For the love of Giving: Episode 03

Charity: Water CEO Scott Harrison’s Thirst for Change

“What would the opposite of my life look like?” Today’s guest, Charity: Water founder Scott Harrison, was a Jesus kid turned high-end club promoter, with all the luxury and excess that comes with it. Unfulfilled by his pursuit of “more” and desperate for a change, Scott sold everything he owned and joined a non-profit as a photojournalist. What he saw on his journeys changed his life, as he realized a basic need we take for granted—clean water—wasn’t available in many parts of the world. That discovery led him to found Charity: Water, which has helped 8.5 million people around the world gain access to clean water. We’ll hear about Scott’s new memoir Thirst, and why people are cancelling their HBO subscriptions to give to Charity: Water’s super-cool new initiative, Spring. Scott’s story reminds us we’re never too far gone to make a change—our lives can be redeemed, no matter what.

Transcript from the show

Narrator:  Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hi, everybody, Jen here. Before we get started with our episode today, I wanted to tell you about this mom who couldn't stand using soaps totally full of chemicals on her babies’ skin. So she created her own natural soaps made with goat milk from her own goats.
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So listen: the Goat Milk Stuff people think that you or someone you love will benefit from trying their products. So they are offering you, our listeners, a 20% discount on your whole first purchase.
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Okay, everybody, let’s get back to our show!
Jen: Hey everybody, it is Jen Hatmaker, your hostess on the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show.

You guys, we're in the middle of our For the Love of Giving series, which is giving me so many good feelings. We are talking about all things generosity, sharing our time, our means, our resources, our talents with people, our families and neighborhoods, and literally all around the world. Generally this time of year, we're even more mindful of our gifts we've been given and the importance of generosity. I'm so glad that we get to talk about things like that in this community.

Our next guest has quite a story, and you've probably heard of him. But if you haven't, you're going to be delighted. He is doing amazing things and providing, literally, one of the most life-giving gifts for people around the world.

You probably know Scott Harrison. He is the founder and the CEO of Charity: Water. I mean, Charity: Water is a marvel. It's a nonprofit organization, and its chief aim is to end the water crisis in our lifetime.

Listen to this. In just 12 years, Charity: Water has raised more than $320 million—$320 million—to provide clean drinking water for 8.5 million people across the world. The numbers are staggering. Africa, Asia, Central America—Charity: Water has used that third of a billion dollars to fund over 30,000 water projects in 26 countries. I mean, it's really, really phenomenal.

I can't wait for you to hear Scott's story, though, because 15 years ago, nobody would have ever believed that this was going to be his life's work, because he was a club kid. Like, a club promoter, a professional partier in his 20s. You'll hear it. He tells the story.

But his life took a huge, a huge turn that is . . . I'm not going to stop thinking about it. In fact, I told him at the end of our conversation about the one piece of his story that I am so going to take with me, and it involves rented Mustang and driving to Maine.

Scott's been recognized literally everywhere. I mean, Fortune Magazine's 40 Under 40 list, Forbes’ Impact 30 list. He was recently named one of Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People in Business, and he's currently a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. He's the real deal, you guys.

Scott and his wife Victoria live in Manhattan, which he talks about a little bit. They're raising two littles— little littles, Jackson and Emma—and he just wrote his first book, called Thirst. We'll talk about that as well.

I absolutely love Scott. I respect him. I admire him. I'm grateful for him and his story. I've been watching him for years, and he is a delight. You're really going to enjoy him. This guy would be our friend. So I'm so pleased to share with you my conversation with Charity: Water CEO and author Scott Harrison.

Scott, I am so happy to have you on the show today. Thank you for coming on.

Scott: I'm so happy to be here and to come on.
Jen: We were just talking, before we hit Record, that we have a lot of ancillary people in common and a lot of crossover, and I've been watching your work for years. I mean, years, and years, and years. This is actually our first time to meet voice-to-voice, and I am so pumped about it.

Listen, I am overjoyed by you and the work that you are doing around the world and how you do it. I've told everybody a little bit about who you are and what it is that you do.

I wonder, if, before we dive into some more of that, could we roll it back a little bit to you and your beginnings and hear a little bit more about your background? Can you tell everybody where you grew up? What do your parents do, and siblings? And you went to church from the time you were little, right?

Scott: Yeah. I was a worship leader. I was that kid playing keyboards.

Jen: And what were you wearing, like, what year was this?

Scott: Mock turtlenecks, Jen.

Jen: Oh, right.

Scott: Mock turtleneck.

Jen: Oh man, that was a good phase.

Scott: Clothes that were at least two size too big.

Jen: Wait a minute. How old are you? Are we the same age?

Scott: I just turned 43.

Jen: Yeah, I'm 44. That's what I thought. I don't know why we all only wore XXLs, but we did.

Scott: I cringe at some of those photos. I actually used to have a piano tie that I would wear—in high school, Jen, in high school.

If I go back to the beginning, I was born in Philadelphia, middle-class family. Dad was a businessman who worked kind of in an electrical engineering plant. My mom was a writer. She wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer and for a local newspaper. They became Christians when I was three.

Jen: Hmm, that's kind of rare.

Scott: Dad was a sailor. He was a navy guy, hard drinker, hard smoker. They got invited to some Bible study and they just, for the first time in their life, I think the concept of sin or them being flawed individuals hit them. They were having some troubles in their marriage and, as my dad describes it, "We were just two really selfish people."

Something about that group of people, meeting in a home, they went all-in. My dad quit drinking, never smoked again. There was this detail, I remember, where he had bought something for about $400 from a store, and they never cashed the check. He was just so happy, for all the years. He would balance his checkbook, and they never found the check. And the minute he became a Christian, he wrote that store the check and said they had lost it.

I think it was an authentic conversion moment.

Jen: Obviously.

Scott: This led us to then move closer to his job. He was commuting about an hour and said, "Hey, look, Christian families spend more time together." So we move into a drab, gray house 22 minutes from his job, so he can just spend more time with me.

