Thirst Summary and Review

by Scott Harrison
 Has Thirst by Scott Harrison been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Scott Harrison’s organization, Charity: Water, has been around since 2006. Because of this, there’s a huge chance you may already know about it, have read about it, or even have made a donation to help the organization bring clean water to those in need. Even Barack Obama gave Charity: Water a shout-out at one point, calling Scott Harrison’s transformation from party promoter to humanitarian, “the kind of promoting we need more of.” There has actually been a lot written about Harrison’s unlikely transition from the posh nightclubs of New York City to the isolated villages of Africa. But first, it’s time to hear the story in Harrison’s words in order to find out how the whole organization began and turned into what Harrison has called “a global movement of compassion.” In this summary of Thirst by Scott Harrison, you’ll find out
  • the book that helped Harrison reconnect with his faith;
  • the heartbreak that lead to the biggest donor campaign; and
  • the tragic suicide that reaffirmed Harrison’s commitment to his cause.

Thirst Key Idea #1: Scott’s energetic nature at a young age both saved and changed his life.

Scott Harrison was born in New Jersey in 1975, as long as he can remember, he’s had a restless drive to do things and work hard. This energetic nature may be able to be given the credit for saving his life early on when a carbon monoxide leak ravaged his childhood home and nearly killed his mom. He spent much of his childhood playing outside, and his dad worked during the day, so his mom was the only one who was affected by the scentless, airborne toxin – though it would take a year of recurring symptoms — dizziness, nausea, and fainting — before the source of his mom’s troubles were identified. However, once the source of the leak was identified as being from the home’s heating system, Scott’s childhood only got more interesting. Although the Harrisons moved due to the carbon monoxide leak, his mom would continue to get sick when she smelled even the slightest scents. Strong smells like onions, hairspray, and pipe smoke weren’t the only offenders, though. Even the smell of someone’s makeup could be too much for her. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, the family would drive out to the countryside so that she would be able to get some relief. There was one night where the smell of car exhaust from a nearby highway was much too strong for her, so they ended up sleeping on hay in a barn. From a young age, these types of excursions, such as campouts were normal for Scott. However, as he entered adolescence, his mom’s illness became a little too much for a boy who just wanted to be a normal teenager. Over the years, his mom also grew to be sensitive to electromagnetic radiation, so the family had no TV or radio in the house. And of course, they also didn’t have a gas oven. Plus, she was diagnosed with food allergies to most common foods by a local doctor. Then there was the issue of his schooling. Soon after Scott was born, his family became very devout, thus enrolling Scott in a small Christian school. The school only had five classrooms, only holding around nine students each. This school was the New Life Christian School, and Scott hated it so much, he told his parents, with no uncertain terms, that he was going to go to public school instead. So, in 1991, 16-year-old Scott suddenly found himself as the new kid at a much bigger high school. Fortunately for him, he had one skill which helped him to make friends: he was able to play the piano.

Thirst Key Idea #2: Scott’s talent launched him into the world of making music, and eventually, producing shows.

Since about the age of six, Scott had been playing the piano, starting with an old pump organ that belonged to his grandparents. As an attempt to make friends at his new school, Scott responded to a flyer from a band who was looking for a keyboard player. Soon enough, he was a member of the band Sunday River. Since it was the early 1990s, Sunday River sounded like a cross between Pearl Jam and Counting Crows, yet they had the skills to start getting gigs offered, and even recorded a few demos. From the beginning, Scott became the one pushing the group forward, calling up clubs to book gigs, and promoting the band. He worked so hard for the band his senior year that he began skipping classes, making it so that he barely graduated high school. Of course, Scott’s parents pushed him to go to college. Ideally, they envisioned their son going to a nice Christian school such as Wheaton College, but Scott was in his rebellious teenage years, and pushed back against this. He didn’t quite see the point in going to college when his band was about to have a breakthrough that would push them closer to stardom. Almost immediately after his high school graduation, Scott moved to New York City, finding work at a music shop selling keyboards. He even got the chance to help Stevie Wonder buy $50,000 worth of gear while working at that particular shop. Around this time, in 1995, his band’s manager put him in touch with one of New York’s biggest nightclubs: Club USA, in Times Square. Although, growing up, Scott had been a sober Christian boy, he felt right at home with the loud music, bright lights, and crowds on the dance floor. However, before long, the band broke up and went their separate ways leaving Scott to figure out what to do next. Fortunately, he soon met Patrick Allen, who regularly produced a music showcase that featured new and up and coming talent. Scott wanted to get into the business in any way he possibly could, leading him to offer to work the event for free, and be paid with the experience itself. Through this, Scott learned how to manage guest lists and keep an event going well enough that Allen started paying Scott some of each night’s earnings. A recurring event was a blues music open-mic night at a club called Nell’s. Allen ended up getting another job working with a musical that was going on tour, so he left Scott in charge of producing “Voices at Nell’s.”

