beautiful people on the planet, witnessed, first hand, some of the most horrifying things that can happen to a human body.

He was so moved by the experience, that, instead of going back to his glamorous life in Manhattan,  Harrison signed up for a second year with Mercy Ships.  And, he started using his club promoter email list to send pictures of what he was doing to influential and wealthy people from the party world in New York he had left behind.  And while some unsubscribed from his emails, many expressed shock that conditions were so bad in Liberia and asked how they could contribute and how they could volunteer to help, as well.

Clean Water

During his second year in Liberia, Harrison found his calling.

“In that second year in Liberia, I got off the ship and spent more and more time in the rural areas and I realize that dirty water was making so many of these people sick. I learned that 50% of the country was drinking from disgusting swamps or ponds or brown-green rivers,” he said.

It was this discovery that led Harrison to create his own organization, Charity: Water.

I had never seen a human being drink dirty water before in my life.  I was selling Voss for $10 a bottle in nightclubs to people who wouldn’t even open the water because they were drinking booze, instead. 

The experience of seeing people drinking dirty water and learning what impact that had on their health, caused Harrison to return to New York and start an organization with the simple mission of bringing clean drinking water to everyone on earth.

The importance of that mission is critical when you look at the statistics around the damage dirty drinking water does, globally.

First, more people die from disease associated with dirty drinking water that die in all the wars taking place globally, combined.  In fact, nearly 3.6 million people annually die from drinking contaminated water; 2.2 million of them are children. This is the equivalent of one person dying every 10 seconds or a jumbo jet full of people crashing every hour.

It is the third highest cause of death in the world, after heart disease and stroke.  It kills more than car wrecks (1.4 million), lung cancer (1.7 million), diabetes (1.6 million) and tuberculosis (1.3 million).

Second, half the world’s hospital beds are full of people being treated for illnesses related to drinking dirty water.  The cost to health systems in the world’s poorest countries is overwhelming, causing care for other diseases to fall below acceptable standards and taxing already overburdened systems even more.

Fifty-two percent of illnesses in developing nations are caused by people drinking bad water and a lack of sanitation.  Dirty drinking water kills more people than anything else, other than heart disease and stroke, more than all the wars in the world, combined.

And, third, dirty drinking water is slowing the development of third world countries.  In addition to lost worker productivity due to frequent illness caused by drinking dirty water, people, especially women, spend a large amount of their time finding and transporting water back to their homes, labor spent on acquiring a basic necessity that could be put to better use increasing the wealth of families or spent in school improving the education of children.

The population of two Americas, more than 663 million people, drink dirty, diseased, bacteria-infested water each day.

A Huge Problem but a Solvable One

“It’s a huge, terrible human problem that affects an extraordinary number of people,” said Harrison.  “But the great news is it is actually a solvable problem.  We now, right now, definitively, how to help every person on the planet. There is not a single person alive that we do not know how to get clean water to.”

Unlike finding cures for diseases that may or may not, someday, come to fruition some time in the future, the solution to the water crisis exists right now, said Harrison.  “We haven’t created the will to solve the problem.  We haven’t allocated the resources.”

And that is why Harrison created Charity: Water.  His organization takes a “solution agnostic” approach to remedies to address clean water shortages across the globe, understanding that a one-solution approach won’t work everywhere.  In some cases, the solution is as simple as drilling a well for as little as $10,000 to access the water that exists underneath the community where women walk miles each day to collect dirty water to bring back to their families.  In others, more complex engineering solutions are required.

To raise funds for Charity: Water, Harrison takes a unique approach.  He recognized that people today are cynical when it comes to charities, and for good reasons.  So many seem to exist to pay the salaries of their employees, rather than to do the good they claim to do.  People willing to donate a dollar to a good cause have become increasingly disillusioned by charities that spend an inordinate percentage on overhead costs and give little to those in need.

So, to address that, Harrison, in his words, “reinvented charity.” His first thought was how could his organization handle money differently than other, similar organizations?  Could they take 100% of the money donated to provide clean water for people in areas without it and apply it exclusively to that cause?

With no real plan for how to make this happen, Harrison opened two bank accounts with the idea that one would be exclusively used for funds dedicated to pay overhead costs like salaries and administrative expenses, and the other would be used solely for money donated to provide clean water.

To make this model work, Harrison solicited support for his organization from separate donors who knew their funds would go towards keeping the lights on and paying the salaries of people working for the cause.  This allowed him to take all of the money donated by other contributors and apply it exclusively to the effort to bring clean drinking water to everyone on earth.  He even went so far protecting the integrity of the system that he pledged the organization would chip in money from the overhead fund to make up the difference on a contribution made by credit card to cover the fee changed by the card company.  In other words, if someone donated $100 and the card company kept $2, Charity: Water would contribute $2 from their organization funds to the clean water account.

All the projects funded by Charity: Water are shown on Google Maps. Contributors can find the ones they funded and actually visit the sites to see the result of the projects they supported.

The second thing they did was they used technology to show to their donors where and how their money was being used.

“We wanted to build the most hyper-transparent charity the world had ever seen,” said Harrison.

So they started putting all their projects up on Google Maps so their contributors could see, specifically, where the projects they had funded were located.  In addition, they put water-monitoring devices on each pump that collected data on how much water was drawn from each well and how effectively they were operating.  This information was also made available to those who contributed to the project.

And the third thing he did was he created a brand for his charity that inspired people to contribute by showing them the good they could do, rather than to rope them into giving by appealing to negative emotions.

“As I looked at charities,” said Harrison, “I saw shame and guilt.” He didn’t want to motivate people to join his effort by shaming them into it.  That was the old way, the way that worked fifty years ago but that wasn’t working anymore.

Instead, he did two things.  First, he hired a designer to build a marketing platform based on inspiring people to be their best, to make a difference through their desire to do what they could to make the world a better place for everyone.  Not out of guilt, but, instead, out of faith in their fellow man and in the ability of people to be great if given the chance.

Second, he decided that the charity would only be sustainable if they had local partners as the face of the organization at each site.  “We just believed from day one, for the work to be sustainable, for it to be culturally appropriate, it must be led in each of these countries by the locals,” said Harrison.

And sustainable it has been.  Over the 13 years the organization has existed, it has funded 44,007 projects, worked with 37 local partners in 27 countries and, amazingly, brought clean, life-changing water to 10,043,704 people.

That’s a lot of people whose lives have been positively changed for the better, even more people than Scott Harrison got wasted during his time as a club promoter.

 

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