August 12, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight
A Save-the-World Field Trip for Millionaire Tech Moguls
Scott Harrison is the founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. In seven years, with the help of more than 400,000 donors worldwide, charity: water has raised over $100 million and funded over 8,000 water projects in 20 countries. When completed, those projects will provide over three million people with clean, safe drinking water. The New York Times Magazine recently caught up with Scott as he traveled to Tigray, a mountainous region in Ethiopia’s far north:
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.
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.
Matt Mullenweg for The New York Times
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 (Gelila Bekele), 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.”
When Harrison founded charity: water in New York City in 2006, he initially intended to counter the cynicism of his club buddies. “I wanted to create a model that would put all the excuses aside,” Harrison says — a charity, in other words, for people who didn’t trust charities. To pre-empt objections to high overhead and waste, Harrison set up two bank accounts: one, raised chiefly from a handful of wealthy individuals, to pay for administration and fund-raising; and the other to finance the digging of wells and other water-related projects in the developing world. Today the organization’s heavily promoted “100% Model” allows it to claim that every dollar donated to water is actually used that way. (Some consider this more a matter of marketing than anything else, but even so, charity: water is a relatively efficient organization, earning a nearly perfect rating from Charity Navigator, a sort of Consumer Reports for the nonprofit world.) Many donations are earmarked to specific projects, so if a church group gives, say, $5,000 for a well in Ethiopia, its members are not only told where their $5,000 is spent, but they also receive pictures of the well they financed and its G.P.S. coordinates. All of this information is publicly available on a section of charity: water’s Web site dedicated to “proving it.” Most donors who happen to visit their well will find their names on a plaque there.
In just seven years, Harrison’s organization claims to have raised roughly $100 million — $33 million in 2012 alone, up from $27 million the year before and $16 million the year before that. Today it is the largest nonprofit in the United States focused on water, with revenues that are four times as great as those of Water.org, the group co-founded by Matt Damon. Charity: water doesn’t drill wells or buy water filters but acts as a fund-raising clearinghouse for locally based charities, which it subcontracts to do the actual work. It markets its partners, mostly using its Web site and social media. “You could almost imagine us a Kayak.com or an Expedia,” Harrison says. But charity: water promises to do more than a mere online travel agent does; it claims to verify that the wells its donors buy are actually completed in a timely fashion. “We create an experience,” he says, “a pure way to give.”
Harrison’s commitment to geeky transparency, his willingness to speak the language of Silicon Valley and especially his organization’s impressive revenue growth have made him a hero to techies and to a growing class of tech-savvy philanthropists. “Scott is one of a handful of social entrepreneurs who are disrupting philanthropy,” says Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, the founder of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (and the wife of Netscape’s founder, Marc Andreessen). She’s also an enthusiastic charity: water supporter. The organization, she says, “is making philanthropy sexy.”
Ours was the only plane at Alula Aba Nega Airport in Mekele — a small, dusty city 500 miles north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa — when we landed the following afternoon. After customs officials flown in from the capital finished looking over our entry documents, we boarded a convoy of white Toyota Land Cruisers, with the numbers 1 through 20 taped to the sides, and made our way into the mountains.
Harrison organizes donor trips as narratives, which generally begin with a visit to a community that still relies on questionable or extremely remote water sources. We drove for more than four hours over unmarked dirt roads to find Selam, home to 600 people spread out across several miles of pasture — or what would be pasture during the rainy season. For now, the landscape was barren, rust-colored fields broken up only by giant cactuses and crooked acacia trees. I sat in the passenger seat next to Teklewoini Assefa, the executive director of the Relief Society of Tigray, or REST, one of charity: water’s 13 partners, and a close friend of Harrison’s. Assefa — a sturdily built man of 58 with a weathered face, a gold watch and only half of his ring finger — served in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the guerrilla army that helped topple Ethiopia’s Marxist dictatorship in 1991. I asked Assefa about the injury, and he grinned. “Bullet,” he said, pantomiming a rifle blast.
