Scott Harrison left his NYC party lifestyle to change the world with water. Now his organization, Charity: Water, has raised over $95 million for 17,000 projects in 24 countries.
A REBEL WITH A CAUSE
After a conservative Christian childhood, Scott Harrison started to rebel. At age 18, he grew out his hair, moved to New York City, joined a band, and started drinking and smoking weed. But the previous 17 years of his life had been quite different. At 4-years-old, a local gas company installed a faulty furnace in his family’s house and his mother was exposed to carbon monoxide fumes. The exposure to the fumes caused her to get extremely sick and become an invalid. He spent most of his youth helping his dad take care of her, going to church, and playing by the rules. Luckily, years later, his mother miraculously healed. At the time he wasn’t sure why, but Scott now believes it was because of their faith and hope their family had for her to fully recover.
Once his mom had healed, the rebellion took full force. Scott made the move to NYC to pursue being a musician and attend college. His band never quite caught on and his studies quickly fell by the way side, so he found something else he was could do – be a nightclub promoter. And Scott found that he excelled at promoting and throwing parties at these clubs. He could get the right people to show up at the right bars and have them pay $500 to drink a $20 bottle of vodka so they could impress their friends. Scott was so good at this that beverage brands noticed. Soon he was getting paid $2,000 per month to drink Bacardi in public or drink Budweiser at parties because these brands wanted him to be seen drinking their products. For the next 10 years, Scott continued to throw lavish bashes in the city, known as Gotham, for the likes of MTV, VH1, Bacardi and Elle while picking up every vice you could think of that comes with nightclub scene.
Around his 28th birthday, a weekend trip to South America changed the course of his life forever. It was New Year’s Eve 2004 and he was staying in a rented house with servants and horses, lighting off fireworks in the backyard and partying like crazy – par for the course at this point in his life. Prior to the trip, his father had given him a spiritual book he wanted Scott to read while traveling that Scott began reading while staying at the house. The book caught Scott completely by surprise as it reminded him of his youth and his religious upbringing. Reading the book was like a slap in the face to Scott because it showed him that he was the most spiritually, emotionally, and morally bankrupt person that he knew. This was not who he truly was and it was the exact opposite of the person of who he wanted to be.
THE MORAL AWAKENING
Scott came back to New York determined to make a change. He left the nightclub life and started applying to various humanitarian organizations, intending to serve the poor to help him absolve and find himself. But he was denied by all of them. On top of that, Scott was broke. He had blown all the money he made as a promoter and had no idea how to save and at this point, he really needed a job. While searching for anyone that would hire him to do good, he discovered Mercy Ships, a humanitarian organization which offered free medical care in the world’s poorest nations via a medical ship. They told him if he would pay ‘them’ $500 per month he could join their organization. He wouldn’t be able to volunteer his way out of his life it seems – he’d literally have to pay for his sins in cash for that absolution.
It didn’t matter. Scott decided he would go into debt to make this happen because he was committed to changing his life. Joining the Mercy ship was the first real step on that journey:
“On a personal level, everything changed for me when I walked up the gangway. I never had another cigarette. I smoked two packs for 10 or 11 years. I quit gambling, quit porn, never set foot in a strip club, quit all drugs. Everything really changed. I wanted to be authentic.” (excerpt from Foundation interview)
Mercy Ships took Scott directly into the belly of some of the worst human living conditions on earth. It was a little more ‘real’ than Scott had bargained for because after getting his first exposure to the people that the ship served and the work that the doctors and support staff actually did, he tried to leave the ship after just one week. One of the ships doctors would have none of it and let him know in no uncertain terms that he signed up for this and he would have to suck it up and learn to deal with it. Scott ended up staying on and it became a blessing in disguise. The ship introduced him to a world and a skill he had never known. He had gone from the cushy life of New York City into the harsh realities and decrepit conditions people in a third world country face on a daily basis. He learned about the power of healing and the hope the ship brought to the downtrodden. How the act of a few could impact the lives of many and change a community forever. He wanted to chronicle that story – all of it – in words and photos.
During his experience he learned first hand how so many communities did not have access to proper health care and how they were flooded with disease and illness that basic medical services could easily treat or prevent. Over the next two years, he was Mercy Ships volunteer photographer and sailed around the coast of Africa, taking over 60,000 photos for the organization. Scott’s mission on the Mercy was to put a face to the world’s 1.2 billion people living in poverty by capturing their faces with his camera (click here to see a sample).
