The following is a conversation between Scott Harrison, Founder and CEO of charity: water, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: We often hear of people who enter a new field from outside of it, coming from a completely different discipline. They can either have a hard time adjusting, or on the other hand, they can bring a fresh set of perspectives to it. And this new way of thinking can help revolutionize a sector for the better, and do so in an exponential way. It would be the latter that best describes my next guest, former nightclub promoter, Scott Harrison, who went on to become the Founder and CEO of charity: water. Good evening, Scott, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Scott: Thanks so much for having me!
Denver: So much to talk to you about. I really looked forward to this. But let’s begin by having you tell our listeners about charity: water and the mission and purpose of the organization.
Scott: Kind of like it sounds. We are on a mission to help bring clean and safe drinking water to people in need around the world.
Denver: And to really fully appreciate charity: water in the way you operate and the way you go about your business, it would help to understand the road that you took to get here from a pretty self-absorbed, if I might say, nightclub promoter, to a social entrepreneur leading this exceptional organization… And if there was a pivotal moment in that transformation, it may have occurred over one weekend in Uruguay. Tell us what led up to that moment and where that moment subsequently led you.
Scott: Sure! The decadent lifestyle that I lived for 10 years was actually almost a betrayal of the way that I was raised. So I had been brought up in a very conservative Christian home. My mom had been very sick when I was 4—there was a carbon monoxide gas leak in our home that almost killed all of us—It deeply affected her, and she just became an invalid from this point on. I grew up in a caregiver role. I just did everything right. I mean, I cooked, I cleaned, I vacuumed, I played piano on Sunday in church. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t have sex. I was the good kid until 18, and then this active, utter rebellion came over me, and I moved to New York City. I grew my hair down to my shoulders and had this moment where I said, “Look, now it’s my turn. I played by the rules. I took care of mom. Now, it’s my turn to have some fun.”
The way to have fun and also make money that I stumbled into was a nightclub promoter. I learned that you can actually get paid to drink, and your friends would drink for free, and you would only have to work a couple of nights a week. Working was actually partying. So, from the age of 18 or 19, I started at a nightclub called Nell’s here on 14th street– probably worked at 40 or 50 nightclubs over the next 10 years– promoting these parties. And as you mentioned, 10 years later, I found myself in Uruguay with a 2-pack-a-day cigarette habit, a gambling problem, a pornography problem, a strip club frequency problem, cocaine – pretty much anything short of heroin. I was just this mess, but my life looked amazing on the outside. So I was jumping into limousines; I was flying to Paris for Fashion Week. My girlfriend at that time was on the cover of Elle Magazine. I drove a BMW; I had a Rolex; I had a grand piano in my apartment – all these things that I had coveted that I thought would make me happy.
So I begin to apply to a bunch of humanitarian organizations to be a volunteer for them. The World Visions and UNICEFs and Save the Childrens – all these respected organizations. Peace Corps! No one would take me.
Denver: The full package.
Scott: I realized I had somehow become the worst person that I knew – the most selfish, sycophant human being. I was emotionally bankrupt; I was spiritually bankrupt, and if I continued down this path, I would probably die by 40. And if I did manage to live out my life, my legacy was simply going to be a man that got people wasted for a living.
So, I had a pretty radical cathartic moment. I began to rediscover faith in a new way as an adult. I’d been completely disinterested for 10 years. I came back to New York City, kind of struggled with a new value system. I returned to my old value system in morality and spirituality, and I wound up selling everything that I owned that summer. I remembered putting up about 2,000 DVDs on eBay. This was when DVDs were worth something. I sold everything, and I wanted to explore the opposite of my life. I wanted to see what the 180-degree turn might look like. So I begin to apply to a bunch of humanitarian organizations to be a volunteer for them. The World Visions and UNICEFs and Save the Childrens – all these respected organizations. Peace Corps! No one would take me.
Denver: Looked at that resume and said, “Uh-uh”.