We moved in, in the winter. It wasn't the dream house, by any stretch of the imagination. It was a four bedroom, modest house, but there was a great school at the end of the street that I could walk to, it was on a cul-de-sac, and again, it was going to take 40 minutes off his commute.

What we didn't know when we moved into this house, this energy-efficient house in the middle of winter was that there was a carbon monoxide gas leak. The gas company, PSE&G, had installed a faulty furnace, a faulty heat exchanger. Carbon monoxide was escaping, and basically filling the house.

So we move in and we all start just feeling a little sick, and we're getting these symptoms. On New Year's Day, my mom, who really was spending all 24 hours a day fixing up the house, unpacking boxes in the dead of winter, she collapses unconscious on the floor. After a long series of blood tests and hospital visits, the doctors finally find these massive amounts of carbon monoxide, of carboxyhemoglobin, in her bloodstream.

The long story, short, what happened to her that day was she didn't die, thankfully, but her immune system irreparably died. Her immune system never recovered. It was never able to bounce back. From that moment, she became hyper chemically sensitive. All of the toxins that we just fight every day as we go through the world began to make her very, very ill.

Mom, from this point on, just her whole life changes. She starts wearing these charcoal masks. She is using oxygen. She's going to health clinics. All the food that she's eating now makes her sick, so she goes on weird diets where she can eat one food per meal every six days. Like, cashews would be breakfast.

Jen: Oh my gosh.

Scott: I was really thrusted into a caregiver role with my dad at a really young age and began to take care of Mom, and do the cooking, and the cleaning, and all the things she couldn't do as a normal mom.

My parents’ Christian faith leads them to a decision not to sue the gas company. We believed that they could have gotten millions. My dad had actually—

Jen: Oh, for sure.

Scott: He'd actually invited the gas company to come out, because he suspected maybe there was some sort of leak. They said, "No, no. Everything's fine. Everything's fine." It was up the plumber friend of his that actually went down to the basement. My dad and his plumber friend yanked out the heater. They found the leak themselves.

Jen: That's a crazy story.

Scott: Right? My parents had a Christian doctor that said, "Look, you don't want to be bitter. You don't want to be involved in a multi-year lawsuit." At the end of the day, it was an accident. They hadn't tried to kill my mom. It was a faulty piece of metal, effectively.
Then, fast forward to church life. I went to a bunch of different churches. I think my parents would identify as non-denominational. We tried everything from Baptists, to Presbyterian, to more charismatic assemblies of God, depending on where we lived.

I went to Christian school as a kid. Then in the ninth grade, we moved to a house in the country just to try and get Mom better air. My parents put me in a Christian school with nine other people in my class, freshman year. It met in the basement of a church. They couldn't afford teachers, Jen, so they rolled out our teachers on those VHS carts, with like the rubber ribbed matting.

Jen: Of course, I know.

Scott: There was a huge, actually, a really good public school in the town that—we were in Jersey now, at this point. There were 4,000 kids in the public school. My parents just . . . There was something about my personality that they thought I would not do well in public school, that I would potentially become corrupted. I'm like, "Well, I don't care because I'm just going to run away from home, because I can't have an education on VHS."

Jen: Right. Like, “I can't go back to the VHS basement.”

Scott: They let me move into high school. Then, everything that they feared begins to happen. I fall in with the wrong crowd, I join a band, I cut school, I stopped going to classes. That leads me to barely finish high school. Think of me as a C- student, where at the very last moment, they actually didn't know when I was going to get my diploma, because I think I had to lie about a couple days that I had been absent. I got a doctor's note or something.

Jen: Totally. Then, the teachers like, "You know what, you probably shouldn't pass, but I just don't want to see you another year."

Scott: Yeah, exactly.

Jen: “So just walk across the finish line.”

Scott: Exactly. “Just get this guy out of here.”

Jen: “Out of here.” Right.

Scott: At 18, I moved to New York City—18, 19, moved to New York City. My plan at the time was to become rich and famous with my band.

Jen: Oh sure, of course.

Scott: I had fallen in love in New York City. This was the place where I was going to rebel in style. I mean there was no going back to New Jersey, at this point.

Jen: Right.

Scott: I learned that there's this career, there's this job where you can get paid to drink alcohol for free in nightclubs. Like, you could actually make a living.
Jen: What a magical time to be alive. Yeah.

Scott: Right. I mean, if you want to rebel against your Christian upbringing, what better to do that than to make a career professionally drinking?

Jen: Yeah. Literally, nailing rebellion. That was pitch perfect.
Scott: It was like winning at rebellion.

Jen: Yes, exactly.

Scott: Of course, to the horror of my parents, I become a nightclub promoter and start climbing up the social ladder of New York City. I wanted to be the king of nightlife. Wound up working at 40 nightclubs over the next 10 years.

Jen: Wow, gosh.

Scott: Picking up every vice you might imagine would come with the territory. If you fast-forward through just a lot of drunken nights, and parties, and flying around the world, to Fashion Week in Milan and Paris and London, just chasing status, chasing fashion. You know, throwing parties for Cosmopolitan Magazine, or Prada, or MTV, at the time.

At 28, I'm smoking two to three packs of cigarettes every day. I have a massive drinking problem. I'm a heavy user of cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA, Special K, anything I can get my hands on.

Jen: Dark days.

Scott: Pretty dark days. Now, I haven't gone to church for 10 years. You can't really justify my lifestyle with faith, so I'd walked away from it. but I think what was interesting is I hadn't necessarily stopped believing. I hadn't turned into an atheist.

Jen: Right.

Scott: You know, there's the twinge of guilt for all these bad behaviors, just kind of like the voice gets smaller and smaller. Just put all the morality, and all the spirituality into a corner. Then, you pile stuff on top of it. That really, I think that was the best way probably to describe what happened over these 10 years.