“Often through tears, I documented life and human suffering I’d thought unimaginable. Enormous, suffocating tumors – cleft lips, faces eaten by bacteria from water-borne diseases. They were living in pure shame because their community had dubbed them evil because of their physical deformities….It was a really unique position to be the photographer, to see so much suffering, unimaginable suffering and poverty, and then see hope brought by these people, these doctors who had served who could be anywhere and had come to help others.”
As he continued to document this suffering, he discovered that one of the main reasons that the illnesses were happening was because these communities were drinking contaminated water. It was a fact that had awakened something inside him. He now knew he was going to lead a ‘life of service’ for the remainder of his years on this planet and his mission would be to address this problem. Over time, he surmised that the lack of clean water was the biggest obstacle facing the world’s poor. He desperately wanted to make up for the 10 years he wasted on himself and find a way to do so. He was determined to make sure that no man, woman, or child should have to drink filthy water with leeches, a rancid smell, or diseases that could easily kill them.
THE PROMOTER REBORN
A Different Kind of Drink
During one of his trips back to New York, while still working on the Mercy Ship, the idea started to come into focus when Scott was sitting in a club and someone bought him a $16 margarita. At first he was offended that they would spend that much money on a drink after all he had seen, but then the promoter’s mind kicked in and he saw an opportunity – if his friends would spend $16 on a drink, imagine what they would spend if they could see what that money could instead do for a village in Africa!
He went on to work another year on the Mercy ship and upon his return to New York, Scott decided to do what he knew best – throw a party for his 31st birthday at an unopened night club which was soon to be one of the city’s hottest clubs. This time however, instead of giving him gifts, he asked his friends to give $20 to attend the party and told them that that money would go towards drilling wells in Africa at a refugee camp in Uganda. In one night, they raised $15,000 and 100% of it went to build three new wells and fix three broken wells in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. That area had 30,000 displaced families and almost no clean water.
That night, Charity: Water was born. Scott’s 31st birthday party was in 2006 and since then, the organization has raised over $95 million from 50,000 individuals and helped fund 17,000+ projects in 24 countries, benefiting over 2.5 million people.
AUTHENTICITY – SCOTT’S ‘NEW’ DRUG OF CHOICE
If you want to learn about entrepreneurial storytelling, you don’t have to look much further than Scott Harrison. He is one of the best out there. Scott embodies everything it means to create great stories and share them with the world in such a way that people enjoy hearing them, while also furthering his cause. He regularly gives 60-90-minute moving talks which compel you to listen to every single minute and make you want to support whatever he is doing.
There are a number of reasons why he excels at this, but one of the main reasons he is so good at telling his story, is that he is 100% real and firmly grounded in authenticity.
Authenticity is critical because great storytelling often centers on it. It involves sharing from your very essence. Top entrepreneurs can get you to feel what they feel. To see what they see. Believe what they believe. It is a contagious feeling created from being completely authentic with your self, your message, and what you are doing.
What many people fail to recognize about storytelling and authenticity is that it helps differentiate you and what you are doing from everything else. No one in this world has had your experiences. No one offers the perspective that you do. When you are being real, letting it all hang out, sharing that experience, your unique story is precisely your advantage.
When you are authentic, you are in touch with your uniqueness – that which makes you different – and it will be part of why people will listen to what you have to say. You and your venture are genuine. Original. Not a copy or a forgery.
This is not to say and be naïve in thinking that people are not doing something you are doing.
It is simply saying you must start from an authentic position in that you are doing something unique.
The real power of authenticity is that it breeds trust and trust facilitates influence. Ask yourself, who would you rather connect and do business with – someone who is genuine and is the same on the inside as they are on the outside, or someone who is not?
Here are 3 ways Scott Harrison lives and breathes authenticity:
#1. SHARES HIS PERSONAL STORY
If you ever get to see Scott Harrison speak in person, watch a Charity: Water video, or see an interview with Scott, there is a good chance you will hear part or all of the story I shared. From the errors of his youth, to this discovery of his calling, to the journey towards a personal salvation he found, Scott brings you into his cause and his life in a way most of us would feel uncomfortable doing.
He is real. He is honest. He is raw. He puts you there in the precocious life he lived as a playboy in NYC, to the frightened 28-year old that second-guessed his decision to join a worthy cause, to the villages and the families whose life he is trying to change with water. By sharing his personal journey, he lives his story and takes you with him down the path that he has been on.
#2. FULL TRANSPARENCY
When he talks about his past, he shares all of it – the good, the bad and the ugly. What he was ashamed of and the mistakes he made, as well as the positive changes he made and the hope that he now has. His story is told thru full disclosure, honesty, and transparency.
