We all make mistakes, but what you do in the aftermath is what’s going to make you stand out from the rest. Scott Harrison, the Founder and CEO of Charity Water, talks about the realization that led him to reinvent his life. Scott gets candid about his decade-long lifestyle on the dark side before getting his wake-up call. Having his eyes opened while living in Africa, he started a charity that addresses the need for transparency through a system. Scott’s story of life-reinvention is phenomenal. Even if you can’t go to Africa and dig a well, the invaluable lessons you can glean from this episode may just be the wake-up call you need to live in a more impactful way.
I’m glad because we have Scott Harrison. Scott’s story is with what he’s done and what he’s created with Charity Water. He is the Founder and CEO of that company. It is amazing and interesting that you have to read on because I watched the video. I couldn’t help but have him on the show. It’s an amazing turnaround story of what he did with his life, but most of what he’s done to help many lives around the globe.
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Reinventing Your Life with Scott Harrison
I am here with Scott Harrison, who is the Founder and CEO of Charity Water. He spent several years as a nightclub promoter in New York City. He describes living decadently extravagantly before he found a new venture in his life. I want him to tell that story because it’s quite a fascinating one. Welcome, Scott.
Thanks for having me.
I’ve been looking forward to this. You’re welcome. I watched your video that they sent me when we signed you up for the show. They send me materials and all that stuff. You have an overview of your story. I get a lot of videos. I got a lot of books. You try to skim through things, but yours I didn’t skim through. I watched the whole thing. It was mesmerizing how awful the water situation was around the world. I had no idea. You weren’t great when you were young. You had a comeback story and I’ll let you tell that story. As I was watching your story, there are so many people who wouldn’t have done the things you did. I watched your talk about trying to find people who would let you work for them for free and all that type of thing. I want you to give the story from the beginning to the end because I loved the whole thing. It got me motivated that I’ve given to this charity now. I’ve signed up. What do you call it?
You’re now a Spring member. It’s our program. We could talk about that later.
Why don’t you start? It’s quite a story.
I was born in Philadelphia in a middle-class home. My dad was a business guy. My mom was a writer for the local paper. When I was four years old, we moved into an energy-efficient house in the dead of winter, a little four-bedroom, drab gray house. Energy-efficient being relevant because the house had a carbon monoxide gas leak and all that carbon monoxide was trapped inside. We were all breathing it. This was many years ago. The detectors that we all have in our homes now hadn’t even been invented yet. It was a real problem. My mom wound up passing out on New Year’s Day, 1980. She walks across the bedroom, collapses unconscious on the floor. We take her to the hospital, long series of blood tests and they find these massive amounts of carboxyhemoglobin in her bloodstream. She was never the same again.
Her immune system shuts down, is irreparably destroyed at this point. My dad finds the heater with a plumber friend. The crazy thing is he’s invited the gas company to come out a couple of times. They said everything was fine. My dad finds the malfunction himself. Thankfully, he and I only exposed a little bit at night. My mom was fixing up the house all day long. She was getting the exposure day and night. Our bodies bounced back. Hers never did. Now things got weird as a kid. She would wear charcoal masks. She would be connected to oxygen tanks, effectively, anything chemical made her sick. She became allergic to the world. Car fumes, perfume, the inks from books would make her sick. I was thrust into a caregiver role pretty early on.
I’m the one helping to take care of mom and doing the cooking, the cleaning and helping her out. My parents had a deep and authentic Christian faith that was important to them. They decided not to sue the gas company for gross negligence. I saw this pattern of acceptance and forgiveness in the family early on. It was an accident. They believe that somehow there would be a silver lining to this. I grew up taking care of mom, playing piano in church on Sunday. That good kid who played by all the rules. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t sleep around. I didn’t drink. I didn’t try drugs, any of that. At eighteen, I lost the plot. I went completely rogue. I woke up one day and moved to New York City.
I graduated high school and said, “Now it’s my turn.” I’ve been playing by the rules. I’ve been doing what everybody else told me was the right thing to do. I’d been taking care of mom. Now it’s time to have some fun. Now it’s time to explore. That led me on a ten-year adventure in New York City as a club promoter working at 40 different nightclubs over ten years. I picked up all the vices that you might imagine would come with the territory of running nightclubs, from two-pack a day smoking habit to drinking, to drugs, pornography and gambling, pretty dark life of vice. It started small and cascaded into all of it at the same time.
