Scott Harrison describes himself as the quintessential prodigal son.
At 18, he left his conservative Christian home in New Jersey for New York City, where he became a nightclub promoter. There, he led a life of excessive drinking and drugs, model girlfriends and Rolex watches.
“It led to a life that looked good on the outside, but was rotting on the inside,” Harrison tells CNN’s Poppy Harlow in a recent episode of Boss Files. “There had been a betrayal, a departure from any sort of spirituality or morality or virtue that I had held onto as a child. And I thankfully had this moment, at 28 years old, where I came to my senses and said ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the worst person that I know.’”
Harrison – who is now 43 and the founder and CEO of charity: water which has raised more than $360 million for clean water projects – says it made him think about his legacy.
“If I continued down this path, there was a good chance that I would die before 40. I mean, if I had just partied like this, I may not make another 12 years. My tombstone might actually read: ‘Here lies a club rat that got a million people wasted.’”
That’s when he had an epiphany: What if he sold everything and just started over?
Harrison decided to spend a year volunteering and submitted applications to the Peace Corps, UNICEF, American Red Cross, Oxfam International and other organizations. But he didn’t have the proper experience and was denied by all of them.
So he paid $500 a month to join Mercy Ships, a nonprofit that operates floating hospitals and offers health care and other services to communities in need.
Harrison joined Mercy Ships on a trip to war-torn Liberia and ended up spending two years in West Africa as a photojournalist, documenting the work of the organization’s doctors, surgeons and nurses in the field.
“I would go into the villages, I would see kids drinking out of swamps. There’s really no other way to say it: green, algae filled, disgusting standing water. And children would leave their homes with these buckets, or these jerrycans and they would fill them up, and I would watch kids drink water that I wouldn’t have let my dog drink,” Harrison recalls.
During this time, Harrison met Dr. Gary Parker, a surgeon who explained to him how much clean water could help the world. “He said… ‘water makes more people on this planet sick than all the wars, all the violence combined… sure, you can help us fund the next $50 or $60 million dollar ship, or you could give everybody clean water.’”
Parker inspired Harrison to found charity: water, a nonprofit that brings clean water to millions of people in developing nations.
“There are 663 million people today living without clean water, effectively drinking disgusting dirty water that risks their lives and the lives of their children. That’s one in ten people alive, and we think that number should be zero… that’s the beauty of water, it’s a solvable problem,” Harrison says.
Getting the message out
Harrison launched charity: water at a nightclub on his 31st birthday.
“I lured my friends there with [an] open bar, and said, ‘On your way in, you’ve got to donate $20, and we’re going to go build a couple water projects and I’ll show you the proof of this.’ And that was really the start.”
Since its launch in 2006, more than one million people have donated to charity: water’s cause. The organization has funded more than 30,000 clean water projects in 26 countries, giving nearly 10 million people access to clean water.
The organization allocates 100% of public donations directly to fund clean water projects, says Harrison.
“I thought if we could promise that 100% of every donation would always go directly to help people get clean water, it would take the most common objection off the table,” he says.
Private financing and partnerships with businesses and foundations help pay for the organization’s operating costs like salaries and office space.
One key to charity: water’s success is the ability to tell its story via social media, Harrison says. The nonprofit uses crowdfunding to build and fix wells and broadcasts footage of the work it’s doing in villages on its web site and on Facebook.
Harrison’s work has caught people’s attention. In 2014, President Obama invited him to the National Prayer Breakfast and highlighted his life and work. “That’s the kind of promoting we need more. That’s the kind of faith that moves mountains,” Obama said.
“Regardless of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent, or you’re a Jew, a Christian, an atheist, a Muslim, a Mormon, it doesn’t matter what you might differ on religiously or politically,” Harrison says. “People can come together and agree on clean water.”
Harrison says he wants to continue to grow the venture. Last year, charity: water launched The Spring, a subscription service for people who want to make recurring donations each month.
Harrison also recently published a book, “Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World.” Looking at what he’s accomplished so far, he acknowledges his experience promoting nightclubs actually helped him tell charity: water’s story today.
“I actually look at it like I’m inviting people to a party. I’m inviting people, um, to come past … There is no velvet rope. I had the doors open for anybody. But come to this party where you give of yourself generously and you see the impact of that gift,” he says.