From New York City’s nightclub scene to founding one of the world’s most transparent NGOs, Scott Harrison of charity: water talks to us about his mission to bring clean drinking water to all.
Thirst-quenching, crystal-clear water. For those lucky to be living in this part of the world, such is a basic necessity so easily available at the turn of a tap that we rarely give it a second thought. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for 771 million people across the globe – that’s nearly 1 in 10 – without access to drinking water, and who not only have to trek for hours on end every day in search of it but endure the life-threatening diseases that often come from ingesting unclean versions of it.
Scott Harrison is on a path to change that. Founded in 2006, his non-profit organisation charity: water is focused on bringing clean drinking water to poverty-stricken communities and developing nations and has garnered praise for its highly transparent charity model.
Since it was established, charity: water has raised over US$600 million and provided clean water to almost 15 million people in 29 countries via 78,350 water projects. On the heels of its Earth Month campaign with vegan haircare brand Aveda, which raised US$1 million to help bring clean water, sanitation, and hygiene to people in need in Aveda’s sourcing countries of India, Nepal and Madagascar, we chat with the former nightclub promoter on his unlikely trajectory and what drives his mission.
How would you describe the mission and vision of charity: water?
Right now, 771 million people lack access to clean water. The majority live in rural areas of developing countries, and spend hours walking for water that is often unsafe to drink. charity: water’s mission is to bring clean and safe drinking water to those who live without it. We believe in a world where clean and safe drinking water is close to home – where families are healthier and kids can go to school, where women have time back in their days to earn extra income or spend with their families, where local economies thrive.
From the start, we’ve done it all with a vision of reinventing charity. So we’ve built charity: water with a radically transparent model that proves every water project through GPS coordinates and photos, and our 100 percent model sends all public donations to the field, as a separate group of donors fund overhead costs.
You started charity: water in 2006 after two years on a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia where you saw the effects of dirty water. How did that experience impact you?
While on the ship, my primary role was to document the before and after photographs for facial surgeries. As time went on, I was able to leave the ship and join patients as they returned to their communities. There I saw people drinking dirty water – water that was green and brown and infested with leeches and harmful bacteria. I learnt that dirty water and lack of sanitation cause more than half of all illnesses in the developing world. I also learnt that dirty water is a completely solvable problem. Very often, clean water exists even in the poorest of villages, flowing in aquifers just beneath people’s feet. It turned out to be a problem I couldn’t walk away from.
You mentioned charity: water’s 100 percent donation model and financial transparency, which guarantees that every public dollar goes directly to people in need. Can you talk a bit about this?
When I started charity: water, I wanted to take the number one objection that people have about charities – how much of my money really gets there? – and obliterate it. So I made a vow that every single dollar charity: water raised from the public would be spent creating clean water projects. I opened a second bank account dedicated to overhead expenses, and eventually found donors to fund it. Transparency and trust are the cornerstones of our 100 percent model.
charity: water recently partnered up with haircare brand Aveda for their Earth Month campaign to fund clean water projects in India, Nepal and Madagascar. Can you talk a bit about this collaboration, and brands that charity: water chooses to work with and why?
In any partnership, we look for the opportunities to not only bring clean water to people in need, but to also share the stories of what it means when a community gains access to clean water for the first time. We believe that together we can inspire hope for a future where no person on this planet has to drink dirty water, and show that our actions together – no matter how small – can make that a reality.
We couldn’t continue to grow our impact without partners like Aveda, where generosity and providing clean water have been woven into their story from the beginning. From designing limited edition products, to donating 100 percent of sales on Aveda.com for Earth Day, to engaging communities by organising hair shows, hosting hometown events, and joining us in a virtual RunWalk challenge – the passion of this community has been incredible to see.
And in an effort that has truly spanned the globe, Aveda has already raised over US$3.6 million to bring clean and safe drinking water to 92,000 people, people across hundreds of communities that can now lead healthier lives, women who may start small businesses of their own, and kids who can grow up in a world where all they know is clean and safe drinking water.
Do you think bringing clean water to everyone is an achievable mission?
It is absolutely an achievable mission, and I believe we will achieve it in our lifetime. We know how to solve the water crisis. Many countries already have amazing local organisations working to create solutions, and they just need funding. And in the past 15 years, charity: water has been privileged to work with 49 local partners across 29 countries who are experts in their respective regions and fields. From hand-dug wells to deep-drilled wells, rainwater-harvesting systems and BioSand Filters, there are countless ways to eradicate dirty water and improve the lives of millions of people.
Before founding charity: water, you spent 10 years as a successful nightclub promoter. What gave you the urgency to quit? Do you think your previous career has translated into your current work in any way?
After 10 years of hard living, I knew I needed to find a purpose and start helping others instead of just myself. I felt ashamed of who I’d become and knew it was no longer sustainable. In my previous career, I learnt how to connect with people and rally them around an event or a cause, and that has definitely helped in building charity: water.
What have been your most rewarding or happiest moments on this journey so far?
Over the years there have been many memorable moments. Like in 2008 when we had raised millions for clean water, but we had just weeks of working capital left. We just couldn’t raise enough money for staff and operating costs. I was planning on shutting the organisation down because the 100 percent model wasn’t working. As a last-ditch effort, I sent several cold emails asking for help – one to Mark Zuckerberg, one to Tom Anderson of MySpace, and one to Michael Birch of the UK-based social networking site Bebo.
The only one who answered me was Michael Birch, and he agreed to a meeting. It turned out that right after I emailed him, Michael and his wife Xochi, who founded Bebo together, sold Bebo to AOL for US$850 million. When we met, Michael didn’t seem all that interested. He even made a point to tell me that he didn’t trust charities. So, I pretty much figured he’d pass, or maybe donate enough to fund a couple wells. He asked for our bank details, but I was resigned to having to shut down charity: water. Then three nights later I got an email from Michael saying that US$1 million had been wired to our account, and he told me to use it in whatever way I needed to benefit charity: water. I thought for sure it was a typo, so I logged on to my bank to check our account. And there it was: Deposit pending for US$1 million.
More recently, we raised more than US$100 million in 2021 and served more than 2 million people, which is the first year we’ve been able to raise that much and bring clean water to that many people. It’s a really exciting milestone.
You’ve mentioned that your daughter was coincidentally born on an anniversary of charity: water. How have your family and children inspired you in your pursuit?
Knowing that my children get to grow up with access to clean water, and never know what it’s like to walk for miles to fetch dirty water that makes them sick, makes me want to ensure that every child everywhere has clean and safe water.
For some 15 years you have been travelling around the globe and helping many communities. What have you observed about people and humanity over this period?
The people I’ve met during my travels are incredibly resilient and inspiring. They are living in some of the most difficult conditions with challenges that people in the developed world can’t begin to comprehend. Yet they are some of the happiest, most generous and loving people you’ll ever meet. I have truly been inspired by them. I’ve also been inspired by our amazing donors and the creative ways they’ve found to support charity: water. From lemonade stands to running marathons, and giving up birthday and wedding gifts for clean water, it’s been incredible to see the generosity and ingenuity of our supporters.
What significant changes or impact do you hope to see in the future?
I hope to see more innovation in the global water sector that will exponentially advance our progress toward making sure everyone, everywhere has access to clean and safe drinking water. I also hope to see more commitment to sustainability in the sector so that water projects do not fall into disrepair and become useless, and therefore people can rely on clean water for years on end.
Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7