I had a moment at 28, and there was this cathartic kind of epiphany moment, where I left New York City. I went to South America. I started experiencing health issues at this time, and half my body goes numb, inexplicably.

Jen: Wow, yeah.

Scott: In some ways, I'm almost faced with mortality for the first time, because I'm invincible. I'm the nightclub promoter.

I start seeing neurologists, thinking that I have some terrible brain disease—and nothing. Everything checks out fine. It's inexplicable.

Jen: Our bodies just tell us.

Scott: Yeah.

So I go to South America on this trip. We would always leave New York City at New Year's Eve, and we'd go to South America. I remember we rented this unbelievable compound, in Punta del Este, which was a party town for the rich.

Jen: Okay. When you say “we,” this is you and you're work friends?

Scott: Me and my club friends, yeah, the bottle buyers.

Jen: Got it.

Scott: So I go on this trip, and I've got the health issues. I remember, it's this beautiful compound and we're with such wealthy people. We spend $1,000 on the fireworks and we blow them up in our backyard of the compound, next to the pool. There are magnums of Dom Pérignon champagne everywhere. My girlfriend, at the time, I think she was on the cover of Elle, or French Vogue, and I thought I had the most beautiful girl in the compound. There was a mega yacht that we were renting and all going out, looking for sea lions. I mean, it's just—

Jen: It's crazy, bananas.

Scott: It was this moment, like we had arrived. Right?

Jen: Yeah

Scott: Surely, this should make me fantastically happy. Like, what more is there?

Jen: Right.
Scott: It was almost like the day that the music stopped, almost like the game of Musical Chairs. For the first time, the music ended, I looked around and I had no place to sit. It was unsettling. The veil was lifted. Like, there was this revelation that there was actually never going to be enough. There would never be enough money. There would never be enough girls. There would never be enough status. Somebody would always have a better watch, a better car, a private plane. This endless pursuit of me, this endless pursuit of selfishness and hedonism, would have no good end and would never fulfill me.

This whole time my parents, God bless them, they are praying that their prodigal comes home.

Jen: I'm sure.

Scott: They've got churches praying. They have ladies, you know, in their ‘70s.

Jen: The ladies.

Scott: Right? I would go home for Christmas, and I would bring you know the girlfriend of the month home.

Jen: Sure.

Scott: We would go to church, the candlelight service. I would always kind of daydream and humor them. On this trip, he had sent me down to Uruguay with A. W. Tozer's Pursuit of God. Right?

Jen: Okay.

Scott: Like, this little deep, theological, paperback. For some reason, I'd thrown it in my bag. In South America, hungover during the days—I mean, badly hungover, we would wake up at 1:00 or 2:00 PM—I began to read the Bible again, and I begin to read these little theological pursuits. I think there was something about that book. It's funny. Writing the book, I went back and reread it. It's kind of not fun. I mean, it's dense.

Jen: Right. Yeah.

Scott: It's not like The Message.

Jen: Right. Totally.

Scott: I think there was something about the spirit of that book or the intention, it was just about someone desperately craving to know God, to please God, craving virtue, craving love. He says, “We must become like little children. We have to walk away from all these possessions that trap us, and we will never find enough.” So, there was language.

Jen: Right. Just like such stark relief to your current experience.

Scott: It was the opposite.

Jen: Right, yeah, the opposite.

Scott: Exactly. Like it was someone walking in the exact opposite direction, pursuing the exact opposite things. And being such an extreme personality, I'm an eight on the Enneagram, so—

Jen: Yeah, makes sense. It's fitting.

Scott: It was compelling.

And nothing immediately changed, but I would say my heart changed on that trip. And it was just this, Let me take everything down a notch, hopefully to zero.

Jen: Right, just like a little behavior modification.

Scott: But then that felt like I was miserably failing because behavior modification, because I was smoking one pack a day.

Jen: Right exactly. Those are not good metrics.
Scott: The fun was gone. Again, I hate some of the churchy words that I heard growing up, but in some ways I did feel convicted. I was now aware of how counter to the life that I might now want to live.

You know, maybe the best way to describe it is my life, in some ways, is just so many clichés. I mean, this part of my life would have been living out the prodigal son scenario. You know, “Give me my inheritance, F you to the church, to my parents. I'm gonna go and sow my oats.” And then 10 years later, I just really missed home, and I wanted to come home. And this was me over the next six months trying to find my way back to faith, back to virtue.

I remember checking out churches. And back then in New York City, they were meeting in fluorescent-lit schools and basement of Rotary Clubs. Nothing felt like a fit. And then I just remember praying a lot for a way out.

I write about this in detail in the book, but there was a night, there was a moment, it involved a gun and it involved bouncers in the club, and I had this clear revelation that maybe it was time to actually make the clean break. The “one foot in, one foot out” just wasn't going to work.

After this event that happened at the club, I wound up renting a Ford Mustang. I think it was just a month long rental, kind of open ended. I start driving north. I have no idea where I'm going, and I ask myself the question as I'm driving through Connecticut and Vermont and then Maine, What would the opposite of my life look like?

Jen: Wow, that's a great question.

Scott: What would the 180 degree? Not the pivot, not the 30 degree or 50 degree turn....

Jen: Yeah, yeah. Not like just dialing it back, but a turn.

Scott: What's the St. Augustine or Francis of Assisi, like, what is the “sell all your possessions and live in poverty” kind of look like?

Jen: Yeah, wow.

Scott: So, long story short, I kind of do that. My idea was that I would tithe one of the 10 years that I had selfishly wasted to others. I would give that in service to the poor. And then I would sell my stuff, and I would try and quit all the vices and start over, and really really start with a clean slate, and see if I could just completely create a new story for my life.
Jen: So how did you even know how to turn your North Star? Like, if you're thinking, I'm gonna give a year to the poor, this is my tithe, where did your eyes look? Where's your foothold? Who's your guide here?

Scott: Well there was a internet café in Greenville, Maine. It was a dial-up internet café, and I just start researching all the humanitarian aid organizations I'd heard of over the years. So I applied to World Vision and Samaritan's Purse and Save the Children and UNICEF.

