In late 2003, Scott Harrison was ready to make a change.
After ten years as a nightclub promoter in New York City and living the fast life that accompanied it, a mysterious physical numbness, for which he could not receive a diagnosis, mirrored a spiritual numbness that had overtaken his life.
Raised by devout Christian parents in New Jersey, he had joined a band out of high school and rebelled against his upbringing. But after a decade of pursuing a licentious lifestyle, he felt called back to more solid ground. A chance encounter with the book The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer helped him realize that “things” would never satisfy him.
“For years I’d been pursuing the wrong things,” he writes in one of the early chapters of his book, Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World.
“But where had it left me? With a numb body, a drug habit and fingernails bitten down to the ugly nubs.”
He asked God to show him a way out.
A verse from the Book of James kept coming to his mind.
“Pure religion is this. Look after orphans and widows in their distress, and keep yourself from being polluted by the world.”
This verse described the exact opposite of the life he had lived for ten years, he said.
He decided he would “tithe” a year of his life – “one year for the ten I’d wasted.”
He ended up doing much more than that, and today sits at the helm of what is likely one of the most successful and effective nonprofits in history.
It started with Harrison spending 16 months with Mercy Ships (extending his tithe year four months), a hospital ship in West Africa. Leaders of the organization, understandably skeptical given his most recent occupation, accepted him on a trial basis as a photographer and writer to help tell their story. After all, he had had great success as a promoter.
It took him a short time with Mercy Ships to learn that one of the most pressing problems in poor countries is the lack of clean water. He saw firsthand how consumption of dirty water was leading to disease and premature death.
From those impressions, Harrison founded charity:water, which to date has raised over $300 million to bring clean water to those who need it around the world.
In Thirst, he tells not only his story, but the story of this remarkable organization.
I heard Harrison interviewed on two different podcasts late last year, and was so moved I bought copies of Thirst for my immediate family members for Christmas. Of course I immediately confiscated the one I gave my wife so I could read it myself.
After his stint with Mercy Ships, Harrison began to lay the groundwork for building a non-profit dedicated to getting clean water into parts of the world in desperate need of a leg up. In mid-2006, charity:water was born, with Harrison working out of the Manhattan apartment of a former partner in the nightclub business and raising part of his startup funds from contacts in that world who were invited to a launch party in a club on his 31st birthday.
Shortly after that, he set up an outdoor exhibition in Union Square where volunteers helped hand out information and speak to visitors and passersby about charity:water’s mission. One of the volunteers, Viktoria Alexeeva, would come to work for him as a graphic designer, and would later become his wife.
They, along with a friend he had met during his time with Mercy Ships, were the initial staff, still working out of his friend’s apartment. Over time charity:water has grown beyond Harrison’s wildest dreams, and continues to make inroads into providing clean drinking water to impoverished areas across the globe.
Harrison built charity:water on a 100 percent donation model, meaning that all funds donated go directly to the cause. A separate group of donors, known as “the Well,” funds overhead and operating expenses.
That in itself is one of the captivating stories in Thirst. Utilizing his promotion skills, Harrison was bold in approaching heavy hitters about his fledgling company and inviting them to join in the journey – financially, of course. He sent email solicitations to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and other noted CEOs. And to most of them he received no response.
But one, Michael Birch, owner of the UK social network site Bebo, was inspired by Harrison’s pitch and offered to meet with him. Between the time of their correspondence and their meeting, Birch sold his company to AOL for $850 million.
Just when Harrison thought he might have to shut down due to depletion of operating funds, Birch and his wife made a $1 million donation. As Harrison writes in the chapter titled “Running on Empty,” in a single moment, “Michael and Xochi Birch had changed everything through a radical act of generosity.”
In addition, the gift gave Harrison more time to “figure out how to make this crazy 100 percent model really work,” and more fully develop “the Well.”
From Harrison’s own story of redemption, to the incredible way he built charity:water, this is a book likely to grab you from page one and have you considering how to make your own contribution by the time you are finished.
If you need some inspiration during these long, dreary days of winter, pick up a copy of Thirst and see if you don’t begin to feel warm – and hydrated.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.