As Assefa navigated the rough road, I chatted with Shakil Khan, a gregarious man who, at 39, was one of the more senior members of the group on the trip. Khan rose to prominence in Silicon Valley thanks to an early investment in Spotify; he also mentored the 17-year-old founder of Summly, an iPhone app that publishes summaries of news stories, who sold his company to Yahoo for a reported $30 million. Silicon Valley investors tend to measure their successes by how early they spot promising companies and trends, and so when I asked Khan about his involvement with Harrison, he was quick to take credit for an early pick. “This isn’t meant to be arrogant in any way,” Khan said, “but there are a lot of tech people who I introduced to charity: water.”
Charity: water offers two basic “products,” in Harrison’s phrasing. The first way to give is through mycharity: water, a sort of social network that allows you to set up a Web page to encourage your Twitter and Facebook friends to donate in honor of an event or cause — a birthday, for instance, or a marathon. (I gave $63 for a co-worker’s birthday two years ago; 10 months later I got an e-mail that began: “You gave money for a drilling rig. Here’s your proof.” A link to G.P.S. coordinates was included.) Khan started his first campaign in 2010 and raised $206,000 in 10 days, leading to a conglomerate of 22 wells in and around Seglamen, Ethiopia, that charity: water officials — and most everyone else connected to Khan — informally call “Shaktown.” Khan followed that effort by buying a Well membership, Harrison’s other major product.
Well members — there are 100 of them today, 13 of whom were on this trip — promise to donate at least $24,000 a year for three years to charity: water’s operational bank account, which pays the salaries of Harrison and his 62 employees, keeps the servers running and covers travel expenses for the staff. Members get a chance to hobnob with people in Harrison’s inner circle of well-known techies, which includes the Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and the former Facebook president Sean Parker, as well as the chance to go on trips like this one. “When you get to spend four or five days in an intense environment, the real you comes out,” Khan said. “You’re not polished, you’re not going onstage.”
Khan wore a black T-shirt neatly tucked into a pair of khakis, finished with a bright blue scarf, indulging in a peculiar form of geeky peacocking that I noticed among certain members of the group. As a general rule, the wackier the dress, the greater the status. Khan’s friend and fellow Well member Daniel Ek wore an oversize bright red Philadelphia Phillies hat that came down over his ears, a green polo shirt, green socks and orange running shoes. One of the wealthiest members of the crew, Michael Birch, who with his wife has donated more than $6 million to charity: water, wore an orange shirt, a blue bandanna and what I think was a ladies’ cowboy hat. With his beard and shoulder-length blond hair, the effect was more Santa Cruz stoner than entrepreneur who sold his company, Bebo, for $850 million a few years ago.
Among both the powerful and poorly dressed, it was generally understood that you didn’t network with other business leaders, in part because networking was, as Chris Sacca, a former Google executive whose venture-capital firm reportedly owns more than 10 percent of Twitter (a stake that could be worth as much as $1 billion), put it to me, not the point and unnecessary, because everyone was already successful. And although we had intermittent cellphone service and wireless Internet throughout the trip, there was an ambivalence about smartphone usage — and strangely enough, technology more generally. (A tip: If you want to fit in among the start-up set, first brag about your gadgets, then brag about how little you use them.)
“When you work on the Web, so much of what you do is abstract and ethereal,” said Sacca, who told me that start-up founders have been increasingly turning to organizations like charity: water because, unlike the Web, “there’s a there there.” As he put it: “There’s a real desire to have meaning, something you can touch, measure, feel — that exists. There’s an allure to the fact that there are G.P.S. coordinates on the charity: water wells. Because everything else we have just lives in this cloud.”