I was very successful on the outside. I would fill these nightclubs with models, celebrities, fashion executives and music executives. We’d fly around the world to Milan, Paris and London for Fashion Week. Go on beautiful vacations in Brazil or Uruguay. I was this rotting, selfish hedonist that had betrayed almost everything my parents tried to teach me growing up, everything about faith and morality. I wound up deeply unhappy, maybe as no surprise to anybody reading. Deeply emotionally and spiritually bankrupt would be a way to put it. I was living only for myself. I was dating models that I didn’t even like being with, but that was the thing that I thought I needed to do as a nightclub promoter.If you die today, what kind of impact have you left in the world? Click To Tweet
I was abusing my body. One day when I was 28 years old in the fall, I unexplainably go completely numb on half of my body. I can’t feel anything. I started seeing doctors and getting the MRIs, the EKGs and nobody can find anything wrong with me. Maybe no surprise because of this lifestyle of excess, drugs and vice. I’m scared. Maybe I have a rare brain disease, a tumor or maybe I’m not immortal. Maybe I’m not going to live forever. If I did die now, what have I done? What impact have I left on the planet? The only thing I’ve got to my credit is that I’ve gotten a couple of hundred-thousand people wasted over a ten-year period.
I’ve taken their money for alcohol. It isn’t what I wanted on my tombstone. It wasn’t what I was brought up to believe or to value. I began the soul searching process. It took me a few months where I deconstructed my life and began to ask some hard questions. I asked myself a pointed question at the end of that time. What would the opposite of my life look like? What would it look like to start over at twenty years old? What would it look like to reinvent my life and walk away from the vice, the excess, the selfishness and the hedonism? What would it look like to serve others?
I got the idea that the opposite of my life would be to become a humanitarian. The opposite of a nightclub promoter would be to do one year of humanitarian service, almost as a tithe, almost as a 10% give back of the several years I’ve wasted. I started applying to all these famous humanitarian organizations that I’d heard of, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, World Vision and the Peace Corps even. To my surprise, none of these organizations wanted me. I got denied because I was a nightclub promoter. They didn’t understand even what that was, let alone how those skills would be portable into a serious, credible humanitarian work.
I’m getting these denials coming back from ten plus orgs saying, “No, we don’t have a role for you. You’re not what we’re looking for.” Finally, one organization gets back to me and says that if I’m willing to pay them $500 a month and go live in post-war Liberia, West Africa, I can join their mission. I said, “I’m in. Here are my credit card details.” What’s more opposite than going broke while volunteering and going to the poorest country in the world. I dusted off a photojournalism degree that I’d never used from NYU and said, “I know a lot of people. Let me come on your mission. They’ll tell stories. Maybe I can help you raise some awareness and some money even.” That was the turning point. Everything in my life changed from a nice apartment in New York City, the BMW, the Rolex to moving to Liberia, West Africa, to live on a tiny cabin on a hospital ship. That began a new journey.
My uncle was a very famous plastic surgeon. His name is Ralph Millard and he would fix people’s faces in all these different countries if they’d had syphilis or whatever their faces were, noses were gone and that type of thing. He used to send all these pictures of all these things he did, which were hard to look at. They were very unsettling, but these people had to live with. It was admirable what he did because he was the one who created the books on how to fix cleft palates based on all the work he did. I’m curious as I was watching your video, you had to be on this boat with this hospital situation. They had facial tumors and things. How hard was that for you to be around that?
It’s pretty difficult. You see flesh-eating disease. You’re seeing 60-year-old women with cleft palates and cleft lips. Food and water spilling out of their face as they try and eat. They’re not having access to very simple surgeries. The first child I met was a fourteen-year-old boy named Alfred. He had a pink tumor the size of a volleyball, taking up his mouth cavity. The tumor had grown over a few years. The family was poor. They took them to witch doctors who cut him with knives, stuck sticks in his tumor and spread chicken blood. None of this worked. I was watching a little boy in front of me suffocating to death on his own face. The tumor had consumed his whole face and I had to take a picture of him up close documenting him for the pre-surgery procedure.
