Real Leaders

Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World

At 28 years old, Scott Harrison was living large. A top nightclub promoter in New York City, his life was an endless cycle of nightlife, booze, models – repeat.

But 10 years in, desperately unhappy and morally bankrupt, he asked himself, “What would the exact opposite of my life look like?” Walking away from everything, Harrison spent the next 16 months on a hospital ship in West Africa and discovered his true calling. In 2006, with no money and less than no experience, Harrison founded charity: water. In Thirst, Harrison recounts the twists and turns that built charity: water into one of the most trusted and admired nonprofits in the world.

Why is water an issue you care so deeply about?

Dirty water steals time and it kills. In Africa alone, 40 billion hours are wasted each year collecting water. Not only does walking for water keep children out of school and prevent their parents from working to earn money, bad water and a lack of sanitation and hygiene contributes to up to half the disease throughout the developing world. Few people realize that dirty water is responsible for more deaths than all forms of violence, including war. That’s a shocking statistic. It’s particularly frightening for the 663 million people around the world – twice the population of the United States or 1 out of every 10 people alive – that live without access to clean water. I believe more strongly now in the transformative power of clean water than when I first set out to start charity: water. Water is life. It’s that simple. And we’ll continue fighting to see a day where everyone on Earth has access to it.

How do you connect donors in the developed world with a problem they are so far away from? 

People don’t respond well to mind-numbing statistics. When I tell an audience that 663 million people globally lack access to their most basic need for health and life, eyes can glaze over. But when I tell a story of a woman named Aissa who lost 8 children, and show the dirty water she drinks with her family, people can connect. From there, it’s about inspiring people by showing them the ways access to clean water can transform lives. 

What are you most excited about now?

I hope Thirst encourages readers to summon the courage that lies within each of us, to take bold leaps of faith, and find greater passion and purpose in their lives.

Scott Harrison is the founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit that has mobilized over one million donors around the world to fund nearly 30,000 water projects in 26 countries that will serve more than 8.5 million people. He has been recognized on Fortune’s 40 under 40 list, Forbes’ Impact 30 list, and was ranked #10 in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business. Currently a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, he lives in New York City with his wife and two children.