Whereas an earlier generation of dot-com entrepreneurs celebrated their wealth by buying yachts and sports cars, this cohort, having made its fortune at a time when so much of the country was fighting foreclosures and negotiating unemployment benefits, seems to prefer to keep its excesses quiet — or at least off Facebook and Instagram. “It’s like, ‘I drive a Prius and drink $10,000 bottles of wine,’ ” said Matt Mullenweg, a co-founder of WordPress and a Well member, summing up the prevailing attitude toward wealth among the tech elite. “The wine’s not on Instagram. The Prius is.”
By the time we reached Selam, Assefa’s employees had organized a welcoming party of several hundred residents. Children carried English-language signs (“Thank You, Scott,” “Water Is Life”), men waved Ethiopian flags and danced, musicians banged on drums. As dusk fell, Harrison led the group on a mile-long walk into a gully, where we found three pools of brown water and a smaller greeting party. This, we were told by an elderly man who spoke through an interpreter with a megaphone, was where Selam’s water came from.
“O.K., guys,” Harrison said, holding up a large plastic gas can. “I want everyone to try this for a second.” A group of villagers started filling the bright yellow vessels with water, then handed them out to us. We struggled to carry them out of the canyon, simulating the journey that 8- and 9-year-old girls made every day. It was too hard. Most people gave up after a few steps, put down their cans and started taking pictures.
The water problem thus established, we were driven to our campsite. Harrison had told us that camping would come as a shock after Dubai’s luxury. I guess that might have been the case, but it was still pretty nice. Our group was attended by a staff of 27 locals — porters, cooks, servants, musicians, dancers — and served a multicourse meal with a full bar. A young man in a crisp checked shirt insisted on carrying my backpack to the tent.
On New Year’s Day 1980, Scott Harrison’s father, Chuck, found his wife, Joan, passed out on the floor — apparently as a result of carbon-monoxide poisoning from a leaky furnace. She survived, but she was never the same, developing a set of mysterious allergies that was sometimes called 20th Century Disease. Detergents, cigarette smoke and pretty much anything else that contained chemicals caused debilitating headaches and fatigue. “Her body and sometimes her mind went haywire,” Chuck Harrison told me in an e-mail. He replaced the furnace and set up a cot for his wife in a tiled bathroom, whose door was lined with tinfoil to protect her from the smell of the varnish.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, as Joan’s illness is now known, is poorly understood and controversial — many doctors see it as a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, and the American Medical Association does not recognize it as a distinct disease. Even as a boy, Harrison suspected that his mother’s condition might be psychosomatic. “She’d told me she was allergic to radio and TV,” he says. “I remember thinking it was all in her head.” One night in the early ’80s, when he was about 6, Harrison sneaked out of his room carrying a portable radio. He tiptoed to the door of the bathroom where his mother slept, carefully turned the volume on the radio all the way down so as not to wake her and then turned it on. Nothing happened until morning. “She woke up really sick,” he says. “It was like, ‘Wow, Mom isn’t making this up.’ You know, I was a selfish kid.”
Harrison told me that this experience — imbued with feelings of doubt, betrayal and guilt — is one of his earliest real memories. He became his mother’s cook and caregiver. “She’d eat one food every four days,” he says. “When I came back from school I would cook. Breakfast would be cashews, lunch would be lettuce, dinner would be cod.”
Harrison attended evangelical Christian schools, which, combined with his mother’s bizarre illness, began to seem stifling as he approached adulthood. After high school, while playing in a band, he moved to New York. He earned a living as a party promoter — first at Nell’s, the famed nightclub, and later at Lotus, an early ’00s hot spot. (Along the way, Harrison enrolled in night classes at N.Y.U., eventually graduating with gentlemanly C’s and a communications degree.) By 28, he was living the rebel’s dream life — model girlfriend, big apartment in Midtown, grand piano, Rolex, cocaine.
