As Scott Harrison launched his nonprofit charity: water, he threw a birthday party for himself at New York City nightclub in 2006.
It was a scene he knew well: He had spent 10 years living a hedonistic lifestyle while promoting clubs in the city.
Seven hundred people turned out, and each had to donate $20 upon entry.
That money was used to rehabilitate a number of wells at a refugee camp in northern Uganda, where 30,000 people had been sharing one well. For the overwhelming majority of the population, a polluted lake was the primary source of water.
"We sent the photos and GPS coordinates and video back to the 700 people who came to the birthday party," he said. "And we said, you came, you gave $20 and here is the change that you made possible. Here is the proof. And we got such amazing feedback from that, we said let's just build this into the business model. Let's just try to create feedback loops and connect people to the impact of their dollars - the clean water that they were making possible across the world."
Charity: water went on to mobilize more than one million individual donors to fund more than 59,000 water projects in 29 countries that when completed will serve more than 11.6 million people. The organization has raised nearly $500 million.
Harrison spoke to a virtual audience Tuesday night as the Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Speaker, which is part of Old Dominion University's President's Lecture Series.
"Scott Harrison saw the effects of dirty water first-hand and turned his full attention to the global water crisis," President John R. Broderick said in presenting Harrison with the 2021 Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award.
Before launching his charity, Harrison spent two years volunteering as a photojournalist in Liberia with Mercy Ships, which operates the largest non-governmental hospital ships in the world.
"In that second tour, I learned that the dirty water people were drinking in the villages was what was making so many people sick," he said, calling that the major reason for half of the disease in the country.
That inspired him to want to "bring clean water to everyone on Earth."
It's a daunting task. An estimated 785 million people - 1 in 10 in the world - lack access to clean water.
But he says attacking the problem "is an inarguable common good."
"Whether you are religious, or whether religion is anathema to you, whether you're conservative or liberal, regardless of what you might believe about any issue, you can build a really big tent and a really big diverse community that can stand for clean water," he said.
Every dollar raised from the public by charity: water is devoted to water projects; the money to cover the organization's overhead comes from other sources. It also utilizes technology to show people where their money goes and the impact it has. He called it the "most hyper-transparent charity the world had ever seen."
Though much remains to be done, Harrison is optimistic.
"We have the amazing honor ... to work every day for human flourishing. To work every day to get people the most basic need around the world," he said, noting that nearly 5,000 more people are getting access to clean water every day because of charity: water's efforts.
"As we look ahead, I really believe the best is yet to come."
The President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring renowned speakers who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, offering an international lineup of authors and educators, business innovators and political figures.
The annual Wallenberg Lecture is sponsored by the Marc and Connie Jacobson Philanthropic Foundation. Speakers for the Wallenberg Lecture are chosen by the University. They must be humanitarians - those who are "making the world a better place" - balanced in their philosophical beliefs, and not at either extreme of the social spectrum.