Jen: Right, just reaching for, like, the big guys.

Scott: I was going on their websites saying, “Maybe I could be helpful to you in some way.”

And then I put in the applications. I never go back to New York. I actually just start liquidating my life. I put 2,000 DVDs up on eBay in a single lot and just sell them in a big chest. I sell my speaker system. I give the piano back. I really liquidate my life, and I go to the South of France.

Jen: Let me ask you a question real quick. I'm curious what your party friends, your club friends, your colleagues, what are they saying? Do they think that you've lost your mind?

Scott: They don't know anything yet. I just kind of went sideline.

Jen: Oh, they don't know anything.

Scott: Yeah.

Jen: You just go off the grid.

Scott: So I just bowed out, and this is what happens. People take a couple months off from clubs. So this is all happening over a six-to-eight-week period. So I was on a long vacation. I was on an extended vacation.

Jen: They were thinking you'll just be back.

Scott: I had a business partner, so he was holding down the clubs. He was holding down the fort.

Jen: Okay. So south of France. . .

Scott: So I go to the south of France, there's this house in the mountains that a friend had just let me borrow. And I remember just praying and you know, obviously you're not doing drugs in the middle of the mountain. I am still smoking like a fiend and drinking way too much wine. And then from there, the rejection letters start coming in.

Jen: Oh, interesting.

Scott: So one by one, all of these humanitarian aid organizations say, "We don't have anything for you." And I think the subtext was, "Really, bro?"

Jen: Right.

Scott: "You're a club kid? Sorry, you're selling $500 bottles of Absolut Vodka, and you want to go work on our mission in Darfur? We're serious people, okay?!"

Jen: Right.

Scott: I had actually gone to NYU and gotten a journalism degree. And again, I C-minused NYU, going the very minimum. But my dad had saved up, and I felt like I would do him a huge favor by taking his, what, $100,000 or so and actually paying one of the more expensive schools in the country to get a degree.

I'd never used that through nightlife, but I dust off this degree and apply to one organization and said, "Look, I could be your photojournalist. I can come and take good pictures about whatever good work you're doing, and I can write pretty good stories." I'd also written for the local paper when I was a teenager, kind of following in Mom's footsteps.

And [Mercy Ships] actually call me when I'm in the south of France. It turns out later they rejected my application at first, but then they were about to start their mission, they were about to start their outreach without this position filled. So they had to go back through the rejected applications, they pick mine.

Jen: “Well, we got this one guy.”

Scott: “We've got this one guy.” And it wasn't like, "Hey, Scott, you're hired." It was like, "Hey, Scott, we'll meet you."

Jen: Totally, right. Right.

Scott: What was great was the ship, there was a big hospital ship, a group called Mercy Ships, and they were in Germany. They were in Bremerhaven, Germany. I'm like, "Well, I'm in France! I'll be there in two days."

I take the train up, and I convince my new bosses that I am not gonna throw any crazy raves, that I'm not gonna sleep with the nurses on the ship, like, “I've really changed my life and my intention, and I really want to serve God and find my way back home to what I believed as a kid.”

They agree to take me on, and now it happens quick. So two weeks later, I'm in Africa for the first time in my life.

Jen: Whoa, that was fast.
Scott: Okay, imagine now a 522-foot ship, so this is almost two football fields long. 350 volunteer crew—doctors, surgeons, nurses, people who are flying in from all over the world who are donating their vacation time to serve people without access to medical care. I'm the one guy on the ship that gets to run around with cameras and tell stories and talk about all the amazing work we're gonna do.

So before I join the ship, before I hand in my passport and kind of embark and become part of their crew and part of their rules, I go out with a bang. I get fantastically drunk, I smoke three packs of cigarettes.

Jen: Nice.

Scott: And then that was it.

Jen: Wow.

Scott: It was something prophetic or symbolic about walking up this gangway and just imagining that the gangway then gets pulled up, and we sail away from land, across the ocean to a new continent, into a new life.

It's funny, interviewing some people for the book, they remember me turning up smelling like liquor. Not a great way to start.

Jen: I'm sure it had to have been coming out of your pores, right?

Scott: Not a great way to start, but I never smoked again.

Jen: Is that right?

Scott: I never touched coke or any of that again. I never gambled again.

Jen: That's amazing.

Scott: I was celibate for five and a half years until my wedding night. I went from New York City playboy that would sleep with anything that moved to completely, like, with the program.

Jen: You did. You did.

Scott: I went all in. I mean, I think it was easier to just say, "I'm signing back up for all of it." You know, I stopped swearing, all of it. So that, to me, allowed me to then begin over and, in some ways, accept maybe the grace that was always there.

Jen: Absolutely. And how long were you with Mercy Ships?

Scott: So I did a year and then wound up signing up for a second year, so almost two years.

Jen: Two years, okay.

Scott: And we were in Liberia, West Africa, which was a country with no electricity, no running water, no sewage, no mail. Charles Taylor, this war lord, had destroyed the country after a 14-year civil war that he led with child soldiers. So we came in right after the war ended, right after he'd been thrown out, just to pick up the pieces. We saw unthinkable suffering and sickness and atrocity.

And here I am, taking pictures now of the medical interventions and all of this amazing work that the doctors are doing, but I'm emailing my 15,000 club friends. So I rolled to Africa with this big list of people that had been coming to the Prada store opening or the MTV party.

Jen: Of course.

Scott: So of course there were a few unsubscribes at first.

Jen: Right. “Bounce these, he got weird.”

Scott: But most people were just amazed. Yeah, and you asked what did my friends think. They thought it was amazing.

Jen: Did they?

Scott: Oh my gosh, like, “Scott, you're on this hospital ship with surgeons and doctors in a country we've never even heard of that's post-war? And you're helping people and thousands of sick people are turning up in fields and in parking lots, outside of soccer stadiums, and your doctors are helping them? And blind people are seeing, and lame people are walking!”

