Scott Harrison is the Founder of the non-profit organization charity: water. Turning his full attention to the global water crisis and the world’s 785 million people without clean water to drink, Harrison has created public installations and innovative online fundraising platforms to spread international awareness of the issue. Harrison has been recognized on Fortune magazine’s 40 Under 40, Forbes’ Impact 30, and Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business. He is also the author of the New York Times Bestselling book Thirst.
Scott Harrison was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, an only child in a ‘very conservative catholic family.’ His father was into business while his mother was a writer for a local paper.
When Harrison was just 4, his mother fell victim to a carbon dioxide leak and, though she survived, it made her ultra-sensitive to chemicals. Harrison explained her misery, “She lived in a bathroom in our house that had to be scrubbed down with a special soap 20 times and slept on a cot that had been washed in baking soda 20 times. There was tin foil covering the doors. In addition, she had to wear a charcoal mask on her face, a barrier against toxins to monitor the air and filter the air that she breathed.”
Harrison continued, “I was a caregiver, helping to do the cooking, the cleaning.” When he graduated from high school, Harrison decided to move to New York City, eager to rebel against societal norms — “Okay, now it’s my turn!” he recalls thinking.
From ages 18 to 28, Harrison lived his ‘decade of clubs,’ working as a promoter for over 40 venues at the time. “We bring the beautiful people; we bring the clients who can spend a thousand dollars on a bottle of champagne or $500 on a bottle of vodka. We were mercenaries — we would get a percentage of all the sales that happened that night but with no loyalty to the venue, so the minute the venue cooled down, we would take our set to the hottest club,” explained Harrison.
During that dark period, Harrison recalled, “I had just become a selfish sycophant. Hedonist. I had betrayed the spirituality and the morality of my childhood, smoked two packs of cigarettes [a day] for 10 years. I had a gambling problem. I had a pornography problem. I had a drinking problem.”
That all changed when at 28 years old, he was partying in Uruguay when he went through an existential crisis. “I had gone on a trip to Punta Del Este and realized on that trip, I had most of the things I thought would make me happy, and they hadn’t,” Harrison said. “Even though I drove a B.M.W. and had a nice apartment in New York City, my life was a mess.” At that moment, Harrison made a promise to himself: He vowed to come back and change his life.
In 2004, he returned to New York City and started applying to volunteer at humanitarian groups, including the United Nations and the Peace Corps. “I’m denied basically by all the organizations because no one knows how a nightclub promoter would be useful to their important, serious adult work,” said Harrison.
Eventually, he was accepted by Mercy Ships, a non-profit organization of floating hospitals that brought medical help to those in need. Harrison paid $500 a month to volunteer. For his first trip, he lived off of the coast of Liberia on a converted cruise liner and took pictures of the work the non-profit was doing, including helping people with tumours and cancers.
When he returned to New York City, he exhibited his work at a gallery in Chelsea with 109 photos. The exhibition raised a whopping $96,000; he gave all of the money to Mercy Ships and then returned for a second tour.
On that trip, Harrison learned about the significant impact of having clean water and many people’s lack of access to it. According to a report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, approximately 3 in 10 people globally don’t have safe drinking water at home.
According to the WHO, the lack of access to sanitation results in the death of 361,000 children under the age of 5 every year. This also resulted in the transmission of cholera, dysentery, typhoid and hepatitis A. Harrison was struck by their misery and recognized his ability to make a difference. “I felt like I was helping by telling the story,” says Harrison.
In June 2006, Harison returned to New York City with an issue he was deeply committed to, but unfortunately, he had no money. “I was running around telling everybody I wanted to see a world where everybody drank clean water regardless of where they are born,” said Harrison.
With his sheer persistence and after garnering help from various people, he officially launched Charity: water on September 7, 2006, on Harrison’s 31st birthday. He threw a party at a nightclub in Manhattan two days later and had everyone donate $20 cash at the door. He raised $15,000 and donated 100 per cent of the funds to a refugee camp in Northern Uganda to fund the repair of three broken wells and the construction of three new wells.
His organization, Charity: water, is solution agnostic and funds eight different water projects worldwide. He explains, “Sometimes a 40-foot deep hand-dug well is the right solution; sometimes, our partners need to drill up to 1,000 feet to find clean water. In some environments, rainwater harvesting is the best solution for protecting mountain springs and using gravity flow and pipes to connect communities. In some instances, biosand filters are appropriate, and in others, high tech filters employ the latest in Carbon, U.V. and U.F. filtration. Our implementing partners test water at different locations and measure them against local water quality standards.”
But despite his early success, the non-profit almost went bankrupt in 2008. He had more than $800,000 in the bank to build wells, but he was running out of money to pay overheads and make payroll. His friends recommended borrowing cash from his well-building fund to pay his operations expenses, but he refused. “I remember being so outraged at that idea,” said Harrison. “I was going to shut the organization down and say that the 100 per cent model didn’t work.”
“And at that moment, a stranger walked into our office at 150 Varick Street at that time, sat with me for two hours, and then wrote a million dollar check to overhead,” recalled Harrison. “We went from almost bankrupt to 13 months of funding on the overhead side.”
His organization has helped various nations, but one compelling story of Rachel Beckwith remains the most touching. She had heard Harrison speak a few months before turning nine and told her mother her intention to raise $300 for Charity: water to celebrate her birthday. She managed to raise $220. However, just a few weeks later, in July 2011, Beckwith tragically passed away in a car accident. Her story spread like wildfire, and strangers started donating to Beckwith’s campaign. 31,997 donations were made to her campaign, raising almost $1.3 million. The funds were used to provide clean water to 37,770 individuals in the memory of the young Rachel Beckwith.
In conclusion, Harrison says, “I think one of the most important things is being able to tell your personal story in a way that engages people, and then the story of your organization. Many people want to know what is driving the entrepreneur forward and learn more about his or her character before they invest. Using photos and videos to ‘show’ people rather than tell them is increasingly important in a world of glowing screens and shortened attention spans.”