Stepping back even a little bit, my third day on this mission, the surgeons and the doctors and the nurses, we would triage the patients. we would effectively do a big casting call, a big screening day. We’d say, “If you’ve got one of these conditions, if you have a tumor, if you have the flesh-eating disease, if you have a cleft lip or cleft pallet, turn up outside this football stadium. The soccer stadium in downtown and we’ll see if we can help you.” I knew that we had 1,500 available surgery slots to fill. My third day, I remember turning up at 5:30 AM and there were more than 5,000 people standing in the parking lot waiting for us to open the doors to the stadium.
That was incredibly difficult. We were going to send 3,500 people home with no hope. We didn’t have enough doctors. We didn’t have enough surgeons. I tried to focus on the positive. Alfred was one of the first surgeries. I documented it. I was there in the operating theater with the scrubs on and my camera. It was an eight-hour surgery. They sewed this little boy’s face back up. They gave him a titanium plate for the lower jaw and new teeth. I watched him heal. I got to take him home to his family and community. I watched this little boy who had been written off for death embraced back into the community. People were touching his face.
They were laughing. They were surrounding him. He was like a miracle. There were all of these stories, the 62-year-old woman that got that cleft lip surgery and looked beautiful. She was able to eat for the first time in her life like most of us experienced eating with the food, the water being able to stay in her mouth. It was extraordinary being able to see so much change and so much transformation. The cool thing was that these doctors had come from 40 countries and all of them like your father, donating their time. It could have been anywhere.
My dad’s first cousin, he was inspirational. My husband is a plastic surgeon as well, which is interesting. He did some of the same kinds of things and he has been on the show. His name is Robert Spies. He was on this show before talking about some of the things that plastic surgeons do you don’t think about. He did a lot of these cases. My husband did like you’re talking about where they would have choked to death. They were suffocating. He would rebuild their faces. They cut out their jaws and rebuild them from scratch. I know what you’re talking about. There’s so much of this out there that you don’t know what’s causing it. You were talking about flesh-eating diseases. I’m wondering how much you were worried about that being around that.
That’s what led me to water. This first year was experiencing so much sickness, so much suffering. Liberia had no healthcare system. It was completely broken after a fourteen-year civil war. There was one doctor for every 50,000 people living in the country. Imagine that every 50,000 people, one doctor, but there was no place for the doctors even to operate or perform surgeries because there was no electricity in the country after the war. I started learning. Many of these diseases were caused by bad water. They’re at least 26 different diseases that you can track directly to a lack of clean water, lack of sanitation toilets. The noma, the flesh-eating disease, trachoma is waterborne. Many people were sick with diarrhea.
Many children were dying of dysentery and dehydration because they would get sick from the river water with the swamp water. The only thing that cures a child of diarrhea is clean water. If there’s none available, it’s a cycle that leads to dehydration and death. I remember coming across a stat at the time that 52% of all the disease throughout the world was because of bad water and a lack of sanitation. Half the hospital beds in every hospital in the world, you could empty half of them if everybody had clean water at their home, at their school, even at their health clinics. Many of these clinics didn’t even have clean water as they were trying to treat people. It was a year experience in Africa that led to two years and an exploration of water as the root cause of so much of this sickness that we were seeing.
I realized that these surgeries were expensive. They could be thousands and thousands of dollars to go through eight and twelve-hour surgeries, follow up visits and reconstruction. For $10,000, you could give 300 people in a village, clean water. You could touch so many lives at a fraction of the cost. I became interested in attacking the root cause of so much of this global sickness. At the time, there were a billion people living on the planet without clean water. There was much work to be done and people weren’t talking about it as an issue. There was little awareness around the global water crisis.
I want to get into that, but as you’re talking about this, it reminds me of a movie I saw, Heart of Nuba. Ken Carlson and his wife, Katrina, are friends of mine and he’s the one who created this movie about his friend, this doctor who did all that. I would never go to these movies, but I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t something that I thought about. When my friend, Katrina’s husband, had this opening of this movie, they said, “Do you want to go?” I’m like, “Sure.” It’s something you don’t realize that this is going on. You’re watching these clinics. I’m sure it was like what you saw? Were there all these people and it’s one guy?
Yes. Sometimes there wasn’t even the ex-pat. It was locals and broken down clinics.
It’s hard to imagine. When I watched your video, you kept showing all these different variations of the kinds of water that people were drinking is seem to unimaginable to see that they would go and take a scoop of water that was filled with worms and things. Is that way it is? Are you saying 50% are drinking that kind of water?