I mean, it was so visual. We would see people with six-pound fleshy tumors suffocating [them] to death on their own face completely saved by these doctors, who would remove the tumor and give them their face and their life and their speech back.

There was this moment of almost instant redemption of the list. The same people that I had been getting wasted for 15 years, telling a story that if they got past my velvet rope and if they spent $20 on a vodka soda that their life had meaning, I was able to tell a completely different story, a story about empathy and compassion and generosity and service. And they responded to that.

Jen: Yeah. It's moving. There's no way about it. I mean, that is good news. And so, good news is good news to everybody. I can only imagine the conversations they were having behind your back as they were receiving your information and your intel.

Scott: Well, some people thought I was doing it to get girls. I did hear that. They're like, "Oh my gosh, sorry. Scott Harrison is now a humanitarian? Like, please."

Jen: A humanitarian playboy. That would have been a very roundabout way to get girls. But still, they're moved by it.

So you're sort of pulling them into the fray of this new work that you're doing, and then what? You're with Mercy Ships, and it's here that you start thinking about water, is that right?

Scott: That's right. So my second tour with Mercy Ships, I get out into the villages. And I bought a motorcycle, and I'm now exploring Liberia and trying to learn more about the conditions of the country and extreme poverty, and I'm off of the ship.
And as I go into these rural areas, I see the water that people are drinking, Jen, and it's freaking disgusting. It's filthy, brown, viscous, chocolate milk. It's green, algae. I'm watching children drink water I wouldn't let an animal drink. Forget about my dog drinking it, I wouldn't let a pig drink this water. I mean, I wouldn't let a cow drink this water
Jen: And of course it's a great source of their suffering and their illness.

Scott: A huge source. And I learn that half of the country is drinking bad water.

So here we are with doctors turning patients away simply because we don't have enough doctors and enough surgery slots, but yet half the country is drinking bad contaminated water that, I later learn, is the source of 52% of sickness throughout the developing world. Bad water, lack of sanitation, and hygiene is causing about half of the sickness.

So again, I didn't have to be that smart to just put these two pieces of data together. Wow, people are sick in this country. We're turning away sick people that we would love to treat, and yet half the people in the country don't have the most basic need for health met.

Jen: Exactly.

Scott: Then learn, actually, a billion people worldwide—one out of every six humans, at the time—is drinking bad water. And I think it was particularly relevant for me because I used to sell water in our clubs for $10 a bottle. People would come in and they would order 10 bottles sometimes, $100 bucks of water, and they would just let it sit there because they were drinking champagne or vodka instead.

Jen: Sure.

Scott: So there was just something about water. I heard someone describe it once as the idea of “a holy discontent.” You go through life, and there's just that one thing that's not okay on your watch, not if you can do something about it.

Jen: Yeah, and that was yours.

Scott: And that was mine. It was the fact that humans, simply because of the conditions they were born into, that they did not get to choose—any more than I got to choose being born into a middle class family in Philadelphia—that a sixth of the world was born in conditions where they were risking their life, or even worse, walking eight hours a day often, to get water, dirty water. Bad, filthy, contaminated water.

So I come back, I've got my issue. I'm completely broke at the time, because I had saved no money as a nightclub promoter. I'm 30 years old now, my heart's on fire, I'm like running around with my laptop showing people pictures of dirty water in Liberia, and I'm gonna solve it. Like, I am going to see the water crisis end in my lifetime. I am gonna see a day when every human being has clean water to drink.

So it was very clear to me. It's almost like I saw the end. You know, I'm telling people this, and they're like, "Bro, you're sleeping on a closet floor of your old club promoter's place in SoHo, and like, he's still doing drugs in that apartment, isn't he?"

I mean, these were not the ideal conditions to start a charity. Oh, and then I find out I'm $30,000 in debt because he never paid our corporate taxes and never unwound the country.

Jen: So you are in the hole, you are un-staffed, you do not have any money.

Scott: I'm on a payment plan with the IRS.

Jen: You're on a payment plan with the IRS, you're sleeping in a closet.

Scott:  And I'm applying for a 501(c)(3).

Jen: “Yeah, I'm gonna solve the world's water crisis, everybody.”

So how on earth . . . What did you do next? Like, how did those first steps materialize into what ultimately became Charity: Water?
Scott: I had a good lawyer, so I said, "Please help me with my charitable status." Went on a payment plan and said, "I'm gonna pay this down over a period of years," and took responsibility for that. And just started asking people whether they would help. “Would you help? Here's what I've seen.”

There was something so powerful about the eyewitness authority that I had. I had actually lived in this country for over a year.

Jen: And who are you asking? Are you asking?

Scott: Club owners!

Jen: That's who you're asking, that's who you're going to. Yeah.

Scott: DJs, former customers.

Jen: And they start saying yes.

Scott: Nine out of 10 said no, but the one out of 10 would say yes. And then I would have a yes, and I would go on to the next 10 meetings and get another yes.

I remember getting kicked out of a DJ booth once at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. He's like, "Bro, you are killing my high. You are killing my buzz. I will give you money, but not right now, and please get out of here."

Jen: That's amazing.

Scott: I had my laptop in his face. I mean, the guys like got his hands on his records, and I'm like, "Do you want to see dirty water?"

Jen: No, that's too much. That story is hilarious. He's like, "If I give you some money, will you just get out of here?" And so that's what you're asking for at first? You're asking for funding? You're saying . . . ?

Scott: I'm asking for funding and volunteers.

Jen: Yeah, and what do you think this is going towards? Is this materializing? Is it beginning to take form or structure?
Scott: Oh yeah, oh I'm gonna raise billions of dollars for clean water. I mean, you know, and I'm gonna raise so much global awareness and get everyday people to care about this issue that they say, "Not on our watch. We are going to solve this. Every human being needs clean water to drink."
So I kind of saw it as advocacy awareness and then funding that was needed.