Thirst Key Idea #3: While Scott was a skilled nightclub promoter, he eventually found himself needing something more.

Scott soon became friends with the manager of the club while working at Nell’s: Tex Axile, a colorful Scottish character with an endearingly foul mouth. Scott learned a lot from Tex, from a new set of swear words to everything about nightclub management. Tex eventually told Scott about a new 10,000-square-foot dinner club called Lotus, set to open up in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District. The club was looking for promoters. While Scott didn’t have a ton of experience, he did have energy and ambition, so the management at Lotus took a chance with Scott. He had low expectations, giving Scott the slowest night of the week to promote: Mondays. However, with his foot in the door, Scott quickly showed Lotus management that he was actually one of the city’s best nightclub promoters. Normally, the promotion would start around 10 pm with treating a client to dinner at the newest trendy restaurant. Generally, restaurants won’t expect a promoter’s clients to pay for their meals, since them eating at the restaurant will attract other customers. After this, around midnight, the party would move to Lotus, where they’d be ushered through the velvet rope and into a private booth where they’d be joined by models with exotic names and order $600-dollar bottles of champagne that would otherwise sell for $60. Oftentimes, the group would then move to an after-party type setting after the nightclub closed, where they’d enjoy more booze – as well as more illicit substances. However, by 2003, Scott was beginning to grow tired of this routine and had recently started his own business with Lotus’ doorman, which they called Brantly & Scott Inc. They ran an average of three events per week, while mixing business with pleasure by venturing out on trips to Milan and other fashionably chic cities. Their long nights out were fueled by cocaine and alcohol, and mornings were spent under a gray cloud of shame. Amongst all the fun, though, Scott had begun to feel a strange numbness in his arms and legs. Then, after a New Year’s Eve party in Uruguay, he opened up a book his dad had given him called The Pursuit of God, by A. W. Tozer. This particular book mentioned that numbness is a symptom of spiritual defectiveness and suddenly, it became clear that this lifestyle would never lead to satisfaction, but instead would simply lead to the pursuit of more, more, more. Something had to change.

Thirst Key Idea #4: Religion changed Scott’s life and lead to him discovering the Mercy Ships program.

The next logical step for someone in Scott’s line of work would be to open up his own club, However, Scott was beginning to move in a completely new direction — away from New York’s nightlife altogether. He’d been listening to sermons from businessman-turned-Bible teacher, Chuck Missler on his iPod, and had been starting to cut down on his smoking and drinking – which isn’t easy to do when Budweiser and Bacardi are each paying you $2,000 a month to be seen drinking their products. And just as Scott was really starting to connect to his faith, he was faced with an event that would change his life again, once and for all. The event began when Scott made a complaint about a nightclub bouncer who was aggressively trying to shake his business partner down for a tip. The bouncer got fired because of the complaint, and later in the night, Scott received a call from a friend who warned him not to go home: the bouncer had a gun and was waiting for him to show up. Scott called the armed bouncer and offered to assist him in getting another job, which appeared to calm him down, but Scott was still deeply shaken. He decided, instead of returning home, he would drive away from the city for a while, traveling through Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, all the while listening to an audio recording of the Bible and feeling his familiar numbness ease away. Something that really resonated with Scott as he listened to these religious recordings was the idea of tithing, something his parents had always done. Tithing is when you donate a percentage of your time or income toward helping others. This type of giving back sounded to Scott like it was exactly what he needed to start doing. Immediately, he began applying to multiple volunteer programs, including UNICEF, Oxfam, and the World Food Program. But the only organization that Scott received a response from was the Mercy Ships program. The Mercy Ships program consisted of a big ocean liner which had been converted into a floating hospital that would dock on various shores of Africa and offer aid and medical service to the surrounding area. They were seeking someone to help with their communications department. The job description called for someone to take pictures and promote their work. They weren’t quite sure if Scott would be the right fit for the job since he’d spent so many years living in the VIP section, but in fact, it was exactly what he needed.