It was on a New Year’s Eve trip to Punta del Este, the Uruguayan resort, that Harrison realized he felt empty. Soon after his return, he began reading the Bible for the first time since high school and found himself hung up on a verse in James that defines religion as a commitment “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This upset him. “I was kind of 0 for 2,” he says. “I had done nothing in a decade of night life for the poor.” Harrison resolved, then and there, to change.
He swore off cigarettes, gambling, drugs and pornography — and he quit his job, accepting a volunteer assignment on a cruise ship moored off the Liberian coast that had been converted into a field hospital for facial surgery. His bosses at Mercy Ships, a Texas nonprofit, expected him to take photographs of patients before and after their operations; Harrison had grander ambitions. He wrote confessional essays that mixed reportage from the ship with his own conversion from party person to follower of Christ and then distributed them to his old nightclub e-mail lists. (“There were people who were really encouraging,” Harrison recalls. “And then there were people who were like, ‘Dude, where’s the Prada party?’ ”) That summer, Harrison organized a gala for Mercy Ships in New York.
Then something miraculous happened: When Harrison came home from Liberia and met his parents, his mother greeted him with a hug, something that they hadn’t been able to do for years without his first taking a shower and changing into a clean pair of clothes. She was recovering. “It seemed that God had chosen to redeem our family at a moment,” Harrison says, “to show grace to all of us.”
Later that year, Harrison returned to Liberia, as the idea for charity: water started to take shape. “It’s intoxicating, addicting,” he wrote in 2006, describing a series of experiences he had helping Liberian children. “It’s a really strong notion — that of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. That they matter, that they can be found, saved. That they can speak to larger change.”
His old club friends were suspicious of the nonprofit world. “I would hear the black-hole expression a lot,” he says. “You know: ‘I don’t know where my money goes.’ ” Here were people who willingly paid $16 for a margarita talking about waste and inefficiency. This wasn’t a charity problem, Harrison decided. It was a perception problem.
Harrison tells a version of this story — beginning with his mother’s illness and ending with the conception of charity: water — most every time he has an audience. “I wanted to reinvent the way people thought about charity, and how people thought about giving,” was how he put it to us that night at the campsite. “There were no really imaginative, fun, epic charities that I knew of. I thought we could actually build a brand and go after the Nikes and Apples of the world.”
Our first stop the following day was a worksite, where we were greeted by hundreds of children who’d taken the morning off from school to celebrate our arrival. They danced, clapped, chanted and held up those “Water Is Life” signs while our group snapped pictures. Eventually we huddled around a 40-foot-deep hole while Assefa explained how a well is dug. Workers started with shovels, but once they hit bedrock, the wells had to be dynamited open.
“Is it ready to blow?” Harrison called out, and then sent Nathan Hubbard, the C.E.O. of Ticketmaster, to do the honors. Hubbard pushed the button, the ground thumped and rocks and dust sputtered out of the hole. The well was a few inches deeper, and workers went in with jackhammers to prepare for the next round of blasting. It was, self-consciously, a show.
The narrative continued that afternoon: we drank from a recently finished version of the same type of well a few miles away. “Tastes like success,” someone joked, amid the furious taking of pictures. Then it was on to a school, where we found a larger charity: water project that included several water taps and latrines. Harrison had organized a pickup soccer game there that ended up including 100 or so impossibly cute elementary-school children.
I went to two villages the next day and two more the following day. The visits were all remarkably similar: the same speeches, the same signs, the kids singing: “Welcome. Welcome. To our home. To our home.” There was always bread and honey, always a chance to photograph a beautiful smiling child drinking from a pristine well, always a chance to have yourself photographed doing the same.
On the morning of that last day, we visited a mechanical drilling rig in the village of Agazi that had just hit water. (The rig and its accessories were purchased by charity: water for roughly $1 million, donated to its Ethiopian partner, REST, and staffed by REST employees with financing from Harrison’s organization.) Young men on horses galloped through the procession, trailing red ribbons and ruffles; others charged around on foot, carrying giant Ethiopian flags. “You have solved our problem,” declared Daniel Hagos, REST’s head of rural water-supply development, translating for a village elder. And later: “We thank Scott. Let God let him live forever.”
