Charity: Water and the Power of Storytelling

Here’s a short list of things I didn’t expect to happen to me during my time at INBOUND 2018: Staying

4 min. read

Here’s a short list of things I didn’t expect to happen to me during my time at INBOUND 2018:

  • Staying in room 666 at America’s oldest continuously running hotel
  • Receiving a free slice of Boston cream pie from the kitchen that invented it
  • Wiping away tears in a darkened, cavernous convention hall, then texting my colleagues that a keynote had “changed my life”

And yet here I am, slightly haunted, full of dessert and still feeling a little choked up.

As for my tender emotional state, the blame rests squarely with Scott Harrison, founder and CEO of charity: water, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing clean water to the 1 in 10 people around the world who lack access to it. His was the presentation that totally bowled me over.

Harrison began by recounting his years as a nightclub promoter in Manhattan, getting paid to help people party and doing plenty of partying himself. Booze, drugs — every vice but heroin, he said. Monetarily, Harrison had become a success. But spiritually? Bankrupt. Towards the end of his twenties, after nearly a decade in the business, Harrison asked himself: What would the exact opposite of this life look like?

The answer led him to volunteer as a photojournalist aboard a Mercy Ship — a kind of floating hospital offering free medical care to the world’s poorest nations — headed for Liberia, a country with no public electricity, running water or sewage and recently ravaged by a four-year civil war. There, he documented hundreds (if not thousands) of people suffering from the kinds of medical conditions we don’t have to think about in the West: cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid. Otherwise benign facial tumors that had grown so large they were literally suffocating their owners to death.

One young woman had to cover her head in public because people on the street would hurl stones, believing her tumor to be the physical embodiment of a spiritual curse. She’d lived this way for years before a surgeon aboard the Mercy Ship was able to remove the tumor in less than an hour (let that sink in: less than an hour). Harrison’s pre-surgery portrait, showing a face obscured by a growth the size of an orange, did most of the heavy lifting as far as breaking my heart was concerned; an image of the young woman’s post-surgery smile finished the job.

As Harrison quickly learned, these people were suffering so terribly due to a lack of clean drinking water. More images: A young boy lowering a bucket into a mud-brown pond. Dozens of women crowding around a spring in the middle of a field, each one standing ankle deep in manure. A microscope slide showing water alive with bacteria.

Without clean water, people got sick. Without access to healthcare, they didn’t get better. Harrison felt it was his responsibility to do something.

So he founded charity: water.

Thanks in part to a donation model that directs 100% of contributions to those in need (operational costs are covered by private gifts), charity: water has funded 28,389 water projects in 26 countries over the last 12 years. That translates to clean, safe water for 8,236,681 people.

Those numbers are impressive, but numbers aren’t always moving. As Harrison reminded me — and everyone else in that airplane hanger of a room — stories are.

As he continued his presentation, he told us about Letikiros, a girl in Ethiopia who hiked miles to fetch water for her village. On her return journey one day, she tripped, breaking her clay vessel and spilling those few precious gallons. Rather than face the people who had depended on that water, she chose to take her own life.

He told us about another girl, nine-year-old Rachel from Seattle, who asked that, for her birthday, friends and relatives donate to charity: water. About a month after raising $220, Rachel was killed in a car accident. But the news of her birthday wish spread online, and people around the world continued to donate — ultimately raising $1.2M.

He told us about Helen Apio, a Ugandan woman who, until a well was drilled near her home, always saved what little clean water she could gather for her family — never for herself. Now she could wash her clothes and bathe herself. Now she felt beautiful.

These stories, often accompanied by photos and videos, made me feel like I had to do something. We were in this together, after all, weren’t we? Me and all these people at the convention center and everybody across the world who still desperately needed clean water so that they could live healthy, dignified lives?

By the end of the keynote, I felt connected to a larger purpose that extended well beyond the confines of the convention center. That’s the power of good storytelling. If I have a point to make here, I suppose that’s it: Stories are important. They have the power to change people, to snap them out of cynicism and moral laziness — to motivate real action. If you want to make an impact, if your organization wants to make an impact, find the stories that matter and tell them. Others will be compelled to do the same (I’m the proof).

And while I have you: Consider donating to charity: water. Or pre-ordering Scott Harrison’s new book, Thirst. Since 100% of the proceeds will support his organization, you’ll help fund a water project that saves lives.