Thirst Key Idea #5: Scott’s experiences while documenting the work of Mercy Ships would push him into the next chapter of his life.

In October 2004, the Mercy Ships’ 522-foot passenger liner left the Canary Islands for a port in Benin, Africa: Cotonou. Beforehand, Scott had sold almost all of his belongings, boarding the boat with nothing more than a vintage Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with clothes and some packs of Nicorette. Scott was among over 300 other workers, keeping the boat and the onboard hospital running smoothly. While they were en route, Scott learned some eye-opening details about Benin’s eight million residents. The average life expectancy in Benin was 51 years, and they only had four doctors for every 100,000 people. For comparison, the United States has seven doctors for every 325 people and an average life expectancy of 79 years. Scott was still wasn’t sure what to expect upon arrival, but he was enthusiastic and eager to prove his worth. Some of his responsibilities included taking before and after photos of patients, as well as taking pictures of the staff at work before writing up stories to go along with these pictures. These stories could then be used for recruitment, education, fundraising, and marketing. Right from the get-go, Scott was all-in. When they first arrived in Cotonou Scott noticed that the line for screenings was so long it wrapped around the auditorium. This led to him talking his way onto the roof of a nearby hotel, so that he could get the whole scene in one shot. He eventually found out that people had traveled for miles, some walking for days and spending their last cent to get to Cotonou. One of the things Mercy Ships specialized in was maxillofacial surgeries, which involved the removal of tumors from the face and neck. One of the first patients Scott met was a 14-year-old boy, Alfred, who had suffered a tumor for four years. It had started in his mouth, and had since grown the size of a volleyball, thus making it almost impossible to eat or breathe. Scott had never seen anything like it, and fortunately, Alfred’s tumor was benign, meaning it could easily be removed. However, some weren’t so lucky. Another young boy named Serafin had a malignant tumor, and when Scott heard the boy would likely die soon, he broke down in tears. During his time there, he learned to focus on those like Alfred and soon came to terms with the fact that not every ailment is able to be cured. Soon, in order to share the story of Mercy Ships, Scott was putting words to his photographs so that he could share these experiences in a way that would eventually lead to a new chapter in his life.

Thirst Key Idea #6: Scott used his promotion skills to help raise thousands of dollars for Mercy Ships.