That’s what we see in the rural area. As we sit here and talk, a lot of progress has been made. That one billion has come down to 660 million. Now about one in every ten people alive are going to drink bad water. Here’s the interesting thing. Most of the progress that’s been made over the last decade has been made in the cities and the towns, the urban areas. Now 82% of the people left on earth without clean water live in remote rural areas. It’s harder to reach them. You can’t drop a $100 million municipal system in. It requires wells, springs, rainwater harvesting systems and bio-sand filters. It’s small solutions that can go and address those needs. That’s where at least my focus has been now for several years on the rural, the remote areas without access. Now the hard work begins to take that 660 million down to zero.
Are you having them drill their own wells by teaching them? How does this work?
Maybe backing up a little bit, I finished a couple of years as a volunteer with this group called Mercy Ships in West Africa. I came back at 30 years old. There are a couple of people that that are wondering, I quit everything in one go. I never smoked again. I never touched Coke or any of that stuff again. I never gambled again. I threw out any semblance of pornography or any of that. I needed a clean break from all of it. It was amazing because living with these doctors, surgeons and nurses, I also got to change my community. I went from people who would start drinking at 12:00 and go to an after-hours cocaine bar at 6:00 AM to a bunch of doctors who got up and prayed and served all day long.
That helped me stay on the straight and narrow and not miss any of the devices. It was such a big part of my life for several years. I came back to New York a changed man at 30 without these bad habits. With my issue, water, I wanted to help bring clean drinking water to the world. I wanted to help usher in a day that no human being simply because of where they were born, had to drink disgusting water. I mentioned at the time there were a billion people. I had the advantage of not knowing any better, first of all, that’s a huge problem and a huge goal. Why did I think that I can make any significant impact on a global issue?The cost of building clean water sources is a fraction of the cost of health care for water-borne diseases. Click To Tweet
I was a club promoter who took a bunch of pictures in a humanitarian mission. I was so passionate about that I could see it happening. As I started talking to people about charity, about this issue and about giving, I realized that there was a huge cynicism in this country when it came to giving to charity, when it came to institutional philanthropy. I came across a poll in USA Today that found that 42% of Americans said they didn’t trust the charities. Another poll by NYU, their business school that found 70% of Americans said they believed charities wasted their money when they donated. I thought, “This is a huge opportunity.” Why are these people disenfranchised? Why are they distrustful of charities?” I started learning about some of the scandals that had put people off. I learned that a lot of people wanted to know where their money went.
Where does my money go? They felt like it was going into a black hole. They felt like it was going into overheads. I thought, “They make a huge dent in a problem this big, the global water crisis.” We would need a new model that could reach out to some of these people who weren’t giving and get them excited about giving, build trust, win them back. Before I even got started with water or drilling wells or any of that or learning how to do that, I wanted to create a business model that was unique. From day one, Charity Water, we have this idea and said, “What if we could promise people that 100% of their donation would always go to directly fund water projects?”
That we would take in another bank account, we would separately raise all of the overhead, the office costs, the flights and the toner for the Epson copy machine. We would raise all that money from a small group of people who didn’t mind paying those unsexy overhead costs so that 100% of the public’s money could go directly to provide clean water. We did that. We said, “What if we also proved the impact if we showed people the pictures, satellite images and GPS coordinates of the water projects that they helped fund? Could we create this cycle of trust? Could we build the most hyper transparent charity that the world had ever seen? Could we use technology, Google Earth, Google Maps, sensor technology to connect people to what their dollars doing?”
Those ideas were so novel that they worked and the organization began to grow like crazy, raising millions and millions of dollars as people said, “Yes, I can care about clean water. If I know that 100% of my money will go, here’s $100, here’s $100,000.” To get the work done, we believed that we would need to partner with the locals in each of these countries rather than send Westerners or foreigners in, ex-pats in, we would need to find the local expertise and develop those partnerships and develop more local expertise. That’s what Charity Water has done. We’ve now worked with 44 different local organizations across 29 countries.
We employ over 1,500 locals who are out there bringing clean water and sanitation to their communities and their countries. Four hundred people in Ethiopia alone working on Charity Water projects every day and hundreds in Cambodia and in India. That’s been the model that we reach out. We ask the public to give. We promise it 100% of their money goes directly to clean water projects. We prove it by posting every single water project on our website by sharing stories with our spring members and with our community. Getting the actual work done in a solution agnostic way through this network of local partners that we’ve now developed over thirteen years.
