Scott Harrison: Finding meaning in philanthropy
After encountering extraordinary poverty in Africa, a former NYC party promoter decides to use his skills to provide clean water to developing nations.
Tue, Apr 24, 2012 at 01:03 AM
WELL-PLANNED PHILANTHROPY: Scott Harrison's charity: water utilizes social media, celebrities and a transparent donation process to contribute to building water wells in Africa. (Photo: charitywater.org)
Throughout his 20s, Scott Harrison promoted fashion shows and club openings for New York City’s most expensive labels and elite night spots. At the time, $20 represented the average cost of an alcoholic beverage.
But when the party life left him feeling unfulfilled and empty, Harrison joined Mercy Ships as a photojournalist. He documented the work that hospital ships did in West African countries where regular healthcare was unavailable. Coincidentally, he learned that $20 in that part of the world could bring fresh water to people who couldn't turn on the tap.
“Our medical staff would hold patient intake ‘screenings’ and thousands would wait in line to be seen, many afflicted with deformities even Clive Barker hadn't thought of — enormous, suffocating tumors, cleft lips, faces eaten by bacteria from water-borne diseases,” said Harrison in a recent interview with fellow entrepreneur Kevin Rose. “I learned many of these medical conditions also existed here in the West, but were taken care of — never allowed to progress.”
While access to medical care was a big issue, access to clean water was even more of a challenge. Village wells decrease disease, allow for basic health care and sanitation, subsidize farming and let villagers stay close to home and away from the dangers often found on the trips of up to five miless that can be required to fetch water daily.
Back in New York City for his 31st birthday, Harrison asked party guests to skip one drink and instead donate $20 to bring clean water to those in need. In one night, he raised $15,000 — enough to build three desperately needed village wells.
After that party, Harrison founded his nonprofit organization and gave it a hipster, nightclub-esque name, charity: water.
According to the interactive Google map on the group's website, charity: water has funded 6,185 water projects in five years, affecting 2,545,000 people. Projects include schools, clinics, and wells for villages, which are built with local partners in developing parts of South Africa, Bangladesh and Hondoras.
Harrison’s impressive promotion skills extend far into the social media world where he’s collected more than 1 million followers for the nonprofit’s Twitter feed and convinced stars like Justin Bieber and Will Smith to donate tweets and time.
In addition to raising funds for essential water projects in the developing world, Harrison has raised a new generation of philanthropists. He’s successfully recruited his 20- to 30-something peers who’d been reluctant to donate the small funds they had available to opaque old-school charities that could not provide the interactivity and transparency that the digital generation requires.
Harrison created digestible metrics for donations, made sure that 100 percent of public donations were used for water projects (the charity’s overhead costs are funded separately), provided progress on each project to each donor who helped make it happen and then gave donors the tools to join the mission and spread the word themselves with the website mycharitywater.org.
“They’ve got a turnkey solution on their website so you can create your own campaign and you can see dollar for dollar what your donations have done because they show you where the money goes,” says Jason Haber, the 35-year-old founder of Rubicon Real Estate in New York City. Haber built charitable giving into the company’s earnings model and says he donates to charity: water because the issue was important and solvable. And, the website made it easy to understand and fun to promote the cause using the same social marketing techniques Haber uses to build his own business.
That fun and ease of understanding may have been what led MyCharityWater.org to receive a fair amount of social media attention recently when a couple told friends and family they’d only get married if others donated $5,000 to charity: water. The ploy worked and earlier this month the couple got engaged. They’ve since raised more than $6,000.
To date, MyCharityWater.org has brought in $14,664,073 through campaigns by its 111,754 members. If more of them plan on getting married soon, you can bet that donation numbers will rise dramatically in the near future.
Engagement ring, anyone?
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