Soon enough, Scott had started a blog to share his experiences with Mercy Ships. He also used the prized mailing list of over 15,000 people that he’d formed during his time as a promoter to blast his blog posts out to his former clients. Some of his former clients, unhappy to see a child with a tumor on his face, unsubscribed right away, but by the end of Scott’s first voyage, his readers had actually increased. Scott had witnessed every type of health-related incident: from people nearly blind from cataracts regaining their sight to kids who’d lost their lips, noses, or cheeks due to dirty drinking water that contained the deadly noma virus. Noma virus is a terrible flesh-eating disease which can be easily prevented by better sanitation. Scott spent his time praying for each person who was treated and was forced to reconcile with the many things he’d taken for granted during his life, such as the access to clean shelter, medical care, and safe drinking water. So, when he returned home in June 2005, Scott was determined to do something, and realized that he’d be able to put the skills he’d gained over the years toward a meaningful cause. Armed with his valuable mailing list, which consisted of people who had plenty of disposable income, he put on an exhibition simply entitled “Mercy.” The exhibition, which was showcased in a beautiful Soho gallery, featured a carefully arranged display of his photos and videos from Africa. Scott worked harder than ever to promote the gala, but what he couldn’t account for was Hurricane Katrina devastating the country on opening day. Suddenly, he felt like it was awkward to ask donors to help people overseas when the people of New Orleans needed assistance. However, he still managed to earn Mercy Ships $96,000. This showed Scott that he’d be able to put his skills to use in a meaningful way and understood what he would do to focus those skills during his second tour with Mercy Ships. When he went on his second mission with Mercy Ships in 2005, the ship was stationed in Liberia, a nation that had been devastated by years of civil war. During his time there, he opened up a conversation with some of the doctors working at the hospital they’d set up in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. These doctors told Scott that one of the best ways to help the people there was to provide them with clean water. This was because of the fact that half of the people who were treated at the hospital were there because of waterborne diseases, such as cholera, polio, dysentery, and noma.

Thirst Key Idea #7: Scott’s work overseas lead him to work for a new cause: getting clean water to those who needed it most.

In the spring of 2006, Scott met a woman who ran an orphanage about an hour outside of Monrovia, Liberia, named Mama Vic. There were times when she was looking after up to 150 kids, and the closest source of water was a mile and a half away. The children didn’t like going to fetch the water because oftentimes, they were bullied for being orphans. Scott was moved by her resilience in raising so many children, even in the often violent conditions and hard times in Liberia, which prompted him to call his aunt and uncle to help raise the $2,500 needed to drill a well for the orphanage. Scott knew that the water would end up providing the people with more than simply water. Simply digging the well would provide the nearby residents with jobs and wages for people in the village, therefore improving people’s disposition toward the orphanage. This meant that it improved lives in more ways than one. After he witnessed the water rise up into the air when the well was tapped, Scott couldn’t get the experience off his mind. And when he returned to the United States in mid-2006, he was positive that he wanted to fund more wells with his talent of convincing people to open up their wallets. Charity: Water was born on September 8, 2006. Scott started the organization in his former business partner, Brantly’s apartment. Brantly was still living the intoxicating late-night lifestyle, and actually, one of Charity: Water’s early donations came from Brantly’s weed-dealing friend. Since Scott was so good at hosting events and creating a trustworthy and appealing brand, Charity: Water had a great beginning. Early events were supported by the likes of actors Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo. The organization’s $20 bottles of water made donating as simple as purchasing a bottle of water, and they were a huge hit at posh events throughout the city. One of Charity: Water’s early events was attended by a woman named Viktoria Alexeeva, who reached out saying that she not only wanted to support Charity: Water, but also wanted to volunteer her services as a graphic designer, having worked on campaigns for companies like Nike and American Express. Scott wasn’t going to turn down free professional assistance, and soon, Viktoria started handling video editing and web design as well. What’s more, Scott and Viktoria eventually became more than colleagues. In 2009, they married.

Thirst Key Idea #8: One birthday fundraiser for Charity: Water changed everything for the organization and for Scott.