This is one of the hardest things that entrepreneurs face regardless of age, industry, or experience. We feel that if we share the bad things with audiences they are going to think less of us and/or it will reduce the chance that they will support our cause, back our deal, or buy our goods. What founders fail to realize is that by being transparent and genuine in your sharing, gross warts and all, you are fostering a connection with the audience. Scott’s “nothing-to-hide” transparent, full disclosure just explodes with authenticity and really gets you to attach to his story and what he is doing.
#3. TRULY KNOWS WHAT HE BELIEVES
Scott’s experience really showed him what he believed and set him down a path to make his vision come to life. He can do this with ease because that is the life he lives and that genuine feeling transfers over into what he’s doing with Charity: Water. Ask anyone who has seen Scott Harrison speak in person how they are struck by his passion, commitment, and ability to tell his story. Stories make people feel emotionally connected to helping Scott achieve his goals by authentically establishing a personal connection to those that listen.
This is who Scott is and this is the spirit and energy that permeates everything he does and everything that Charity: Water stands for.
TIPS TO LEVERAGE YOUR AUTHENTICITY
When telling your story, share the real, personal experiences that brought your business to life. Just like Scott, share the choices you made, the revelations you had, and the challenges you faced that helped forge the person that you are now. This doesn’t mean going back to childhood and creating a War and Peace epic-type dissertation on how you got here. It means reaching back and selecting the parts of your history that explain how you got on this path and that are relevant to what you are doing. If you are a photographer, talk about how that the camera you were given at age 12 changed everything.
For non-‘Brother Where Art Thou’ fans – this simply means to be real. Be authentic. In Webster’s dictionary, the word ‘au·then·tic’ means “being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” When you are sharing your story with others, you are giving that audience a window into the soul of your company. Because of that, it is critical to be absolutely genuine in sharing your entrepreneurial vision and let them know who you are. People can see through the ‘fake’ and smell a business that isn’t authentic from a mile away. On the other hand, when an authentic person or an authentic speech moves you, you feel attracted and compelled to join the cause. You want to be a part of it.
This means sharing things that you are going to be uncomfortable with. The elements of your story need to relate to the audience so they can feel what you feel. The realness of the authentic entrepreneur enables them to reach people on an emotional level. It moves people and touches them on the inside. When you share the bad with the good, it fosters trust, which helps to influence others. It is a way to truly make people feel emotionally connected and want to help you achieve your goals.
INTEGRATE YOUR BELIEFS
Entrepreneurship is amazing and rewarding, but it is also extremely hard and involves challenges no one will understand unless they have started their own company. Almost every day, we all have moments of doubt, fear, and wonder as to what the heck we are doing, but something drives us to keep going. Use that something. Figure out what it is and share with others how it helps you push through those challenges and what you use as your guiding star that feeds your soul.
Sharing the winding path you’ve chosen, the uncomfortable things that keep you up at night, and the passions that fuel you in the morning, is what authenticity is all about. Try it and let me know what happens to those who really listened. I bet you will be pleasantly surprised in what you learn.
Scott is an entrepreneurial storytelling baller. Watch him. Study him. Emulate him and you will become a better storyteller. Here are 2 videos (15 & 8 minutes) that showcase his style and skill:
The Way We Live – Scott Harrison, Zeitgeist Europe (15+ minutes)
Speakers’ Spotlight – Scott Harrison, Founder of Charity: Water (8+ minutes)
And visit the Charity: Water web site. Scott and his founding team have infused storytelling into the fabric of their organization and it permeates everything they do – their web site, videos, social medial, events and especially their Donation promotions. Here is an hour long The Charity Water Story presentation that Scott gave back in 2013 in case you want the full dose.
Andy Smith and Jennifer Aaker shared a stellar section of their book The Dragonfly Effect, that hi-lights how Charity: Water leverages social media and storytelling to further their cause. You can read that here.
The first time I heard Scott speak was at a Charity: Water event in Austin, TX where he told his compelling background story and how Charity: Water came to be. He also shared a gorgeous video about their efforts before-and-after the 2010 Haiti earthquake which left 100,000 dead and impacted millions of others. His talk hit me at my core as a producer. Watch the link below:
Unshaken – Charity: Water’s campaign for Haiti
I was blown away. Scott pointed to this guy hanging out on the side who helped produce the video for him, so when the speech was over, I made a B-Line for that guy because I wanted to work with him (I love video/film shooters with mad skillz).
Luckily for me, that amazingly talented visual teller of stories guy, Paul Pryor, loved filming storytellers just like Scott. Six years later, Paul has become one of my go-to crew members and DP’s (Director of Photography) when I need compelling cinematic storytelling. Paul was kind enough to introduce me Scott after the event, and I’ve been drinking their Charity: Water koolaide ever since.