How I Did It
VIDEO • HOW I DID IT

Lessons Learned: Making Charity Sexy
 

charity:water founder and CEO Scott Harrison tells the story of how he went from being a nightclub promoter to building one of the fastest growing charities ever.

Lessons Learned: Scott Harrison, charity:water

charity:water founder and CEO Scott Harrison tells the story of how he went from being a nightclub promoter to building one of the fastest growing charities ever.

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Video Transcript

00:07 Scott Harrison: Scott Harrison, I'm the founder and CEO of charity:water. We work in 19 countries around the world bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in need.

What led you to become the CEO of a charity?

00:20 Harrison: Quite a bizarre childhood growing up, taking care of, helping to take care of a mom who was an invalid. And there was this terrible gas leak in our house when I was four and she got carbon monoxide blood poisoning and it, basically just destroyed her immune system, so she was allergic to the world, allergic to everything. And it didn't affect my father or myself because I was outside playing with my friends and my dad was working long hours. So I grew up really with a lot of responsibility. I was active in the church and kind of the perfect kid. At eighteen I learned that there was this place called New York City where you could get yourself in trouble and I spent the next ten years doing that. Filling up nightclubs full of beautiful people and selling them sixteen dollar cocktails and five hundred dollar bottles of champagne, and I guess my life looked great on the outside. Lots of people thought, wow that guy he drinks for a living, he drives a nice car and has a beautiful girlfriend, I want to be him.

01:26 Harrison: What I really was, was a pretty empty existence. So after about a decade in the business on a trip to Uruguay, South America with all of the right people I crashed and it was like the veil was lifted. I saw my life playing out and I was never going to be happy chasing the things I was chasing. I looked around and really nobody else was happy either. They were sixty-five year old guys who trashed their marriages just because they could play ten thousand dollars a hand at black jack. They were trying to fill a hole that they just couldn't. So I was doing tons of drugs at the time and drinking a lot and I remember during the days, hung-over, I started reading theology and trying to re-explore my faith in a different way as an adult, different than what was I guess force fed to me as a kid. And I'm tearing through the New Testament and reading about Jesus who is pouring out his life for the poor and I'm pouring cocktails, and really just felt convicted of my moral spiritual bankruptcy.

02:38 Harrison: So I came back to New York and I found an opportunity a few months later to leave everything behind and go actually serve in Liberia, West Africa. So my life changed again, I guess, in a really dramatic way from bottles and models to a hospital ship in a country with no electricity, running water, sewage, mail, anything, and I was a volunteer photojournalist on a big hospital ship where facial surgeons would come and instead of going to the Bahamas they would fly to Liberia and they would operate for free. So I documented over the next two years some of the most extreme suffering, deformity, of people, kids with six pound tumors, fifty-five year old women with cleft lips that they'd had all their lives. People that were blind but didn't need to be blind because they had cataracts. And it was a really powerful, transformative two years. My heart was completely broken and we would just a weep, meeting some of the people that had struggled for so long. And then it was happy too because people were getting their lives back. So someone would come on with a giant tumor and an eight hour surgery and then they would get to go home with a new face and a new life.

03:58 Harrison: So while I was there I learned that water was actually the cause of a lot of the disease that we were seeing. There was a stat by World Health Organization that eighty percent of disease was water related and thought maybe I could use my life when I came back to New York to solve the water crisis and thought that water was kind of the question behind the question in so much of the diseases that we saw. And I was thirty and I wanted to solve the water crisis, I wanted to reinvent charity, none of my friends were giving like they should. They all had a bunch of excuses, bureaucratic charities and some of them were well informed excuses and most were not. So I started charity:water on the couch of a friend and new model, we use a hundred percent of public donations to directly fund projects. And we separately fund our staff and our operations and our office from a small group of donors who approve all the projects on earth... Google Earth. So every single project has a photo and a GPS and a name of the community, and how many people live there and all that to make transparent. And then we've also tried to build a brand to tell the story in a different way than charities I think typically market their problem. So we're very much about opportunity and not guilt and the possibility that exists where we can solve this problem.

Last updated: Oct 5, 2011