Harrison lacked any skills that would be of obvious use to such a group; he wasn't a doctor, a nurse, an engineer, or a schoolteacher, and there's not much call for party planners at organizations like CARE or Oxfam. His first attempts to find a useful role were fruitless. But then he learned that Mercy Ships, a global charity that sends floating hospitals staffed by medical volunteers to serve poor people in the developing world, was looking for a photographer to record and publicize their work. Although Harrison had never done any professional camera work, he talked them into giving him the assignment. As for salary, Harrison paid them $500 per month from his savings to cover his own expenses.
His stint with Mercy Ships was eye- opening. In war- torn Benin, he saw a crowd of seven thousand poor, desperate people lined up outside a stadium, hoping to be among the fifteen hundred lucky people selected to receive free surgery to treat life- threatening tumors and horrendous deformities. He visited a leper colony in Liberia and accompanied doctors on their rounds in villages with no electricity, no sanitary facilities, no drinking water. All the while, he was snapping photos and sending some of them home, via e-mail, to his party- loving friends back in the States. Some were repulsed and asked to be taken off Harrison's e-mail list. But others were moved and asked, "How can we help?"
When Harrison returned home to New York, an old friend from the nightclub business told him, "Scott, these photos you've been taking are important. Our group needs to see them." The friend helped to organize an exhibition at a gallery on Eighteenth Street called the Metropolitan Pavilion. Within nine days, visitors drawn largely from Harrison's personal trove of names and addresses donated $96,000 to benefit the work of Mercy Ships. Harrison had found his calling. He couldn't help the suffering the way a doctor or a nurse could, but he was a gifted marketer— the years he'd spent luring New York's beautiful people to visit the clubs and parties he promoted had demonstrated that. Now he would apply those same skills to a more vital mission. After several months of research to determine where the greatest need and opportunity existed, Harrison founded charity: water, and his life's work truly began.
Although Harrison claims not to be much of a manager— he recently hired a chief operating officer to manage the dozen employees and assorted unpaid interns who now work at charity: water— he has used his communications skills and his instinctive creativity to build the organization into a highly effective outreach tool. He travels constantly, visiting sites in Africa and Asia where water projects are under way so that their stories can be vividly, compellingly told on the organization's website. He has introduced innovative ways of connecting donors to their beneficiaries— for example, granting naming rights to wells and providing links to Google Earth's satellite images that allow donors to actually see their projects being constructed. And he devised what he calls the "100 percent model," under which a separate group of donors agrees to cover all of charity: water's operating expenses, so that everyone else can be assured that every penny they give will provide direct benefits to the poor people of the world.