Harrison acknowledged the crowd and then pulled himself onto the roof of one of the trucks. A compressor sent air into the well, pushing a vent of muddy water 20 feet into the air. The crowd shrieked.
“Who wants to stand there,” he asked, motioning to a group of five to pose in front of the rig. “It’s a great shot.” The compressor forced out another spurt of water. Harrison took a few pictures with his iPhone and then got back down on the ground and jostled his way to the front as water droplets fell on his shoulders. It was a tightly choreographed performance, but a deeply affecting one.
“I think people in the tech community are attracted to fastidiously designed and maintained brands,” Tom Conrad, the executive vice president of Pandora, said as our Land Cruiser drove between villages. “Perhaps that’s superficial,” he conceded, “but good design correlates with thoughtfulness throughout the endeavor.”
In the back seat, Neil Hutchinson, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who has donated more than $2 million to charity: water, nodded. “You want to be part of a growth story,” he said. “A lot of charities don’t place any emphasis on brand. That doesn’t really make any sense. If Scott hadn’t got a great brand, the charity wouldn’t have grown at this rate.”
Harrison’s critics don’t dispute his marketing prowess but say that’s beside the point. Charity: water’s “biggest provable impact may be that it puts the names of millennials on new, but perhaps not always functional, wells in poverty-ridden countries,” Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote in an essay published on Truthout, a liberal Web site, earlier this year. “That’s branding. Not a movement.” Moore noted Harrison’s use of the two bank accounts but questioned whether charity: water had really provided clean water to the more than three million people that the organization claims. One estimate suggests that 30 percent of all water projects, industrywide, break down ahead of schedule. And charity: water currently has limited ability to monitor its own wells. “We don’t know what percentage of our wells are broken,” says Robert Lee, the organization’s director of special programs. “My guess is 5 to 10 percent.”
This fact has the potential to create a gulf between Harrison’s brand of charity and the charitable work itself. In 2011, an internal audit found that a nonprofit Harrison hired in Kenya had done unsatisfactory work on 31 projects financed in 2008 by employees and customers of Brighton Collectibles, a California-based retailer of handbags and accessories. Brighton sued charity: water, claiming breach of contract, fraud and negligence, and though charity: water denied any wrongdoing, it agreed to pay $1 million as part of a settlement (which would ultimately finance another organization’s water projects). Harrison told me that tribal violence in Kenya following a disputed 2007 election was to blame for the project’s shortcomings, but he acknowledged that he failed to warn donors of the risks of a large-scale project in a poor country rife with violence and corruption. “We were more naïve then,” he said. “We set expectations poorly.”
Charity: water says well maintenance is an industrywide problem and presents itself in a familiar role as savior. Last December, the organization was awarded a $5 million grant by Google’s philanthropic arm to develop sensors to monitor water flow remotely in real time and to pay local charities to hire maintenance crews. The plan is to solve the problem of well failure while also improving communications with donors, who, if all goes well, will be able to check the status of their wells halfway around the world on their iPhones. Jacquelline Fuller, the director of Google Giving, says that the sensor project has the potential to “change the entire sector.”
It’s a compelling pitch, and it should be said that Water.org, Harrison’s closest significant competitor, has confronted the problem of well breakdown by shifting most of its resources away from digging wells. The philanthropy, which was formed in 2009 when Matt Damon’s H20 Africa merged with WaterPartners, a pioneering charity that dug its first well in the early ’90s, has expanded its mission to providing microloans to help people in developing countries hook up to existing municipal water systems. Gary White, the organization’s C.E.O., says the goal is to use “market-based solutions” to “move beyond the high-subsidy approach.” White, who has spent his adult life trying to get people to care about water, tells me that he is grateful to Harrison for raising awareness but is skeptical of his approach. “There’s never going to be enough charity in the world to get water to everyone who needs it,” he says.