When Scott started Charity: Water, his goal wasn’t simply to create a place for people to donate and simply feel good for a moment, only to forget about it soon after. Instead, he wanted to create a revolutionary charity with “radical transparency,” ensuring every penny that came from the donations was put toward getting people clean water. He made sure that he kept donors constantly up to date on how their money was being put to use. In an effort to keep donors engaged, Scott had the idea for birthday campaigns, which would allow people to set up a campaign page on the Charity: Water website that would allow them to direct friends and family to make a donation in their honor instead of buying them presents. This led to him starting a yearly campaign to meet a certain goal every September, the month both Scott and Charity: Water were born. Oftentimes, it’s one of the year’s biggest fundraising events. In the first year of this campaign, $159,000 was raised in just four weeks, and then in 2011, there was one birthday campaign that became a very tragic, humbling, and bittersweet event. Rachel Beckwith first heard about Charity: Water when she was eight years old. She held Scott at the same level as she held Lady Gaga: they were two of her favorite people. Rachel had always enjoyed helping less fortunate people, so she decided to start her own campaign for her ninth birthday, managing to raise $220. It was a little short of her $300 goal, but she was excited to get the chance to try again next year. However, Rachel’s life was tragically cut short when she was in an awful car accident with her mother. They were involved in a 15-car pile-up, that included a semi-truck and a jackknifed logging trailer. But her story didn’t end there. Rachel’s page was reopened, and the news of her generous spirit spread around the world. A week later, her $220 became $750,000, an amount that surpassed all previous birthday campaigns. And when her page finally closed, Rachel had collected an astounding $1,265,823. This was enough to fund 142 water projects and bring clean water to 37,770 people. Scott took Rachel’s mom to see one of the projects her daughter had funded in Ethiopia, so that she could witness the impact Rachel had had.

Thirst Key Idea #9: Scott always had the goal of being as transparent with Charity: Water’s goals as he possibly could be, even when things could have gone south.

With all donor money, Scott felt responsible to use it in the best way possible, and the same went for the money raised from Rachel’s heartbreaking and inspiring story. This is why, for each partnership with the businesses responsible for drilling the wells in Africa that Charity: Water made, a rigorous vetting process was implemented. Detailed reports were given to every donor, whether they give $1 or $1,000, so that they would be able to see what was happening with the project they helped fund. It was for this reason that Scott felt an undeniable sense of frustration when he learned that a corporate donor was so displeased with Charity: Water’s efforts that they would be filing a lawsuit. When he first learned this news, Scott was concerned about the bad press that this lawsuit might generate, but he eventually began to recognize it as an opportunity to show that Charity: Water made every decision with the goal of supporting how they could best spend donors’ money. Of course, however, they had no control over whether or not violence broke out in a region they were working on a project in, or if a worker got injured on the job. Nevertheless, there was one donor who was so upset that the charity had delayed the building of a well in Kenya to give much-needed supplies to schools and hospitals, that they decided they needed to take legal action. To respond to the lawsuit, Scott wrote an open letter to his board members and to the public, with the goal of reaffirming his insistence on “radical transparency” and the charity’s vetting process. In the end, the lawsuit didn’t result in any bad press or loss of funds, but rather, in response, Scott received support from other CEOs. This support kept his spirits up until the case finally resolved when the decision was made to send the donor’s money to a different charity. Charity: Water experienced another bad situation that ended up leading to a good result in 2010. That year, Charity: Water was funding a well in Moale in the jungle of the Central African Republic (CAR). The founder of the Water for Good organization, Jim Hocking, coordinate the drilling for this particular project. This was Jim’s third attempt at creating a well in Moale to help the Bayaka tribe, but sadly the third time was not the charm. The well’s muddy walls had trouble remaining intact as they continually collapsed. Scott had told donors he would post a video of them opening the well, however, because of this problem in the building, he wouldn’t be able to fulfill this promise. However, he made a point not to avoid the truth. The organization did put out a video, as promised, however, in it, they explained why they wouldn’t be able to help the Bayaka receive clean water this time around. And again, Scott’s honesty didn’t result in angry donors, but instead it generated many compliments from people saying they trusted Charity: Water even more than before.

Thirst Key Idea #10: A tragic story lead Scott to bring clean water to even more communities.