Jen: Okay.

Scott: So as I start talking to my everyday friends, I realize that there's actually a huge, huge problem with trust, that most people are cynical to charities. They don't trust. And I kept hearing phrases like, "Charities are black holes. I don't know where my money goes, and I don't trust charities. They don't use our money properly."

And I learned, actually, there's data behind this, I learned 42% of Americans that were polled said they didn't trust charities. NYU polled another set of Americans, and 70% of them said, "We believe charities either waste money or badly waste money."

Jen: Interesting.

Scott: So I'm like, okay, this is gonna be really hard to raise the amount of money to make any significant impact if we follow the typical charity playbook. You know, look, now with some perspective 12 years later, in many ways, I was on paper uniquely unqualified to do any of this. But in other ways, I was uniquely qualified because I had a fresh perspective. I had no trappings of institutional philanthropy or a culture of direct mail. I was starting over, and I started by just doing user research.

“Hey, what would the perfect charity look like? What would get you excited about giving?” Because nobody had a problem with my issue. Nobody thinks that human beings should be dying drinking bad water.

Jen: Exactly.

Scott: It was the vehicle, it was the in between that I thought we could create something completely new.
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Scott: So the mission—and I believe there's a big difference between mission and vision—the mission was to end the water crisis. It was to bring clean water to everybody on earth. But the vision quickly turned out to be even bigger, which was to reinvent charity, which was to reimagine the entire system of giving and that experience.

I love the word charity. Charity means love. It means to help your neighbor in need and get nothing in return.

Jen: Exactly.

Scott: And I thought we needed more of that in the world. So the bigger kind of redemptive act could be creating a movement of people who moving them from cynicism and skepticism, bringing the disenchanted people back to the table of giving, because they were only hurting themselves by not being generous.

Jen: Exactly. That's the trick. That's the magic. Yeah.

Scott: Right? And I believed that people would find redemption in moving from selfishness to unselfishness, right? Maybe they wouldn't do what I do on a Sunday, but they would certainly come closer to a life of purpose, a life that's serving others if they trusted, if they believed, if they got involved.

So a couple of big ideas. The first was just, Could we create a way where 100% of all the money that we ever raise went straight to projects? So I open up two bank accounts and said, “I'm gonna raise all the overhead separately.” No idea how we were gonna do that, but every penny, if Jen gives one dollar or a hundred dollars or a million dollars, every single penny is going straight to build water projects that give people clean water.

Jen: Okay.

Scott: It doesn't pay for my salary or our staff's salary or office rent or flights or any of that. All of it goes to the field. So, two bank accounts.

Then the second big pillar was, “Hey, let's just prove where the money goes. Let's show Jen.”

Jen: Yeah, that sounds easy.

Scott: “Here's where your dollar went or your hundred dollars.”

Jen: Yeah. Just like radical transparency.

Scott: Exactly. And we were at a right time because Google Earth had just started, Google Maps just started.

Jen: Ah, right.

Scott: We just started putting up photos and GPS and satellite images of all of our projects as we were building them around the world, and saying, "Hey, here's what we did with your money." Proof became this pillar that was just missing, this feedback loop. Like, if I told you what I did with 100% of your money, and you could feel it tangibly, you would give more, and that would be a good thing. And you might even give more to others too.

Jen: Yes, yes, yes.
Scott: And then I wanted to build a beautiful brand.

Jen: That's true. And this is kind of where some of your club promoter pizazz comes in. You're a great marketer, and you know what moves people. I love that you were able to take some of those holdovers from a different life and apply it in such a generous, creative, positive way, and you've done that beautifully. How did you set out building this brand?

Scott: I think I just thought about the brands that I respected. At the time, Nike and Apple were two good ones, and I thought, Well, if Nike behaved like a traditional charity, Nike would market to people and say, "Hey, you're really fat. You're lazy." Right? “Why don't you turn off the TV, why don't you put away the Doritos, and why don't you go for a run, okay? And oh, by the way, would you please buy our sneakers and wear our shirt?” It wouldn't work.

Jen: That's a great way to think about it. Yeah.

Scott: It wouldn't freaking work, right? And Nike's been smart over the years. They've said, "There's greatness within you. You can overcome adversity." Right? "Lost your legs? You can complete a marathon."

Jen: That's good.

Scott: "Lost your arm? You can play basketball. We believe in you. We believe that you can run farther than you ever thought possible, that you can climb higher.” People are like, Maybe I'll try it. Maybe I'll turn off the TV, and maybe I will wear the logo of a company that believes I actually can do it.

I just thought, Could we do the same? Could we build a charity that was hopeful and invitational and inspired? We hear about “giving back” a lot these days. I hate that language. Giving back, it implies that we've pillaged and plundered to such extent that maybe it's time to throw some scraps to the poor.

Jen: That's good.

Scott: We've gotten so fat, so rich, like, "Oh, let's give a little back." Why don't we just talk about giving? Just frame it in the positive.

Jen: I like this.

Scott: Let's build cultures of giving in our companies, in our families, in our faith communities. Giving of our time and our talent and our money because it's a blessing and a joy, not out of debt or obligation.

Jen: That's right.

Scott: I mean shame is not . . . It's not how I wanted to build the brand.

So give away 100%. Prove where the money goes. Build an epic brand that resembled Nike, or Apple, or Virgin, and then work with local partners.

We wouldn't send Westerners, anybody with my skin color to Africa, or Asia, or India, to go drill a well. Our role could be getting people with money and resources to care, but I believe for the work to be sustainable and culturally relevant, it had to be led by the locals.

Jen: Absolutely.

Scott: It’s that simple.

Jen: This is just so important and it sounds so obvious to my ears. This is our approach also, but people will be shocked how often they just helicopter in Western experts to do local work. And it's so counterproductive and it lacks dignity and it lacks intelligence, frankly.

Scott: Never. Never.
Jen: You don't have, for example, civil engineers or hydrologist on your staff.