Harrison is less pessimistic. He sees giving as a growth industry, and his business plan calls for charity: water to raise $100 million in 2015. He has been hiring engineers and product managers from tech companies like Twitter and Zynga with the hope that they can propel charity: water to the kind of fast growth that helped those companies reach multibillion-dollar valuations. He’s already thinking about expanding to other areas of charitable giving — perhaps charity: education or charity: shelter. “The people working here have signed up for the moonshot,” he says. “We’re not here to grow 10 percent a year.”
I ask him if trips like the one I went on do not, in some sense, undercut that goal. Aren’t there better uses of his time than playing tour guide to groups of minimoguls halfway around the world? Wouldn’t it be better to spend the group’s money on water projects rather than on luxurious camping trips? “It’s about building a long-term relationship with 40 people,” he says. “The cost of the food or a charter plane pales in comparison.” There’s something else, too: he wants to give these young techies the revelatory experience he had in Liberia. “I want to give them a piece of the joy I found,” he says. “These trips really bring out the best in people.”
He may be right. Our last stop before boarding the private plane back to Dubai was, in Harrison’s words, “Daniel’s well.” It was a modest hand pump in the tiny village of Giramagogo that had been purchased by Daniel Ek, Spotify’s C.E.O., for $7,000. Though Ek wasn’t the wealthiest guy on the trip — Spotify is still private, meaning much of Ek’s net worth is locked up in private shares — he was in many ways the most influential. The Internet music-streaming company has a reported $3 billion valuation and is likely to go public. Ek is a reserved guy, and he was quiet for most of the trip, but he seemed to lose track of himself in the moment, grinning widely and clapping wildly. “I’m very happy to have played a small part in getting you clean water,” he said, addressing the village. “So thank you.”
Ek made his first donation to charity: water — $5,000 — in 2009 shortly after Spotify raised $50 million from venture capitalists. He was 26 and had already sold another company for $1 million. “You know, this Internet has created so much wealth in such a short amount of time,” he said as we waited for our return flight to Dubai. “We made money when we were incredibly young, and in the beginning we didn’t handle that well.” Ek lived lavishly during the first few years of his newfound wealth and minor celebrity. “When you’re a computer geek, you think you want to be the guy with all the girls at the table,” he said. “But I realized after a while that ain’t me.”
He had trouble connecting with charities. He wanted one that would use technology to show him where his money was being spent. “I wanted to be able to go to a project if I felt like it, and just see where my money went,” he said. “I feel like with today’s charities, you just give, and you get nothing back. You don’t see anything. And I think that’s what charity: water has done so brilliantly.”
This was, on one hand, a bit much. Ek is worth hundreds of millions of dollars on paper — he reportedly owns 15 percent of Spotify — and he doesn’t need anything back, not the “proof” that Harrison is so eager to offer, not even a warm feeling. The reasons he offered for supporting charity: water were self-centered, superficial and simplistic — so often the failings of this cohort of tech darlings. On the other hand, here was a mere 30-year-old, his star still rising, talking about giving it away even before he really has it. It was presumptuous and cringe-worthy and inspiring.
Ek told me that he would like to donate 1 percent of the equity in Spotify to charity: water, worth perhaps $30 million now, but can’t because Spotify is private and he is bound by shareholder covenants that make it difficult to simply give away shares. So he plans instead, he said, to find a way to donate “a meaningful portion” of his wealth to charity, including charity: water, and he is encouraging his peers to do the same.
By the time the trip was over, two members of the group, including Troy Carter, whose company manages Lady Gaga, had committed to give Harrison and his brand 1 percent of their companies as well. “I think that’s awesome,” Ek said. “There are a lot of companies that are going to be created in the next five years. If charity: water can get one or two of those billion-dollar companies, we have a real shot.”