It’s interesting because when I watched your video, I did some research on the site to see if there was a downside or negative commentary. I like to look at all angles before I donate. The only things I found were people saying, “How can they do this 100%? Is it sustainable?”
It’s only other charities that don’t like that idea.
You rather not help them with the water and worry about if it’s going to crash in the future. It was a very strange way of fighting what you were doing. The arguments I said. They didn’t make a good point. I didn’t think. I am interested in the part where you do have to pay for the rest. You said you have a separate thing that you do for that.
We’ve found 136 families now that pay for Charity Water’s overhead. It’s been some amazing entrepreneurs. It’s been the founder of Twitter, Facebook and senior executives at Apple. It’s been a bunch of people in Silicon Valley who are business leaders. They understand that there is a cost to raising money and building a water programs team. Charity Water has about 100 full-time people here in New York City. Their salaries, all of them, the office rent even the flights around the world to manage our partnerships and develop these water programs. That’s all paid for by 136 families. It’s incredibly hard. You’re doing two things at the same time. We have to run them in perfect balance. Those 136 families have now allowed well over a million donors from 140 countries to give in the purest way. We’ve never heard from a donor that doesn’t like the 100% model. Sometimes other charities would say, “It doesn’t feel fair. You’re making it look bad.” We hear it time and time again. This is the first gift I’ve given to charity. This is the first charity I’ve trusted. I’m not trying to poach donors from other charities and trying to grow the pot of giving and realizing so many people out there feel like they’d been burned.
That’s got to be a super high expense to do all this and maybe it’s easier to get the billionaires of the world to pay for the rest and the second account. For some charities that aren’t as horrific, yours is a huge thing that you’re trying to fight this horrific, dirty water situation. I know you’ve gotten a lot of attention from people. I saw JP Sears who was on my show. I saw a video he did for you. Are you working with him at all?
Yeah. He helped us get that video out there and raised some great awareness. He’s a good guy.
He’s a great guy. There’s much that needs to be still done. How does this impact your life now?
The organization is thirteen years old. We’re going to help about 1.5 million new people get access to clean water this year. We’re helping over 5,000 people every single day. It’s an amazing movement of generous supporters around the world. I’m spending a lot of my time on the road. I’ve done 47 flights. That’s taken me to Rwanda, to Uganda, to Singapore, to London, to San Francisco and LA multiple times, to the south, meeting with those 136 families, asking them to continue giving and building those relationships. I spent a lot of my time fundraising on the overhead side to allow us to keep this pure model. It’s hard, but it’s gratifying too.
I was in Uganda. I’m walking through villages where I’m watching people drink the most unthinkable, disgusting water. People can go to the CharityWater.org/thespring and watch that video. You have no idea what it’s like to see someone drinking brown, viscous water. To watch a child, I’ve got two young children myself. I can’t imagine ever giving them contaminated water, knowing that it’d be risking their lives. This is all that these communities have. Knowing that in a couple of months, one of the drilling rigs and the teams is going to come in. They’re going to watch local Ugandans jump out of heavy trucks, the compressor truck and the drilling rig and find clean groundwater underneath that village. Everything will change. That’s made possible by our donor community and our supporters.
What’s their reaction when they get clean water?
They’re dancing, clapping and parties. It’s like I’m a nightclub promoter all over again except they’re a lot more wholesome. Sometimes there’s some local beer involved. I’m not going to lie.
You say you learned to do all this from your experiences filling the clubs. How did you learn to do that, to begin with though? I’ve been in sales for decades. How did you fill these clubs? How are you using that to do this?
I’m a promoter. I’m an enthusiast. Maybe it’s the same skills that would try to be creative to come up with interesting concepts of the club. We would throw pool parties. We would hire lifeguards to stand inside the club on lifeguard stands and we get hundreds of beach balls. I am trying to come up with gimmicks and new ideas to make it fun and interesting. I’ve tried to bring some of that same enthusiasm and creativity to Charity Water. Now I’m promoting something that I can go to bed at night and feel good about. I’m promoting generosity. I’m promoting compassion and empathy among our community. I’m promoting clean drinking water. Who can’t agree to agree that we should all have clean water to be healthy, to thrive? Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or independent or a Jew, Christian, atheist, Muslim, it doesn’t matter. People can agree on clean drinking water. It’s been amazing to see this unbelievable community around the world embrace this idea. Go from maybe apathy to action. I’ve been to 69 countries now. I’ve been to Ethiopia 31 different times. I’ve spent so much time in the field seeing the dirty water turned into clean water. That it keeps me going several years later.
