charity: water CEO, Scott Harrison, a nightclub promoter who transformed himself into one of the hottest not-for-profit entrepreneurs of our time, had Inc. 5000 Conference attendees on their feet this morning, pledging to “give up” their birthdays in support of his organization.
It was a morning filled with stories of personal transformation–from the likes of Russell Simmons, General Stanley McChrystal, and Ric Elias, who was on Flight 1549, the “Miracle on the Hudson” flight. But Harrison’s tale was perhaps the most dramatic. A New York City nightclub promoter who lived to flaunt his Rolex, his super-model girlfriends, and his ability to get companies like Budweiser and Bacardi to pay him $2,000 a month to drink their brands in public, Harrison woke up one day and “realized I was the most morally, spiritually, and emotionally bankrupt person I knew.”
He signed on with a not-for profit that sent doctors to Liberia to do pro bono surgery on people with severe facial deformities. Harrison photographed the patients before and after surgery (the not-for-profit actually required him to pay $500 a month to work for them). While working in Africa, he became acutely aware of the devastating impact the lack of clean drinking water had on communities. “I learned that a billion people in the world didn’t have what I took for granted every day of my life,” he said. “And it’s entirely solvable problem.”
Harrison decided he was the one to solve it and he went back to New York City with “my heart on fire. I wanted to solve the water problem but I also wanted to reinvent charity.”
He decided to take a three-pronged approach with charity: water.
He pledged to find a way to put 100 percent of donations into water projects, such as digging wells in impoverished villages.
He’d provide proof of where donations were going by sending donors pictures and showing them the projects using Google Earth.
He’d create an “epic brand” to differentiate charity: water and to gain support from the media and high profile donors.
Harrison kicked off his campaign by throwing himself a birthday party, charging $20 at the door and donating all the proceeds--$15,000--to his new not-for-profit. Product sales, PSAs that ran for free on American Idol, and social media awareness put the charity on the map. And when Harrison could not make payroll because of his commitment to devote all donations to water projects, Bebo co-founder Michael Birch donated $1 million in 2009 to keep charity: water afloat.
Since then, high profile supporters like Saks, NASDAQ, and premium whisky maker Macallan have helped drive the not-for-profit’s success. But it’s Harrison’s grass roots campaign that has really taken off: he asks individual donors to “give up” their birthdays by asking their friends and social media contacts to donate a dollar amount equivalent to the age to charity: water.
So far, 9,500 people have done just that, including celebs like Seth Godin, Will and Jada Smith, and Justin Bieber. The charity has raised $43 million to finance 4,200 water projects, serving two million people in 19 countries. “We’ve been growing between 80 and 100 percent a year,” said Harrison.
Now, Harrison is starting a new, even more ambitious campaign with the goal of providing clean drinking water to 100 million people within the next decade. “We need to raise two billion,” he says. He’ll start by helping to finance the purchase of drilling rigs for a water project in Northern Ethiopia. And it looks like the vast majority of conference attendees will help him out. At end of his talk, Harrison asked all who were willing to “give up” their next birthday for charity: water to stand. Suffice to say that most seats were empty!
For more information about how you can donate, check out the charity:water website.