Scott: They're all local.

Jen: Locals. Yes.

Scott: They're all local positions. I mean, we have water program managers, we have auditors, we have people who are going out there really trying to develop and increase the capacity of our partners. We employ 650 locals around the world now, and we're buying them drilling rights, we're buying them more trucks, we're paying for their training.
For me, the win was Charity: Water could invest $100 million in a country, and I go there and no one has any idea who I am or who Charity: Water is.

Jen: Yes, exactly.
Scott: They know and celebrate our local partners, who are the ones that did $100,000,000 worth of work.

Jen: That's so good. This matters to me so much.

Scott: Giving away the credit, that's actually something I talk about a lot. I think one of the reasons why Charity: Water has scaled so fast and has raised $320,000,000 or so now is because we've given away our story.

Don Miller puts better language to this than anyone else, I think. We look at our role as the guide, and we have for 12 years now. We are not the hero in the story. Our donors are the heroes, our volunteers are the heroes, our local partners are the heroes that are out there actually drilling the wells, the beneficiaries in these communities who are contributing sand, and gravel, and rock, and labor, they are the heroes. We're just, we're this guide. We're trying to connect people who want to make a difference, who see suffering in the world and say, "I would love to play a part in ending that." Then we connect them with the people on the ground who can actually lead their communities and their countries forward in the right way. We kind of put all this stuff together.

You know, when I say any of these things now, they sound so basic. It doesn't sound so smart. We're not landing rockets on platforms in the ocean, but it was so new at the time, transparency, and brand, and caring about good design, a digital presence. Let's build a following on Instagram, and Twitter, and Snapchat. That was just the ethos.

Jen: You applied so much great, modern, progressive thinking to that space. It's interesting because you're right—at the time, there was no precedent for it. Of course, we all remember watching the rise of Charity: Water, and it was just so astonishing and it was so captivating.
One thing that you've done, and you've alluded to it a couple of times, but you've sort of captured this story of Charity: Water, and now all of its threads all around the world in a book. You wrote your first book. Congratulations! It's called Thirst. I have it on my desk and it's so exciting. I would love to talk to you, writer to writer, for just a minute.

Scott: Sure.

Jen: What was your writing process like and how did you fit this in to your life, because it's a whole job, it's a whole thing. How did that go for you? How did you find the writing process?
Scott: Well, I'm not very introspective. It's not something I'm good at. I think about the future. I'm really excited to think about next year, or three years from now, or five years from now, or ten years from now.

Going back was hard. Going back into some of the family pain, interviewing people that I had treated poorly during my 10 years in New York and realized that I really hurt people. A lot of that was difficult. I worked with a great collaborator in LA, and she came to Africa with me and wound up helping me with so many of these interviews and getting some of the words from voice down on page. We just had this great process. I feel like I went over every sentence in the book now 10 or 15 times.

Jen: Totally.

Scott: It was a long process. When it was done, it wasn't done. I just wanted to keep making it better, and keep making it better, and keep making it better.

Jen: Totally. At some point you just have to put it down. It's done. How long did it take to get on paper, just kind of the whole entire first draft?

Scott: About 18 months.

Jen: Oh yeah.

Scott: It was a 12-to-18-month process.

Jen: Yes. I'm excited for this and I'm excited for everybody to read it and to really get to drill down into your story and the story of Charity: Water because there's so much more
I mean, you can I could sit here and talk for 29 hours about the miracles that you've seen and the lives that have been changed and the families around the world and the partners that are making it all happen. There's just so much to it and it's such good news.
I like that Thirst is coming out because we are in need of good news right now. We just are. We are so thirsty for good news. We're thirsty for good people, we're thirsty for charity, we're thirsty for partnership, we are thirsty for health, and healing, and hope. I'm grabbing onto that kind of stuff right now like a lifeline. I'm so glad that you're putting some of it out into the world right now. We need it.

Scott: That's the beauty of Charity: Water. It's kept me going for, what now, 12 years. It really is a big tent. It's like balm, in some ways. Today feels like the most toxic and caustic time that I've ever lived through, and people are just fighting about everything. They can't agree or find common ground, but everybody can agree on clean drinking water.

Jen: Everybody.

Scott: And everybody can agree on greater compassion, to be a good neighbor, to outstretch our arm and try to use our resources to end the suffering. It's been great to see Jews, and Muslims, and Christians [come together]. Our biggest donor, who I write about in the book, is an atheist. He thinks that I pray to a figment of my imagination, and he's given over $18,000,000 and been to 11 countries.

Jen: That is crazy!

Scott: It's a really cool, big tent where Muslim school kids during Ramadan, school kids are sending in $60,000.

Jen: Love it.

Scott: Synagogues are sending in money. Republicans, and democrats, and independents—people who would never agree on social issues, on political issues, can come and say, "You know what? People probably need clean water to thrive, to live a good life."

Jen: I think you say yes to that.
What's next for Charity: Water? What's coming down the pike for you right now?

Scott: We just launched a community called The Spring that I'm really excited about.

A lot of people that might have been following our story know that birthdays, that was a big deal for us for the first 10 years. People would donate their birthdays—kids, middle-aged people, elderly—everybody could donate their birthday and ask for their age in dollars, which was kind of the sticky marketing idea, and then you could see exactly where your birthday donations went.

The problem with that was that people only did one birthday. So we would just keep finding new people every year, which is exhausting. And as we turned 10 and kind of looked at, "10 years, a quarter of a billion dollars, 6.5 million people with clean water. How do we want the next 10 years to be different than the first 10? We want to help more people." So we've now helped 8.5 million out of 610 million.

Jen: That is crazy.

Scott: That is one seventy-eighth of the work that needs to be done. It's 1.3% solved, so we really need to do more. We want to scale. We thought, What are the businesses that we really respect? The businesses that we respected would get a customer and then keep that customer loyal.