What’s the worst place that you’ve had to go, worse things you’ve seen?
I was in Niger. This is in the Sahel Desert of West Africa. I was with a woman named Aisa Maru. She was standing next to the worst water I’ve ever seen. It was brown. It was vicious. There were bugs in it, tons of unseen contaminants. She was telling me her story. She was talking about her family. Eight of her children died. She gave me their names. She told me the ages of their death. Two of them survived. Imagine as a parent, burying. The thought of losing one of my children would be too much to bear. Burying eight of your children and knowing that the water was responsible for certainly some of those deaths, if not most of them. There was no other option. This was the only thing that she had. It’s the only thing that she could give them.Promote something that you can go to bed at night and feel good about. Click To Tweet
Did they boil water?
Often they’ll pour through a cloth. A woman will take a piece of cloth, a scarf, but that’s not getting rid of any of the contaminants, unfortunately. It’s tough stuff that we see out there. I wrote about this in my book. I was living in a village in Ethiopia for a week. In this village, there was a thirteen-year-old girl who was walking eight hours for water. It’s crazy. That’s so far from our reality. We walk eight seconds to tap to get clean water. Imagine if the water was four hours walk away from each way. You walked out four hours, you filled up your water from a swamp and you walked four hours back carrying that 40-pound container on your back.
This is what she did. She was thirteen years old. She had a clay pot, which weighed five or seven pounds as is. One day after her long eight-hour walks, she gets back into her village. She slips. She falls and she smashes her pot. It falls on the ground. It breaks and all the water spills out. She was in such dismay that she hung herself from the tree right next to where she spilled her pot. She took the rope that would attach the pot to the back of her shoulders, and she tied it around her neck. She climbed a tree and she jumped. The elders found this thirteen-year-old girl’s body swinging with the noose around her neck and a clay pot broken next to her.
You spend time at a village like that. You meet her family. I met her best friend who walked with her that day. It makes you want to do something about it. There’s anger. There’s a not on my watch idea. You want to come back and work harder because we know how to help. Thirteen-year-old girls shouldn’t be hanging themselves from trees because she happened to be born across the world. I was born in the middle-class family. I certainly didn’t have an easy childhood, but I certainly didn’t have to walk eight hours for water. My kids won’t either. That’s kept me going. The need is so great. It’s a solvable problem.
That’s beauty. There’s not a single person alive right now that we don’t know how to help. We don’t have the money to do it. We haven’t created the will and the awareness, but there is not a single human being that we can help. My mom died of pancreatic cancer. It was very quick. It was months from diagnosis to death. We do not know how to solve late-stage pancreatic cancer. There are a lot of diseases right now that we are perplexed. We are looking for cures. There are immunotherapy tests and people are looking for possible vaccines. Water is not like that. Not a single person out of the 660 million people do we not know how to help. It costs money. We have to raise the money, allocate it and bring that solution to the person, to the community, to the country. It’s not a mystery to us. That’s what energized our team and our community.
It’s got to be very hard on you to do this. You’re not used to living the life that these people are used to living. When you go on these trips, do you have days where you think, “I can’t be here? This is so hard.” It may seem like you know what, compared to what they go through, it’s nothing, but this is not what you’ve grown up doing. How hard is it on you?
I’ve been doing it for so long now. This is a new reality. When I first went on the Mercy Ship, the hospital ship and I went from 1,500 square feet in a nice apartment in New York City to 120-square foot cabin that I shared with two strange roommates that I’d never met before. I felt a little sorry for myself. I got off the ship. I saw how people were living in West Africa and I shut up. I had three meals. I had a toilet. I had running water. I had a bed.
You wrote about this in your book, Thirst. When you talk about what your motive for writing the book, you would love to get people on board with Charity Water. What else do you write about in this book? What is your hope for this?
There are many people that do feel stuck in life and feel like they haven’t found that purpose. Maybe the mistakes of their past, they believe in finding their future. I could never change. It’s too late to change. I undersold what a scoundrel I was, the book, I can unpack it a little more in long-form. Unless you were killing people, you weren’t as bad as I was. It’d be hard-pressed to find someone. I would hope to say that you can use those mistakes of your past to write a completely new future.
