Scott Harrison’s bio sounds like something you’d make up if you were starting a nonprofit and needed a better story: Upstanding young man goes to the big city, where he spends 10 years honing his marketing and business acumen in the self-absorbed hedonism of New York’s nightlife. Then, after a crisis of self examination and 2 years working in Africa, he decides to put those skills to work solving the developing world’s most basic – and persistent – problem: clean water.
Except, there’s nothing made up about it. The origin story of charity: water has captivated thousands and, along with Harrison’s funding and programming innovations, has helped the organization improve water access for 5 million people in 20 countries. These days, his legendary drive and enthusiasm are equally focused on a single individual: his 4-month-old son, Jackson.
You started charity: water after being a party promoter because you wanted to make your life less about you. Now that you have a kid, you kind of have to make it about you again – is that a challenge?
I celebrated my son’s birth with a birthday campaign. I wanted to compensate for the extra time that I’d be spending at home serving him by serving others. We raised $255,000 in his name. That’s a wonderful moment, to get him started on a legacy of giving and generosity. That’s thousands of people he might meet one day, who he’s helped just by being welcomed into this community.
My parents didn’t deserve it – they did such a great job with me and I went rogue on them.
Charity: water will help a million people this year; that’s 2700 people every day. I’m no less aggressive about trying to increase that number, so maybe I need more help. I’ve been actively asking others to pick up the banner and help me take it forward. There’s a sense of, I’ve been working really hard for 8 years, flying around the world. There were definitely some 80-hour weeks. Now, I want to be a great dad; I want to help people get access to clean water. I don’t want our growth to slow down, so I’m challenging people around me: What can you guys do? And it’s been great to see them step into their own.
Your wife is an enormous part of charity: water’s success. What are the biggest benefits and challenges to working that closely with your spouse?
We talk to couples who say, ‘Oh, I could never work with my spouse.’ What’s been helpful for us is that we’re good at very different things and don’t covet what the other is good at. She’s an amazing creative; a designer and video editor and animator and manager of people. I’m not good at those things. She, on the other hand, doesn’t want to stand up on stage in front of 10,000 people and talk for 45 minutes. She doesn’t want to get on 95 flights a year and be in Peoria on Monday, Fargo on Tuesday, Chicago on Wednesday, Los Angeles on Thursday and then Europe for the weekend. That sounds like hell to her. Understanding how different our roles are has been helpful. I go to her for advice all the time. She’s on maternity leave right now, but it’s amazing to come home and process things with her. I’m always reminded of how wise she is
If it’s not working, get out of it. The relationship is way more important than you working together.
Your time in the nightlife business was sparked by a rejection of the life in which you were raised. How has that prepared you for being the parent of a teenager someday?
I don’t know. I hope that my son doesn’t do to me what I did to my father. My parents didn’t deserve it — they did such a great job with me and I went rogue on them. I would hope that I got all the “prodigal son” genes out of the way for the next generation, but it’s interesting to look back and think about my father. He was such a man of integrity and high values. My dad raised me really well, so I was able to step back into that foundation of morality and values and spirituality even though I was gone for 10 years.
He’ll grow up in two extreme worlds … It will be up to him, what he decides to do with that information.
It’s really important that I’m able to teach my son the values that I care about — generosity, integrity, respect and kindness. I’m not sure what my dad could have done differently; I don’t know that he could have stopped me from rebelling. But, by showing up for 18 years with me, it made me the man that I am today. I thank him for that. I was really fortunate to manage my way out of that rebellion unscathed.
It’s something of a truism that the more you try to get your kids interested in what you do, the less successful you’ll be. How important is it to you that your son pursue service and how do you plan to encourage that as he gets older?
I would hope to reject that. I know it’s true, but I’ve seen kids who absolutely wanted to grow up and follow their fathers. I would hope to be a great husband and father in the way that my son would not, out of hand, reject what I’m doing. That said, it’s not important to me that he start a charity. The way he lives his life, the way he treats women and his friends, the values he brings to the work that he does, that stuff is important to me.
It’s a great way for fathers to explain that, if you were born somewhere else, by no choice of your own, your life might not be like this.
We’re taking him to Ethiopia at 6 months old, so we’re going to introduce him to poverty at a really young age. And he has this extended family that he doesn’t know about yet. He’ll grow up in two extreme worlds; the most generous billionaires who support our cause, and he’ll live in villages where they make less than 50 cents a day, have no access to clean water and go hungry at night. It will be up to him, what he decides to do with that information, but at least I would expect him to be generous with his time and money and be in service to others. It doesn’t need to be through a full time job, but in how he lives.
What advice do you have for fathers who want their family’s holiday season to be about more than consumerism?
There are a couple of themes fathers should sit down and talk about with their kids. One is gratefulness – being grateful themselves for the blessings of their family and their relationships, and conveying that in an authentic way to their kids. It’s an amazing opportunity to thread in that we’re all really fortunate. If they’re reading this article online, they’re probably in the top one percentile of the world. So, it’s a great way for fathers to explain that, if you were born somewhere else, by no choice of your own, your life might not be like this. You might have no food or no roof over your head. You might have to get up at 6 in the morning and walk 5 hours to a swamp to bring back dirty water for a meal that day.
Around the holidays, we see people get really generous and give as families. We see children give up part of their allowance or gifts for Hanukkah or Christmas – it’s an amazing time of year to instill compassion and empathy and gratitude in kids. It gives them opportunities to be generous and serve their own communities.