How One Man's Quest to Do Good Is Helping People With the Most Essential Human Need
In The Business of Good, serial and social entrepreneur Jason Haber intertwines case studies and anecdotes that show how social entrepreneurship is creating jobs, growing the economy, and ultimately changing the world. In this edited excerpt, Haber tells the story of one man’s plan to do something more with his life than throw parties.
On a beautiful fall evening in 2015, about a hundred guests gather at the lower level bar of the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City. The guests are a mix of young urban professionals in finance, real estate, venture capital, private equity, and the nonprofit world. For many, this is their first time attending an event hosted by this organization. Little do they know it, but they’re about to get the full Scott Harrison.
Two doors adjacent to the bar suddenly swing open and reveal a screening room. The guests slowly make their way to their seats. Harrison greets many of them personally. He then strides to the front of the room, up four steps, and stands in front of the crowd. For the next 70 minutes, he will speak, uninterrupted, to a mesmerized audience.
Harrison begins with a personal story. The audience learns about his life growing up in Philadelphia. His mother was extensively exposed to carbon monoxide, and it wreaked havoc on her immune system, leaving her deeply ill. Harrison first arrived in New York City as a freshman at NYU. There he worked as a party promoter, making more money than he could imagine. Harrison was a good party promoter, a really good one, and corporate sponsors paid him to be seen in public drinking their alcoholic beverage.
He was in the fast lane with a fast crowd. Excessive drinking, illegal drugs -- they all came with the territory, and Harrison eagerly embraced all of it. “I was selling selfishness and decadence,” he tells the audience. “I was the worst person I knew.” By 2004, Harrison grew despondent about his life’s work and the choices he’d made. He wanted to reconnect with his faith and find new purpose in life. He signed up as a volunteer for Mercy Ships, a humanitarian aid organization that brings in doctors and health-care professionals to treat those in the developing world who lack such access. Harrison brought with him a camera and an open mind.
He warns the audience that the pictures aren’t easy to see, but important. Images of people with gargantuan tumors, cleft palates, and faces destroyed by flesh-eating amoebae appear in rapid-fire succession. The audience then sees the post-surgical pictures displaying the help many of these people received. “Over the next eight months, I met patients who taught me the meaning of courage,” he recalls. “Many of them had been slowly suffocating to death for years and yet pressing on, praying, hoping, surviving. It was an honor to photograph them. It was an honor to know them.”
On his second mission with Mercy Ships, Harrison learned one of the things making these people sick was dirty water. Local villagers drank water from ponds because they had no other water source. He also saw what happened to a community when a clean-water source was installed. It was a profoundly moving experience for him.
A few years later, for his 31st birthday, Harrison launched charity: water. He was good at throwing parties, and he had a list of names “about 15,000 long,” he says. So he threw a different kind of party. He charged $20 for admission to his birthday party at a trendy restaurant. That night he raised $15,000, and his nonprofit’s commitment to supplying clean, safe drinking water to those in the developing world was born.
Explaining the clean-water crisis isn’t easy. Most people don’t even know there’s a crisis in the first place, and others have trouble understanding its size. “A water crisis for my friends is a $10 bottle of Pellegrino,” Harrison jokes.
So Harrison set his sights high when starting his own charity. “I wanted to reinvent giving,” he says. “I tried to get friends involved, but they thought charities were just big black holes. ‘I give my money. I don’t know where it goes.’ ” And there’s where Harrison saw opportunity.
He opened not one bank account but two -- one dedicated to field work and the other for operations. One hundred dollars was deposited in each. The idea was surprisingly simple: “We could say, every time, 100 percent of your money could go into the field,” he says. The overhead costs would be covered by a second set of donors who understood their funds would not go into the field.
This is the inverse of how we’ve come to understand giving. The established norm was to keep overhead at a minimum and direct as much firepower as possible to the field. But Harrison wanted to tell stories. He didn’t want to regurgitate statistics. He didn’t want to do bulk mail campaigns with long letters and sad pictures. “I really wanted to build a brand,” he says. “There were lots of charities that had been around for a long time. But there was no Nike. There was no Apple. Charities are some of the worst marketers and storytellers.”
Harrison invested time and energy in the marketing side of the nonprofit. He lined up donors, even creating a brand name for them -- The Well. One of them, PopCap cofounder John Vechey, who’s donated $3 million and counting to charity: water, told Inc. magazine: “I felt like I spent money to hire smart people, who will do exciting new things and reach way more people.”
Nearly 40 minutes into the presentation, the crowd has learned Harrison’s story, why he started the company, and how it would be different. They’re then told about the incredible fundraising campaigns corporations and individuals have undertaken and the results of their efforts. You can feel the energy of those seated in the room. And then comes the most powerful moment.
Harrison talks about Rachel Beckwith, who for her 9th birthday set the goal of raising $300 for charity: water. She fell short, raising only $220. She hoped to raise more the next year, but that chance would never come: Rachel was killed in a car accident soon after her birthday. She may have been gone, but her spirit was still alive, as was her reactivated charity: water campaign. Donations started to come in, first $9 at a time then more and more. A few months after her death, Rachel’s charity: water campaign had raised $1.2 million. Harrison tells the audience how he asked Rachel’s mom to come to Africa to see the results of Rachel’s campaign on the one-year anniversary of her death. He then plays a poignant video of Rachel’s mom and grandparents in Ethiopia where they meet the beneficiaries of her campaign. By the time it ends, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
It’s hard to imagine any other charity using that combination of storytelling and marketing to make such a powerful pitch to potential donors. Harrison has made this presentation hundreds, if not thousands, of times. But he still delivers it with the same mixture of passion and empathy.
Since its foundation, charity: water has helped more than 5.2 million people receive clean, safe drinking water by funding over 16,000 water projects in 24 countries.