You can find a life of purpose, generosity, giving. You can take some of the skills and maybe redirect them from selfishness to figure out how you can use your time and your talents to serve others and find real freedom through that. I wanted to share my journey in the hopes that it would help others. The book wound up becoming a New York Times bestseller. Many people had been writing to me from all over the world that said that they were moved or they were encouraged. There might be some budding social entrepreneurs out there who say, “I’m passionate about a different issue. I want to know how you did it. How’d you raise $400 million? How did you help ten million people get clean water and counting?”
A lot of the mistakes that we made building Charity Water, some of the boneheaded things that we did that maybe could stop other people from that. There are guns in the book. There are lawsuits in the book. There are a lot of the works I want to lay out there in a transparent way, in the hope that they could be helpful to others. There are some stories in the book that I don’t get to tell in a ten-minute interview. There’s one story about this woman named Helen Apio. She gets clean water for the first time in her life. She says to us that for the first time she felt beautiful because she’d never had enough water to wash her face or her body or her clothes before.
She always used limited water to take care of her kids and her husband. She said, “I’m looking so smart. I look so beautiful. Look at me. I’m clean. My clothes are clean.” Trying to get people to think differently about water or something that almost all of us take for granted. It’s a part of our natural life. We have it. We’ve always had it. When was the last time you’ve been thirsty? We run marathons. There are people standing at every part of the way with cups out. We don’t know thirst. We don’t know sickness and disease from the water. 100% of the book proceeds and the advance, all that goes to Charity Water. I also wanted the book to help carry the message, help inspire, but also be a way that people could support the organization by buying it.
That’s a great plan. I am curious about what your parents thought. I know you said your mother’s passed, but they’ve seen you talk about your story. Did they know you as you say your scoundrel qualities or was that news to them when you came out with all this?
No, they knew it, unfortunately. I even rubbed it in their face a little bit for a while. They knew. They were proud of mom and me is in the book and she got to read the Galli. She never got to see it hit the New York Times list. She did get to see it in Galli Paperback Forum, read it and liked it. I see dad a lot. He comes up every month. He lives out in New Jersey still. We’re in New York City. He comes, hangs out with the kids and with our family. They’re proud.
They must think it’s amazing what you’ve done. I’m curious if you ever found out why half of your body went numb?
No, unexplainably was fine again.
The next day or were you numb for a while?
It took a couple of months and it stopped.
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It’s a spiritual wake-up call, a physical wakeup call. I don’t know. I was numb in many ways, physically, morally. It would’ve been a good word for everything happening in my life.
This has been an amazing story. Do you continue to run this or would you ever pass the reins? What’s your future for what you want to do?
I’m still young. I’ve got some more time doing this.
Any other charities in your mind?
Not to run. I’m excited about water. We’ve now had several years. We have proficiency in the water. No, that’s the issue for me. I want to do more. I want to grow the community. I want to grow the spring. This giving community we talked about, thank you so much for being a part of that. My wife and I give monthly. It’s now 40,000 people strong across 140 countries. It’s people giving $10 a month, $30 a month, $100 a month, giving what they can. Knowing that 100% of that money is going straight to help people. That’s my only asset. If people could learn more about the book, that’s ThirstBook.com. You could learn more about spring. You could join us. I’m excited about continuing to grow the movement. I work with an amazing team here. We got named one of the best innovative workplaces in America. We have an amazing culture here. People who are in it for the right reasons. People who work hard. Many people who are leaving Google or Facebook or Microsoft or Adobe are taking pay cuts to use their skills in the service of others. I can’t imagine anything else I’d want to do right now.
Do you project a chance that this could be solved based on what you’re doing?
Yes, in our lifetime. We want to solve it in our lifetime. We’ve gone from one billion people to 660 million, even as the population has increased. We got to keep working. We’ve got to bring that down. I’m absolutely a believer that we can see this done. We need more money. We need more people involved in the movement. We’re working towards that day when everybody has clean water to drink.
Are you celebrating an anniversary of this?
We broke through ten million people served, ten million people with clean water. We believe the best is yet to come because there are so many people that haven’t heard of Charity Water, many people that have never given to this issue or joined our community. We’re excited about seeing the movement grow.
If somebody wanted to become associated, they could buy the book.
It’s CharityWater.org/thespring. They can watch that video that you’ve mentioned. Check it out.
What you’re doing is so important now. We’ve got Thirst, the book. We have the ability to donate and those are the main things that people can do at this point.
