A party promoter who became an advocate for clean water in impoverished communities around the world shares insights on how to embrace our better selves by helping others.
Scott Harrison grew up in New Jersey and came to New York City at 18 to attend New York University. Rebelling against a socially conservative upbringing, he became a nightclub promoter, earning a living by throwing parties and being paid to promote various brands of alcohol.
After 10 years of that life, “I had become the worst person I knew,” Harrison recently recounted to a rapt room of Millennials attending Morgan Stanley’s “Next Generation of Leaders” annual conference, hosted by the firm’s Private Wealth Management Group. At 42, Harrison is a Gen-Xer, but he felt right at home among the Millennial entrepreneurs, investors and others looking for meaning in every part of their lives, whether it’s their careers, investing or philanthropy.
Harrison told them about how he hit rock bottom. Burned out and looking to reset his life, he left New York to volunteer in Liberia. There on a hospital ship, he learned about the water crisis that forces millions to walk miles each day to find sources of clean water. Besides bringing disease, the lack of easily available clean water holds communities back in other ways. In many towns and villages, for example, the burden of collecting water rests with its girls and women, keeping them from going to school.
What he saw firsthand, inspired Harrison to found “charity: water” a nonprofit that helps improve access to clean water throughout the world. He also shared how he leveraged the skills he honed as a party promoter to shape his nonprofit brand. To attract those who were skeptical of giving to charity, he said public donations would go only to support water projects, eventually turning to leaders in technology, entertainment and the sports world to pledge long-term support for the organization’s overheard expenses. He also tapped social media and other digital channels to reach donors.
“I wanted to build a beautiful brand,” Harrison said.
Indeed, changes in the philanthropy space as a whole reflect the need for innovative approaches to fundraising—such as Harrison’s. For charities, technology makes it easier to raise money, but a tech-savvy generation is also interacting in a different way, pushing nonprofits to rethink how they operate to stand out. Tech has given rise to a boom in donations. In 2017, more than 1-in-5 online donations were made via a mobile device, and 51% of Millennials overall give to charity.1
“The way millennials interact with institutions and each other is changing the philanthropic sector,” said Craig Styles, a philanthropic advisor at Morgan Stanley. Styles pointed to the move away from methods like the traditional phone-a-thon toward fundraising via endurance events, social media and person-to-person payment platforms.
Styles encouraged donors to focus on the issues they feel most passionate about—many of which may be different from the causes that their parents or grandparents supported. Giving even a small amount matters, said Styles. “You don’t have to give away millions of dollars to be a philanthropist.”
Philanthropy is the only way in which Millennials can help make a difference. Other speakers at the event also stressed new opportunities “to do good and do well,” citing the growth of Impact Investing, which focuses on a variety of sustainability and values-based approaches. Indeed, interest in sustainable investing has grown significantly in just the past few years, especially among younger investors–86% of Millennials say they are interested in this topic, according to Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing.2
As for their career options, speakers urged Millennials to add value by helping colleagues, and to express energy and enthusiasm to stand out and attract others. Mandell Crawley, Head of Morgan Stanley’s Private Wealth Management group, encouraged attendees to seek growth when choosing among potential employers.
“Growth drives optionality,” said Crawley. “Board the rocket ship to play where the growth is.”
Photo courtesy of charity: water