A year and a half ago, I saw a speech that changed my life — and the lives of at least 600 other people in the developing world.
I was at the World Domination Summit in Portland, where I’d later be speaking. I sat in the audience as Scott Harrison took the stage.
Scott is a former nightclub promoter who, at age 28, had a crisis of conscience. His job was encouraging people to get drunk. He smoked two packs a day. He gambled. He felt like he wasn’t adding anything to the world. And he wasn’t sure if, or how, he could.
“One day, I woke up and I realized I was the worst person I knew,” he wrote in an article on Medium.
He quit his job, sold most of his possessions, and spent the next two years as a photojournalist on a hospital ship off the coast of Liberia in west Africa. He saw diseases that were unlike anything he’d imagined.
As WIRED describes: “Some of the patients were grotesquely deformed by grapefruit-sized tumors, while others were nearly blind from cataracts that turned their eyes opaque.” (Here are images.)
He felt surprised — and then sad, then angry, then determined — when he realized that thousands of people die from preventable diseases, like cholera and dysentery, that are spread by drinking dirty water. More than 660 million people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water, which is almost 1 out of every 10 people. That’s twice the population of the U.S.
Scott decided to spend his life bringing safe water to the villages and communities that need it most. He came back to the U.S., threw a party at a nightclub, and raised the initial seed capital for charity:water. More than a decade later, he stood on the stage in Portland, sharing photos of the people whose lives he’s changed.
I’ve seen many nonprofit leaders deliver speeches. But there was something about Scott’s mission that struck me. Maybe it’s because nearly everyone at that conference in Portland seemed to be carrying a BPA-free water bottle. Maybe it was the experience of walking past the hallway drinking fountains without a second glance. But for some reason, in that moment, I thought: “I have a platform. I could use it to save lives.”
Cue the eyeroll. I get it. I get it. “Saving lives” is a lofty goal, and its achievement is hard to pinpoint. That’s the thing about prevention; you never know whom you may have spared.
A decade ago, when I worked at a newspaper, we’d write articles about community nonprofits on slow news days. The staff would refer to these as “angel-sheds-a-tear” stories.
Don’t get me wrong; we supported these efforts. But the stories seemed so cliche, so repetitive, that a part of me wondered: “Are we actually doing anything, or are we just making ourselves feel better?”
The gulf between cynicism and hope is bridged by effectiveness, and Scott built an organization that’s indisputably effective. Their mission is critical. What’s more basic, more fundamental to survival, than drinking water? Their results are tangible, specific, and easy to verify.
They’ve funded more than 28,000 water projects, like digging wells, creating rainwater catchment systems, and distributing biosand filters. Their projects can be tracked on Google Maps.
They’ve also opened two separate bank accounts. They use one account for their administrative overhead. This account gets funded by a small group of donors. They use 100 percent of their other account for water projects. This account is funded by public donations. This means every dime they raise from the public goes directly to water projects. Their accounts are audited. They can prove it.
I interviewed Scott on my podcast last year, and I told my audience that I had a lofty goal: I wanted to raise at least $12,000 in the year 2018 for charity:water.
If we raised that amount, Afford Anything could sponsor a water project. We would fund a specific project, tangible and GPS-identifiable. It would exist because of this community.
I started 2018 with huge enthusiasm for this goal. My Chief Sanity Officer Erin and I designed three shirts and sold them on Amazon, and we donated 100 percent of profits ($5.38 per shirt) to charity:water. I also set up a page on the charity:water website where people could make direct donations.
Then I waited. And watched. And bummed myself out.
By July 2018, we’d raised around $3,000. While that’s amazing and helpful and I’m grateful for it … it also felt like a blow. We were halfway through the year, but only one-fourth of the way to our $12,000 goal.
There was no way we’d be able to raise $12,000 by the end of the year, I thought. I felt deflated. Disappointed. I knew I should feel grateful for what we have achieved, but I kept feeling like this was a setback. I’d been in contact with Anna, who works on the charity:water team, both last year and this year; we’d spoken on the phone about Afford Anything’s sponsorship campaign. I didn’t want to have to call Anna at the end of 2018 and say, “Sorry, we failed. We tried to raise enough to sponsor a project, and we failed.”
I spent the late summer and fall making peace with that idea. I told myself that if I could make any difference at all, that’s something to celebrate. I told myself that it’s better to fall short of lofty goals than to create errors-of-thinking-too-small, as I’m prone to doing. I told myself that it doesn’t matter if we sponsor a project or not; what matters is that there’s at least one human being who won’t suffer from typhoid or cholera or guinea worm disease. This isn’t about us, it’s about the person on the other side.
I found peace with it. I let it go. I accepted what is.
And then I checked the charity:water fundraising page, and saw this:
HOLY MOLY WE DID IT!!!!!!!!! We did it, we did it, we did it, we did it, we did it!!!!
We — no pun intended — we blew it out of the water!!!!!
I’d like to express massive, massive gratitude to several people right now, starting with Richard Potter, a podcast listener who generously matched donations up to $4,000. He fueled the fire that made this possible.
He made the donation that brought us up to the $4,000 mark, and then he announced that he’d match contributions, dollar-for-dollar, up to a $4,000 limit.
When I announced this on my podcast, the floodgates opened (no pun intended yet again). This community responded with enthusiasm unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Donations skyrocketed from $4,000 to $8,000 nearly overnight. Richard matched these donations, as promised, which brought the total balance to $12,000 and allowed us, the Afford Anything community, to become the official project sponsor of a water project.
WE DID IT!!!
And can I admit something? I thought it would stop there. Yes, I know; ye of little faith. I thought that once we reached the matching contribution limit, donations would slow to a trickle. (So many puns. I can’t help it.)
Thank goodness I was wrong.
You all amaze me so much … the donations keep coming! Here are a few of the many:
Susan, a podcast listener, gave $300 after she watched an interview with Scott. A family in Israel, including their daughters ages 9, 13 and 16, contributed $191. A podcast listener named Clara gave $15 with a note that said, “Only a little bit as I’m a student, but it all helps.” And a listener named Mark donated $250 with a note that said, “I’m so proud of how you handled Suze.”
Massive thanks to Lancy Erdmann, who donated $2,000, J Clark, who donated $1,500, two anonymous donors who gave $1,000 each, Charles Rosenbusch, who gave $500, and the many, many people who gave $100, $50, $25, $20, $15, $10 and $5. I’m also grateful to everyone who bought a t-shirt to support the campaign.
The support keeps coming!!
By mid-December, we had raised more than $18,000 for clean drinking water.
And during the final two weeks of December, we raised almost $4,000 more, bringing the final year-end total to $21,978. This is enough to sponsor at least two water projects. Two!!
Thank you. This is amazing. Afford Anything is you. It’s this community. It’s this incredible group, gathering together to improve lives and help others and focus on money and purpose and meaning and contribution and life.
We are Afford Anything. And we are creating a legacy.
To support this campaign:
- Buy a t-shirt on Amazon. 100 percent of the profits will go directly to charity: water.