Scott: They didn’t want to touch me with a 10-foot pole or let me anywhere near the humanitarian workers. I might throw parties. I might get people drunk. So I had stepped out really in faith, and there was no one that would allow me to serve. So I was very fortunate; finally an organization called Mercy Ships said if I was going to pay them $500 a month and go live in Liberia, right after this 14-year civil war had ended, then I could volunteer. And I dusted off an NYU Journalism degree that I’d never used and said, “Hey, I can come and be your volunteer photojournalist. And by the way, I have 15,000 people on my list that I have gotten drunk over 10 years. So, I can tell them a new story, and maybe they’ll give some money. Maybe they would even want to volunteer as well.”
That led to an extreme transformation. I quit everything the night before I boarded the gangway of this 500-foot hospital ship that was going to sail into Liberia with the best doctors and surgeons in the world, who were giving up their vacation time to operate for free on the poor. And I just saw poverty for the first time. I saw leprosy. I saw people with cleft lips and cleft palates. I saw 8-pound facial tumors. I’d never seen anything like this before. The country had no running water, had no sewage, had no mail system. There was one doctor for every 50,000 citizens.
Denver: No electricity, nothing.
Scott: Nothing. So among other things in the two years that I wound up volunteering, I came across the water crisis. And I saw children drinking dirty water from swamps. I saw mothers losing their children to diarrhea because more than half the country didn’t have clean water to drink. And I think the irony, or the contrast, was I was selling $10 bottles of water to people in nightclubs that wouldn’t even open the water. They would just order a bunch and put them on their table because that’s what you do. And at the time, there were a billion people worldwide without access to clean water. I came back to New York City at 30-years-old and wanted to take that up as a mission. I wanted to try to use the rest of my life to bring clean drinking water to everybody on earth and be a part of the solution.
Denver: And what you did is: you threw a birthday party for yourself, correct?
Scott: Well, I did. In some ways, we had some challenges in the beginning just setting up the charity. As you could tell by the name, I wasn’t very creative – charity: water. Which stuck. I came up with a bunch of ideas of just how to do things differently, and one was to throw a birthday party and use my birthday… which I had use previously… to make money – give my friends an open bar, charge them a lot of money at the door, throw a big party. Really took that same model. Got 700 people to come to a nightclub, give $20 on their way in. But this time, instead of pocketing the $14,000 or $15,000, took 100% to do a few water projects in Uganda. And then we sent the photos and the GPS back to those people so they could actually see where the money went.
Denver: And that was the start. You were 31 years of age, if I recall.
Scott: In September.
Denver: Tell us, Scott, … What is it like to not have clean water available in the community? I mean, what’s the impact? What do people go through? Mostly women and girls, what do they have to do to get any kind of water for themselves and their family?
Scott: As you said, it’s a women’s issue. So culturally, we worked across 24 different countries. It is never the job of the men to get the water. It is the women and the girls, and it’s shocking and it’s outrageous, but it is the job of the women and the girls to get the water. The water quality in some of these countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, in rural India, in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, these places where we work — it is water you wouldn’t let your dog drink. It’s water you wouldn’t step in. You wouldn’t walk barefoot into the water. It’s often brown. It’s viscous. Often the water is far away. I lived in a village in Ethiopia where women were walking 8 hours a day with 40 pounds…once they had collected the water… of water on their back… to just a little murky seepage of water coming out of the rock. In fact, one of the girls in this village had walked eight hours one day; at the end of her walk, she had slipped and fallen and she spilled the water that she spent all eight hours fetching, and she winds up hanging herself… just committed suicide in the village. Said, “I can’t go back for water.”
So it’s in such extremity. It’s so hard for us to imagine. We hear a statistic like a billion people without water. Now it’s about 700 million people… and we just numb out. But it’s 13-year old girls named Letikiros Hailu who have hopes and dreams. She wanted to be a nurse, but she was stuck in this 7-day a week cycle to go get the water for her family that then made them sick.
