A total 180: From night life to serving others
In 2004, Harrison returned to New York City and started applying to humanitarian groups including Oxfam, the Peace Corps and the United Nations. "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," says Harrison.
Eventually, though, he was accepted by Mercy Ships, a non-profit organization of floating hospitals that brings medical help to those in need. To volunteer, Harrison paid $500 a month. For his first trip in October 2004, he lived on a converted cruise liner off of the coast of Liberia and took pictures of the work the non-profit was doing.
The poverty and pain he witnessed were profound. He took 50,000 photos of patients with conditions like leprosy, tumors and cleft lips. He also took photos after they had been treated. He emailed the shots to the same email distribution list of 15,000 he had collected while working as a promoter in New York. People started donating to Mercy Ships and to support Harrison's work as a result.
"I realized that, wow, I could inspire positive action, compassion, empathy among people who, frankly, I didn't even think had it in them," says Harrison.
Back in New York City he put on a gallery show in Chelsea with 109 of the photos he'd taken in Africa. The exhibition raised $96,000. Harrison gave all of the money to Mercy Ships and then went back for a second tour.
It was on that trip Harrison learned about the importance of having clean water and many people's lack of access. Approximately three in 10 people around the world don't have safe, readily available water at home, according to a July 2017 report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. What's more, 844 million people not have access to any basic drinking water service at all, according to the joint report. There are 263 million who have to spend more than 30 minutes per trip collecting water away from home, and 159 million who drink untreated water from streams and lakes.
This and a lack of access to sanitation result in the death of 361,000 children under the age of 5 each year, according to the WHO and UNICEF. The deadly combination also results in the transmission of cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid.
Harrison was struck by the pain and suffering, but also by his ability to make a difference. "I felt like I was helping by telling the story," says Harrison.
The change in his life was uncanny. He'd gone from selling rich Manhattan club kids $10 bottles of water (which they often didn't even open) to witnessing people die from a lack of clean drinking water in third world countries.
The launch of Charity: water
In June 2006, Scott returned to New York City. He had found an issue he was deeply committed to, but he had no money. He was sleeping on a closet floor in the New York City loft of a friend from his club days.
"I was running around telling everybody I wanted to see a world where everybody drank clean water regardless of where they are born," says Harrison.
Officially, Charity: water launched on September 7, 2006 — Harrison's 31st birthday. Two days later, he threw a party at a nightclub in Manhattan's trendy Meatpacking District and had everyone donate $20 cash at the door. He got the location and booze donated via his network from his old club-promoter days. He raised $15,000 and donated 100 percent of the money to a refuge camp in Northern Uganda, funding the repair of three broken wells and the construction of three new wells.
A 100 percent donation policy is now a defining characteristic of Charity: water. Harrison realized there was a deep mistrust of charities: People didn't necessarily know whether their money was going to support the cause or the bureaucracy of a non-profit. So he decided to commit Charity: water to have every penny of the money the public donates go to building wells and bringing clean drinking water to those in need. The organization even reimburses credit card processing fees for those who charge a donation. It also emails donors letting them know exactly where their money was used.
To accomplish this, Harrison needed to finance the operations of the non-profit via a completely separate pipeline. Today, the philanthropy's operations are funded by 125 families who are part of a program called The Well. The members, who came to Harrison through asks and referrals, donate between $60,000 and $1 million dollars per year for a minimum of three years.
In its first full year of operations, Charity: water raised $1.7 million. In 2017, Charity: water raised over $50 million. In total, Charity: water has raised more than $300 million. (The figures represent total money raised, covering both water projects and operations.) Over one million people have donated to Charity: water.
But despite Harrison's early enthusiasm and success, the non-profit almost died in 2008. Harrison had more than $800,000 in the bank to build wells but he was within weeks of running out of money to make payroll and pay overhead. Friends recommended he borrow money from his well-building fund to pay his operations expenses, but Harrison refused.
"I remember being so outraged at that idea," says Harrison. "I was going to shut the organization down and say that 100 percent model just didn't work.
"And at that moment, a complete stranger walked into our office at 150 Varick Street at that time, sat with me for two hours, and then wrote a million dollars check to overhead," says Harrison. "We went from almost bankrupt to 13 months of funding on the over head side."
That stranger was Michael Birch, the founder of social networking platform Bebo, an early competitor to MySpace and Facebook. In 2008, AOL bought Bebo for $850 million cash. Harrison had written Birch a cold email six months earlier trying to spread the word about people using their birthday as an opportunity to raise money for Charity: Water. The non-profit calls this "donating" your birthday.
The phenomenon eventually got celebrity attention: Will and Jada Smith donated their birthday in 2010 and raised more than $109,000. In 2011, Justin Bieber donated his 17th birthday. Kristen Bell donated her 30th birthday in 2010, and Jessica Biel donated her 29th birthday in 2011.
In one particularly powerful story, Rachel Beckwith heard Harrison speak a few months before she turned 9 and told her mom she wanted to raise $300 for Charity: water to celebrate her birthday. She raised $220. A few weeks later, in July 2011, Beckwith was tragically killed in a car accident. Her story spread and strangers started donating to Beckwith's campaign. In total, 31,997 donations were made to Beckwith's campaign raising almost $1.3 million. The money gave access to clean water to 37,770 individuals.