If there was one thing troubling Scott Harrison as he stood up to address a group of nearly 50, including more than a dozen Silicon Valley wunderkinds, it was the matter of the private jet.
Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water, carrying a jerry can to simulate the water hauling done by local residents.
Harrison addresses a group of wealthy donors at a campsite in Tigray, Ethiopia.
A mechanical rig produces a gusher — of water — in Agazi, Ethiopia.
Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, pumping water at the well that bears his name in Giramagogo, an Ethiopian village.
Actually, “private jet” was, when he thought about it, a bit of an exaggeration. Harrison was no Greg Mortenson, the disgraced education advocate whose use of donations for chartered jets (among other things) led to an investigation by the Montana attorney general as Mortenson’s schools in Afghanistan foundered. He wasn’t even Bono, taking a little glamour into the bush — not that there was anything wrong with that, in Harrison’s opinion. But still, charity: water, the nonprofit he started, was supposed to be a rejoinder to conventional philanthropy — the inefficiency, the celebrity culture, the Learjets.
Harrison had rented the aging 737 to take the entrepreneurs from Dubai to a four-day event last spring he was calling F.ounders Ethiopia — the name and funny punctuation a result of a partnership with F.ounders, a Dublin-based technology conference — and he was worried that some people might take it the wrong way. Several days earlier, he asked me, if I mentioned the plane, to include its price, $82,000, a figure he decided was “not scary.” (The guests would each pay their share of the trip, $5,000, from which roughly $1,700 would go to the rental of the plane.) “What I don’t want is a bunch of guys flying in on a private jet to pet the poor for a couple of days,” he said. “I don’t want the perception that these tech darlings aren’t like the rest of us.”
I was to join this crew of just-like-us tech guys as they headed with Harrison to Tigray, the mountainous region in Ethiopia’s far north, where much of the rural population still lacks basic services like paved roads, electricity, toilets and, crucially for Harrison, access to clean drinking water. It’s not uncommon for a woman there to walk an hour or more to fetch water, drawing it unfiltered from a murky, open well, and then to turn around and haul the sloshing 40-pound jug back home. Not surprisingly, waterborne illnesses are among the leading causes of death in children younger than 5; the infant mortality rate in Tigray is 6.4 percent.
Since its founding, Harrison’s charity has worked in 20 countries, but it has spent more money drilling wells and setting up hand pumps in Tigray than anywhere else — projected to be some $27 million by the end of this year. By trying to ensure that the region’s entire rural population, some four million people, has access to clean water, Harrison hopes to be able to offer proof (a word he loves) that the global water crisis is solvable. So far, charity: water claims to have provided clean water to a million people in the area. Tigray also happens to be relatively safe and heartachingly beautiful — making it a suitable destination for a group of young millionaires. “It’s where I take people to kind of start,” Harrison told me in his New York office in April. “It’s Abyssinia. The priests are wrapped in shrouds. It’s sick” — by which he meant very cool.
Harrison, who is 37, has a tendency, honed while working in his 20s as a Manhattan nightclub promoter, of taking over any room in which he happens to find himself. Supremely effective as a public speaker, he can be overwhelming in more casual settings. When we met in his office not long ago, he fidgeted excitedly, anticipating and then interrupting me even before I began speaking — all the while furiously scribbling notes directly onto the surface of his table using a dry-erase marker. When I got home from that interview and checked my e-mail, I found an 87-page paper about the economic benefits of water projects, a 17-page PowerPoint presentation about charity: water’s values and an invitation to attend a service with him and his wife, Viktoria, at Hillsong, a rock-music-playing megachurch that fills Irving Plaza or the Gramercy Theater in Manhattan six times each Sunday. “Scott the nightclub promoter no longer exists, but there are parts of that personality that need to be fed,” says Ross Garber, a former technology executive who is Harrison’s business coach. “He loves promoting, loves going hard, loves being loved.” Viktoria Harrison, who was charity: water’s designer before she and Scott became romantically involved, told me that the first time he asked her out, he looked at her so intensely that she was sure she was about to be fired.
At Ottomans, a posh Turkish restaurant in Dubai where the tech group gathered for a welcome dinner, Harrison was in full promoter mode. He began by recounting the genesis of the trip: he was having a beer at F.ounders with Michael Birch, the creator of the social network Bebo. “Michael and I were closing out the bar, and he leaned over and said, ‘We should bring everyone here to Ethiopia,’ ” Harrison told us. “There were 120 people,” he said, pausing for effect. “There are 40 of us here. So we’re doing pretty good.” He concluded his remarks with a word about the “sensitivity” of the private plane. “It only costs $1,700 per person, and it saves two flights and two days of travel,” he said. “And you’ll be flying coach, which gives me some pleasure.”
The crowd at the restaurant, who were staying at Dubai’s palatial Grosvenor House hotel, chuckled at the mild schadenfreude. As I looked around, I saw Daniel Ek, the founder of the popular online music-streaming service Spotify, and Matt Mullenweg of WordPress.com, a blogging platform whose parent company is reportedly worth $1 billion. There were founders of lesser-known start-ups with strange names and huge bankrolls: Huddle ($38 million raised to date) and Wonga ($145 million). There were Facebook millionaires and Twitter millionaires, celebrity investors and investor-celebrities. I spotted Tim Ferriss, the author of “The 4-Hour Workweek,” and Troy Carter, who, through his company Atom Factory, serves as Lady Gaga’s manager and is an investor in some 45 early-stage tech companies. In addition to the techies, there were three actresses (Maggie Grace, Jessica Stroup, Sophia Bush), one fashion model (GelilaBekele), one pro skateboarder (Tony Hawk) and one filmmaker (Jon M. Chu, who directed “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”). “It’s like sleep-away camp for geeks,” Carter said, summing up the vibe.
Writing in this magazine seven years ago, the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer argued that affluent Americans have a duty to donate a substantial portion of their wealth to the developing world. Taking inspiration from the multibillion-dollar stock grants made by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Singer proposed a sliding scale that called for the wealthiest families to give away a third of their annual income. Anyone in the top 10 percent, he recommended, should at least tithe. “In the real world,” Singer wrote, “it should be seen as a serious moral failure when those with ample income do not do their fair share toward relieving global poverty.”
As ethics, the argument is difficult to assail, but as a sales pitch it’s a little flat. Rates of charitable giving have fallen since 2005. Last year, Americans gave 2 percent of their income to charity, slightly less than they gave in 1971, according to an annual survey conducted by Giving USA. And it’s here that Harrison — and his many acolytes in Silicon Valley — think they can change things. “Charity: water is a very different kind of nonprofit, and it has everything to do with Scott,” says Andy Smith, a marketing consultant and co-author (with his wife, Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford professor) of “The Dragonfly Effect,” a book that focuses on nonprofits. The world of charitable giving, Smith says, has traditionally attracted people with an aversion to business. “Now you’re having people with more of a business mind coming into the sector,” he says. “These are people who are good at persuasion, at making something cool.”
(The New York Times)