Even with the video, sharing it helps. That video has gotten over twenty million views. A lot of that from people posting it on their Facebook or sending it to their friends. You never know who watches it in response. You did and I’m grateful for that.
It was impactful. I recommend everybody watch it. It’s short as we said, maybe five minutes or something. It gives the whole story and the visual impact of what they’re drinking is horrifying to see. You did a great job of portraying it. I’m amazed by what you were able to do and turn your life around in such a positive way. Thank you so much for sharing that on the show, Scott. This has been amazing to have the opportunity to talk to you.
Thanks for having me on. Thanks for being generous to yourself. It means so much to me.
I’d like to thank Scott for being my guest. We get many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can always go to DrDianeHamilton.com. If you go to the top, the radio section, it’ll give you the audio version. We’re on all the different sites, iTunes, iHeart, Roku, every place that you can even ask your echo to play the show. If you go to the blog part of the site, you can read the episodes, which is great because we also have tweetable moments there. If there was something that you found compelling to share, please tweet and share some of those thoughts from the show.
Scott’s site is so amazing what he’s been able to accomplish. That I was looking forward to having him share what he’s done. We’ve had a lot of inspirational people. Hellicy Ng’ambi was on the show. She was from Africa. She talked about her amazing journey. I’ve had people who’ve gone through disabilities and overcome people like Erik Weihenmayer. There are many people on the site that have shared, who have shared amazing stories of what they’ve done to change the world.
I hope you take some time to look at past episodes. If you’re looking for information about curiosity. The book is Cracking The Curiosity Code and the assessment is The Curiosity Code Index. They can all be found at DrDianeHamilton.com. At the top, there’s the whole link for all the curiosity information. We’re certifying people to become CCI-certified, which means you can give the Curiosity Code Index Assessment and part of going through that process, you would get five hours of SHRM recertification credit. We want to see more curiosity developed to get more innovative cultures out there, more engagement.
People like Scott who come up with these great ways because he explored something that he normally wouldn’t have. That is one of the most inspirational stories I have had on the show. How many people would put themselves on that boat, pay the money to do it and go off to this third world to help people without any other thought? That’s a hard thing to say that many people would do. I admire what he was able to do and how he shared that on the show. I would like to develop that quality. Even if you don’t go to Africa to think of the things you can do within your own organizations to develop that curiosity of what can we do to make a difference and use that insight to help the organizations maybe do things in a philanthropic way or even in their day-to-day operations that help other organizations help other people help in any way that they can.
Part of it is to be able to ask questions. Many people are fearful of exploring new in different areas. A lot of times their fear comes from their environment or past experiences. That created this dialogue or monologue in their head of things they think they can’t do or wouldn’t be capable or wouldn’t find interesting or it’d be too hard or whatever it is that we tell ourselves. That’s something that many people struggle with. There’s a sense of confidence that we have to build up because our environment can have a huge impact on what we think we’re capable and not capable of doing. What we do when we take the Curiosity Code Index is discover some of those things that hold us back in terms of fear, voices in our head or our assumptions.
Maybe even technology of how we’ve under or over-utilized it and how our environment, our bosses or friends or family or teachers or anybody we’ve ever had exposure to the impact it’s had, even social media. It’s important. I’ve had a lot of companies that are interested in giving this assessment and having their HR people become certified or a lot of consultants who want to become CCI-certified. All you have to do is go to CuriosityCode.com or at DrDianeHamilton.com and go up to the top of the site and click on the link to the Curiosity Code Index. That’s how you contact me and if you need any more information, please do so through the site. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I look forward to the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- Charity Water
- Robert Spies – past episode
- Mercy Ships
- JP Sears – past episode
- iTunes – Take The Lead Radio
- iHeart – Take The Lead Radio
- Hellicy Ng’ambi – previous episode
- Erik Weihenmayer – previous episode
About Scott Harrison
Scott Harrison Founder and CEO of Charity Water, spent almost 10 years as a nightclub promoter in New York City, living decadently and extravagantly. But at age 28, he had a crisis of conscience and found himself lost and unfulfilled, desperate to rediscover his sense of purpose.
He decided it was time for a drastic change, and left NYC to spend a year volunteering as a photojournalist aboard a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia, West Africa. That led to his creation of Charity Water, which has changed the lives of people throughout the world who can get clean drinking water.
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