So think about Netflix. They're delivering value every single month, and people are signed up and call it $13, or $15 a month. The Spotifys of the world, the Dropboxes of the world. We said, "What if we could create a community of people who wouldn't just show up for one birthday or one-time donation, who would show up every month?"

Jen: Good.

Scott: “We would build a community and show them stories of impact, we'd let them know what their $30 a month, or $50 a month, or $10 a month if they're a college kid, what that was doing around the world.”

We launched this for our 10th anniversary, we called it The Spring. I like double entendres, so spring kind of as this fresh birth for the organization, a time of hope, and it's the literal spring where so many people are getting clean water. It just started to work. People were writing us and said, "I just canceled HBO, and I joined The Spring." People were saying, "I'm giving my pension into The Spring." It's now a community of people in 100 countries.

What's interesting is, the average is exactly $30 a month, which is what it costs to get one person clean water. We have people giving less, and we have people giving more, but what's amazing is that we're building on this community of people, and not starting over every year.

Jen: Yes, exactly.
Let's say my listeners are hearing this and they love it, which of course they will. If they want to get involved in Charity: Water, wherever they're at in their communities, what would you suggest?

Scott: The Spring is a great place to start. Just and they can learn more.

Jen: It's that easy.

Scott: We've got a video there on that page, which is kind of our 10 year anniversary video. People could share that too. It's our story. It's gotten about 11 million views now on Facebook. That goes out and helps people understand our values, why we care, understand about water. So if someone doesn't have any money to give, they could just go and actually share our story with others.

Jen: That's great. Yep.

This is fabulous, Scott. I am so proud of you, and I'm proud of the community that you've built. I think this is one of the greatest stories in our generation, and it has been such a joy to watch it flourish, and grow, and thrive.

I'm grateful for you, I'm thankful for your presence on this earth, and that you did that 180. I will not forget thinking about you driving in that Mustang up to Maine and the dial-up internet. I will not forget that out of this interview, that you just decided, What is the opposite of this? What does the opposite of my life look like? That is so profound, and look at it. I mean look at the results of that question that you asked and then answered. It is really something, and really special.
Let me ask you three quick questions.

Scott: Yep.

Jen: This is a giving series on the podcast, so we're asking everybody in the series this. Here's the first one. What's the most memorable gift someone has ever given you?

Scott: I write about this in the book. There was a time when we almost were bankrupt and the 100% model was not working, and I was shutting down Charity: Water in defeat. And a stranger walked in a gave a million dollars.

Jen: Oh my goodness, are you serious?

Scott: Yep.

Jen: You had no connection to this person?

Scott: I had written them a cold email, scraping his email address off the domain registry. It was just a stab in the dark.

Jen: That's not a bad gift. That's a good answer.

Here's the next one. Which charitable organization do you believe in and give to besides your own? Do you have one?

Scott: Yeah, there's a great group out of California called New Story, which has taken the Charity: Water 100% model, and he's building homes in a really innovative way. It's basically Charity: Shelter, how I might have approached Charity: Shelter, right? People need clean water, they need food, they need a roof over their heads. Really talented entrepreneur named Brett Hagler. I think that's

Jen: That's great, we'll link to that.

Scott: So we give advice, we give time, and we give money.

Jen: Okay, I love it.

Last one, we ask everybody this, and this answer can be serious, it can be funny, it could be whatever you want. What is saving your life right now?

Scott: I think what's saving my life right now is the fact that I walk seven minutes to work every day in New York City.

Jen: Okay, talk about that.

Scott: With all the travel, my wife, and I've got two kids, a two-year-old and a four-year-old. We made a decision to live in a smaller apartment in New York City to keep me close to work, as a lot of my job is on the road and a lot of travel. So it is amazing. I just had two meetings cancel yesterday, and I was home in seven minutes with the kids.

Jen: That's a miracle.

Scott: An hour and a half early. Sometimes someone will be late for a lunch meeting, and I'll just run out on the playground and meet them in the neighborhood. They're in the office. I'll be sitting in my office in a very serious meeting with someone in a suit, and I'll just see my four-year-old just start barreling down the hall and crash into the office and jump into my lap.

Jen: So great.

Scott: So many of my friends are commuting two hours a day, three hours a day, and I just feel really blessed that I have my kids close.

Jen: That is outstanding.
Thank you for being on the show today. Tell everybody where they can find you, where they can find Charity: Water, where they can find your book, all of it.

Scott: Sure., 100% of all my author proceeds go to Charity: Water, so I'm not making any money. Just by actually picking up the book and learning more about the story, you're helping us get people clean water. Then I'm just my name, Scott Harrison, and we're Charity: Water, wherever people are, I guess.

Jen: Love it. Next time I'm in New York City—

Scott: Come by, come by. We'd love that.

Jen: I’ll take you and your wife to dinner, and I would so glad to do it.

Hey, thanks for everything today. Thank you for being who you are, and thank you for your time and your story. I appreciate you so much.

Outstanding. Outstanding work. What an impact. What a story. I just love being reminded that there is never a moment in any one of our lives where we are too far gone, ever. I mean, ever. Nothing is irredeemable. No story, no life. I love that part of Scott's story as much as the enormous global impact that Charity: Water has had. So, he's just a gem, you guys. Just a gem.

Of course, if you're interested more in Charity: Water—which why wouldn't you be?—we'll have it all linked for you over in the transcript at Everything he talked about, his book, his socials, The Spring community, all of it, and everything else that he mentioned as well. What a great guy, what a great organization, what a great time in the world to be able to connect with people like this. I have the luckiest job in the earth.

Thanks for being a part of the giving series, you guys. More amazing guests to come that will astound you, and thrill you, and inspire you. We have just been so delighted to put this together and to gather these stories and these people. Come back next week, you will not be sorry. Thank you for your amazing loyalty to this podcast, and we have the best listening community on earth. You guys, love you so dearly, have a fabulous week, and see you next time.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!

From the show:

Where To Find Charity: Water

Scott's Book

Quotes From This Episode