In 2012, while Scott was in Ethiopia, he was sitting at the hotel bar when the owner suddenly approached him to thank him for all the work he’d done in the area. The owner told Scott that he’d been raised in an area with very little access to clean water. Having access to water when this man was growing up was such a big deal that when one woman fell, thus breaking Sher pot of water, she was so distraught that she hanged herself from a tree just outside the village. Scott was haunted by the man’s story, so when he returned home, he made it his goal to find out more. With some help, he traced the story back to an isolated Ethiopian village called Meda. This prompted him to learn more, leading him to complete the difficult nine-hour hike to Meda in November 2013. Nearly immediately when he arrived, Scott met the mother of Letikiros Hailu — the girl who’d hanged herself — and learned that she was only13 years old when she died. She’d recently been married to a kind young man only a few years older than her. Most girls quit school upon marriage, but she’d wanted to continue her education. Continuing her education wasn’t easy when it was her job to fetch the water a task that could take up to ten hours just to bring back just a few gallons. Because of this, she’d attempted just going to school three days a week, so that she could fetch water the other four, but this did nothing but cause her to fall behind in her studies. Scott himself walked the dangerous path to the stream where she’d fetch the water from. The path to the stream wound around a steep cliff with a drop of 100 feet, and the path itself had taken several lives over the years. The stream itself was no  more than a little trickle, just barely enough to slowly fill three pots in one hour. It would have been around dusk that Letikiros returned to her village carrying the heavy clay pot of water on her back. Perhaps it was too dark, or perhaps she was tired from the heat and hunger from the day, but she tripped and fell, thus breaking the pot and losing the water her mother had been waiting at home for. No one knows the exact reason, but most likely, it was shame, more than anything else that drove Letikiros to hang herself, rather than return home empty-handed. There are plenty of other 13-year-old girls in this precise information, making this the exact reason why Scott continues pushing for Charity: Water to grow into a larger organization , thus bringing more water to more people.

Thirst Key Idea #11: Charity: Water’s high tech features allow for more efficient water distribution.

As Letikiros’ story shows, having access to clean water would not only prevent disease, but it also empowers people, especially young women, by allowing them to get an education. Clean water would allow them to avoid having to choose between a clean body and clean clothes and their education. In 2015, because of his commitment to keeping Charity: Water growing bigger, Scott considered stepping down as CEO. 2015 happened to be the first year that Charity: Water hadn’t brought in more donation money than the year prior, and the truth is, Scott knows he isn’t the best CEO. He’s not the biggest fan of running meetings and holding employees accountable for their work. When he announced that he was considering stepping down, one employee immediately told him, “I didn’t join to work for another CEO; I joined because I want to work for you.” More employees soon helped Scott to see things in the right perspective. Scott had become so hung up on the fact that the number of people impacted by clean water had dropped from one million to 800,000 between 2014 and 2015. Thanks to his team, he was able to stop focusing so much on the 200,000 he hadn’t been able to help to the 800,000 people whose lives were changed by Charity: Water. And why not focus on the progress that was made in 2015, like innovation and sustainability? In 2015, Charity: Water designed and built their very own state-of-the-art sensors that would immediately alert the team when a well wasn’t working. They also developed teams of people trained in repairing the wells throughout Africa, who were equipped with GPS-assisted motorbikes. They would then be able to quickly service a well and get it operational again as soon as possible. These advances allowed 90% of Ethiopia’s wells to be working properly, far surpassing the 60% functionality that used to be the charity’s norm. In 2016, during Charity: Water’s tenth year, the company also solved one of its largest sustainability problems with “The Spring.” Many charities have to deal with the challenge of trying to take care of overhead costs, such as health coverage for employees, which is challenging when 100% of donations are put toward actually funding projects. But The Spring focuses on solving this problem by offering donors a monthly payment plan to directly fund the business side of things. And in exchange for helping keep the lights on at Charity: Water, members of The Spring get exclusive updates, videos, and other inspirational features. Fortunately, The Spring was an immediate success, allowing Scott to breathe easier and plan for tomorrow. In Review: Thirst Book Summary The key message in this book summary: Scott Harrison has had an unusual life, from the nightclubs of New York City to the isolated villages of Ethiopia. Through sharing this unique story, Harrison has the goal of inspiring people around the world to give to those who don’t have access to clean water. Since starting his organization, Charity: Water, Harrison has witnessed amazing acts of compassion and generosity – so many, in fact, that he believes that we will be able to completely solve the world’s water crisis if we simply work together.