Denver: And I know you went to that village subsequently and really tracked her footsteps. Number one, to just check out that story.
Scott: Yes. It really sounded too harsh to be true. Is a 13-year old girl really going to hang herself because she spilled her water? And what I found there was just… it really moved me. It angered me. It moved me. I met her mom. I met her friend that walked with her that day. I saw her grave. I met the priest who gave her funeral. I saw this frail little tree where they had taken a 13-year old girl’s body down with this little rope around her neck. It was a great reminder to me that in those statistics, they are just everyday people. And the terrible irony is that in so many of these villages, there’s clean ground water 200 feet beneath the village. Literally, the water that could save the lives of the women and children are right beneath their feet. What they don’t have access to is a million dollars of drilling equipment. They don’t have access to $10,000 or $12,000 to drill and construct a well, or a rainwater harvesting system or gravity-fed system. So that’s what we’ve been in the business of for 10 years.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about that process, Scott, if you would. I know that the organization is solutions-agnostic, and as you said, whether it be filtration or rain harvesting, it doesn’t make any difference. Whatever’s going to work. But let’s take digging of that well, as an example. What’s a typical process you go through in terms of selecting the village, engaging local partners, and the digging, and so on?
Scott: In the early days, when the organization was tiny, it was pretty haphazard. “Hey, we have money for 10 water projects.” We’d find a local partner and say: “You pick the best 10 spots!” Now we’re doing over 3,000 a year so there would be multi-year strategic plans using GIS data, using satellite coordination with other NGOs in the area. So there would be a plan in almost everywhere where we work for 100% coverage in a district. Sometimes it’s a 7-year plan or a 5-year plan or a 3-year plan. We’re actually a couple of months away from achieving success in a program we’ve been working at in Rwanda for seven years. So I’ll give you just one example in Malawi, a place I’ve visited a few times. There was a community that was actually cut off from the roads by this huge ditch in this huge gully. So we were giving communities on the other side of this big gully access to clean water. A community that’s cut off hears about this and says to our local partner, “Look, we realize you can’t get those drilling rigs into us, but give us a few months, and we’ll build a road.” And they spend three months, and every single household sent one person to fill in this huge gully by hand! This is moving rocks by hand. You know, small shovels… And they built a road, and the drilling rig got in. Local Malawians jumped out, and in about three days drilled a well, and clean water is flowing. I mean it’s one of the most extraordinary things.
I’ve now been at this for 10 years and had the fortune to be in some of these same communities before and after. I hear from women complaining about leeches in their water, complaining about the disease, complaining about the long walks, shaking their fist at the sky saying “We’ve been waiting for help. Will you help us?” And then I’ve been able to go back six months later with women that are smiling, that have given names to the well …calling it “Blessed” or calling it “Beautiful” and talked about they’re able to wash their faces, wash their clothes, prepare food that’s healthy… seeing the benefits of water.
And that’s the great thing about working on this issue because water is so much more than water. Water impacts education. It impacts health. A World Health stat that we came across a few years ago was: 52% of all diseases of all the sick people throughout the developing world — what some people might call the third world — is caused by bad water and lack of sanitation. So half of the sick people don’t need to be sick. It’s not HIV, AIDS. It’s water.
So, it’s an amazing thing to do. It impacts the local economy as well because you’re providing millions and millions, sometimes billions in aggregate, of time back. And people can turn that time– that they used walking for water– into productive work. Selling rice at the market, selling rugs… I was just in Zambia and Zimbabwe with women that were making rugs and selling them for $4 because they didn’t have to walk for water. It’s a powerful issue to work on.
Denver: Sure is. The impact can be greater than all the violence in the world, including war. You know, clean water does speak for itself. But is there any way that you’ve been able to measure the impact of the work you do– whether that be return on investment or a reduction in disease– for people who are now drinking clean water? (more…)