Industry Insiders: Scott Harrison, Clean Water Guru

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 about restaurants … any NYC favorites? I live in SoHo so I just go to the hole-in-the-walls. I go to Fanelli’s. Every once and a while I’ll go out with donors to Nobu. That’s always a treat.

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.

Matt Oliver, the Silent Doorman

Matt Oliver is that quiet guy manning the ropes outside M2 and the uber-hot brunch at Merkato 55. Unlike the other dudes running doors in this town, it’s rare to hear Matt utter more than a “hi” when he’s at work. But the Euro crowd at Merkato for brunch is one of the best around; the money being generated is astronomical, especially in this downturn. And the thing I like about it is that it really occupies a time slot rarely associated with nightclubbing (except for those 24-hour house marathons that I never admit to attending). There needs to be another term for it, since nightlife doesn’t really seem to cover it.

How did you get involved in nightlife? My real career used to be in radio, and unlike this, it’s only about the recording, so we couldn’t take someone’s audio recording and turn it into nice words — it was what it was. But after that I sort of transitioned into this career accidentally. I’ve been friends with Scott Harrison (who now runs Charity Water) since childhood, and when I reconnected with him after 9/11, he was promoting in nightclubs in New York — which is not at all like anything I had been doing in my life – but I came back and helped him get his promotion company going at the time. So, like you said, I sort of silently hung in the background and helped, and through that I met a lot of nightclub people, and eventually Dirk Van Stockum hired me to do the door at B.E.D.

After B.E.D., where did you end up? I did B.E.D. for two years, then I did some traveling with Charity Water in Africa, then came back to New York to do Mansion.

Tell me about Charity Water. It started when Scott wanted a break from nightlife. He volunteered in Africa as a photographer, taking photos of people before they had these life-changing operations on their faces. He was the before and after photographer for an organization that did these surgeries, and by the time he came back to New York, he’d collected a bunch of photos and approached his return like a promoter would — he invited everybody to a big party and showed these gruesome photos of people in Africa. When he realized that the real problem was that people didn’t have clean water, he went on to start his own charity, which tackled that problem and raised money to fund freshwater well projects in Africa. So after Charity Water, you started doing the door at Mansion, (now called M2) and now the brunches at Merkato 55? Yeah, which is on Saturday, and that’s what I’m excited about. Every so often in this town, people walk around for years saying, “I’m so bored, I’m so bored, I’m so bored with nightlife,” and now nightlife is segueing into day-life with a brunch at Merkato 55. It’s interesting — if you look at the 24-hour clock and the space available for nightlife, traditionally it’s from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. … those few restaurants that get the earlier part of the evening, and then the afterhours that get the early mornings. But all of that seems to have already been done, or feels so dirty, and there’s something very clean about going out during the day. You’ve actually slept the night before, you took a shower, the girls dress sexy, and they go out to brunch and have a great time on Saturday afternoon. It really doesn’t feel so corrupt as nightlife sometimes can.

And people actually eat at this brunch? Yeah, they sit down, everyone eats food, and then around 3:30 p.m. or so you see the transition and people start switching from rosé to bottles of champagne, and they get a little crazier. And then by 4 p.m., sparklers are going off, the lights are flashing like a nightclub, the DJ’s playing club music, and people are dancing on the tables.

How would you define the crowd? It’s the wealthy, old-money, Euro crowd, is that right? This concept in general is a European thing, going out during the day. But I don’t think that it really costs a whole lot more for them to spend money during the day than the people who go out at night. Maybe this does attract a little bit of a higher-end crowd, or old-money like you said, but it’s still 20- and 30-somethings — successful guys and really cute, lovely girls who have regular day jobs during the week. And it’s not a lot of the industry people, which is strange because a lot of the times, nightlife is more about the people who work in it.

That might actually make it more charming, that you’re not seeing the promoters etc. Yeah, it sounds like a negative thing, but I don’t mind not seeing a bunch of promoters for one day of the week and seeing a bunch of people who just have legitimate regular jobs, not at all related to the industry, who just come out to this party. You’re filling the room with a lot of like-minded people.

So where do you go from here? A lot of people stumbled into nightlife like you did, but most people don’t have an exit strategy. Do you have one? Are you going to be an owner? This is going to sound weird, but I think that that would be my only option. Because what I do in nightlife, which is letting people in, or not letting people into a club, doesn’t really involve any of the traditional nightlife skills. I can’t pour a drink, I can’t bartend, I’ve never done any of that stuff, I have no idea how to function inside a room, I don’t like loud music, I cant stand inside a nightclub, so I have very few skills that would link to nightlife.

Describe your club — what would it look like, what would the vibe be? It would be small. When I go out, it’s to dive bars or something very low-key. I don’t really get the whole large club phenomenon, I’m just an employee who works at them. I think I would like something like a La Esquina type of place. It’s the best design I’ve seen … I think everything is right about it.

At the door, you’re very quiet. You’re not gregarious like Fabrizio or Kenny Kenny or Wass. These guys have a lot of personality, and you have personality, but you don’t express it like these guys. It’s always just a nod, a hello, and that’s your attitude. Yeah, which is odd, because again, the career that I came from — being in radio — was all about talking, all about being funny. And when I actually get around the blogging, I write a lot, but for some reason I just don’t ever really bother at the door. It seems like it fits a different role in my life. One of the reasons is because nightlife takes up such a small amount of my time, by design. If a club holds 500 people, almost anybody with savvy can pick out the first 300, but the trick to the game is that borderline crowd. How do you draw the line? Is it different on a daily basis? I think it’s always fluctuating, always based on what the event is that night, but then you also have to base it on some sort of economic decision. I don’t think that a room should look totally different on a quiet night rather than a busy night. I think it should just look quieter. It shouldn’t be a whole different group of people that you’ll let in.

So you have a preconceived idea of what the party should be so it doesn’t that fluctuate that much? Yeah, but I also understand that the bartenders and the cocktail waitresses need to make money that night so they can live the next day. So there are some sort of exceptions you have to make, and that’s why you have a doorman rather than just a security man dealing with only the absolute, and I am always weighing those factors. Is it a VIP event, or a celebrity event? In which case you don’t send in more people and make exceptions, or is it just a regular night? So let’s make it that happy medium where the club is full enough to make money, but then you also haven’t done anything to jeopardize your regulars.

How would you describe your tactics at the door? I try and use logic where I think other people don’t, and that’s with everything. When I interact with people, I don’t use the old doorman technique of just telling security to clear these people out. I actually go over and talk to the people and say — look, here’s why I can’t send you in. A lot of times people don’t want to hear the long-winded answer, but I try to explain, even if it’s only to keep from getting my ass kicked! A new problem that I’m experiencing right now is that sometimes, being a doorman, people look at you almost as a Starbucks sign, where if they see that anywhere in the world, it’s an expectation of service. They think, “hey, this doorman lets me in at other places he works, so now I know that this is another place I can get into.” But I work at the biggest club in the city, M2, and also at Merkato 55, which is fairly exclusive and all the space is always spoken for by reservations, so I have to approach it differently. My job is to figure out who my bosses are expecting to see inside, and I run into the situation where I let you in all the time at this one place, but I can’t let you in at this place. So, again, I try to use logic and explain to people, so that they don’t leave feeling insulted.

Did you think it was going to be this much of a thought process when you took the job? No, I didn’t, but this job is only as important as the egos of the people that you deal with. That’s what it really is.