You may remember Scott Harrison from back in the nineties when he was often spotted in the enclaves of New York’s VIP rooms and parties. After a decade as a club promoter, Scott had an epiphany. The seemingly dazzling world of glitz and status in NYC nightlife was not everything he wanted, after all. He’d soon begin dedicating his life to providing clean water to millions of people around the world. In just three years, his organization, charity: water has raised over $11 million.
What does charity: water do? We are a nonprofit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in need around the world. We work in 16 developing nations, mainly Africa, but also Southeast Asia, India, and Central America.
How does a club promoter become the founder of a major charity? From the age of 18 to 28, I was involved in nightlife. I moved to New York City at 18, grew my hair long and planned to become famous. Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, I guess. After ten years of nightlife, I found myself with the life I thought I’d always wanted and I was completely miserable. When I was on a long vacation in Uruguay, I decided to change my life and go serve the poor. I then went to Liberia and my journey started while volunteering on a hospital ship with some facial surgeons. I spent two years there and decided to help people for the rest of my life. I wanted to start my own charity and sort of reinvent (the idea of) charity.
How were you able to use your club promoter expertise in creating charity: water? I hadn’t gone to school for international development or anything like that, but during my time in Liberia I was traveling like crazy. I was flying on UN helicopters and spending time in Leper colonies. I really got to see a lot of need and what was being done about it. That entire time, I was writing and sending photos to 15,000 people. So, my whole decade of nightlife contacts was in an email database. I was talking to a pretty influential group of people from the beginning. When I came back I just took my laptop to clubs every night. I’d be in DJ booths at three in the morning showing people photos of kids with huge tumors and facial deformities, drinking out of swamps.
Who are your biggest contributors? We’re really now a celeb-driven cause. We’ve had great help from Adrian Grenier from Entourage. He’s hosted the last three events that we’ve done. Jessica Stam has helped in the fashion community. We’ve had some actors sponsor wells all over the world. But mainly the $11 million or so that we’ve raised has come from 60,000 donors. It’s really grassroots. The average gift size is $180. So, it’s not foundations, it’s not million dollar gifts, its kids, its parents, its families sponsoring $5,000 wells and companies getting involved.
Any events coming up? We do the charity: ball every year. It’s on December 14. Last year’s is going to be hard to top. It was 1,200 people. We put out a big photo exhibition and really try to tell the stories of the people we help to the people contributing.
Do these events raise a lot of money? The last two brought in a half a million dollars — so a small-ish percentage, but it’s great for awareness and it’s great to get people together. We’ve always kept them pretty cheap. They’re normally $250, so it’s not like buying a $20,000 table where people won’t be able to afford it.
Who inspires you? I was most inspired by a doctor named Gary Parker. He was on the hospital ship with me. He left his plastic surgery practice in California to go and volunteer his assistance on the ship. He’s now been there 23 years, so he never left. He traded in a life of driving a Mercedes and having lots of money to operating 60 hours a week on people who have no money with facial deformities and people that are blind. I spent a lot of time with him, and he was one of the most humble people that I have ever met.
Do you go back to the nightclubs anymore these days? I did at the beginning. I have to get up so early now, so it’s really tough. Every once and a while I’ll go out. It’s hard to find me at Marquee or Griffin these days. I have a lot of love for people in nightlife though. Many clubs have sponsored wells. Lotus/Double Seven group has been really supportive. Tenjune helped sponsor $40,000 in projects in Northern Uganda. I definitely have not turned my back on nightlife, it’s just that the hours are too tough.
What is something about you that people may not know? I’m getting married September 26 to charity: water’s designer, and I’m going to take my first proper vacation in a while. We’re going to go to Europe for our honeymoon, and then I’m going straight to Ethiopia.
How do we get involved? The value proposition for giving people clean water is pretty simple. It’s $20 helps one person for 20 years. One of the unique things about the organization is100 percent of the money that we raise publicly goes to directly to our projects. All of our operational costs — such as staff costs, or flights — are covered by a separate set of donors. So, if you give $20, all of that $20 goes to a well. If you give $5,000, for those people who are wealthier, it can sponsor an entire community of 250 people with clean water. Come to the volunteer night every second Wednesday right here in the office. We also launched a new website just a few weeks ago called mycharitywater.org. It’s a way that people can petition for donations by giving up their birthday, running marathons, or swimming. Some people ask for money for their anniversaries or weddings. It’s already raised $265,000 in three weeks. There are more than 5,000 people already part of that community. We got a call from one of the people on there who is an entertainment attorney. One of his clients just sponsored $250,000 worth of wells for his 50th birthday. So, you never know.