I found Thirst an fascinating autobiography. Remarkable is the author's turn from a successful club promoter in New York – and a lifestyle with drugs, alcohol, and models – into first becoming a volunteer for Mercy Ships in Africa and afterwards becoming the founder of a charity, with no experience and no money. The author is also very open about all the mistakes he made along the way, giving the book a very authentic touch.
Bacardi and Budweiser each paid me $2,000 a month just to be seen drinking their brands in public.
[...] somewhere along the way, the sameness of nightlife – booze, drugs, girls, repeat – made me restless. I wanted change, and the more things stayed the same, the more booze, drugs, and girls I'd needed to force my mind and body to show up for work with a smile.
Just start over, I'd think to myself. Do something different with your life. But I was too numb to make a move. And what would I do, anyway? You don't just leave nightlife and become a successful doctor or lawyer or banker. I felt trapped in the shallow end of the pool. And so, every night, I'd snort another line of cocaine and pass the rolled-up bill to another pretty girl and think to myself, This is not who I am. This is not who I want to be. This is not how I thought my life would turn out.
"Wishy-Washy, Twinkly-Twinkly Piano, Soft-Rock American Garbage"
Lord Scott Harrison
Nightclub promoting is an unusual occupation. You don't own the brick and mortar, and you don't pay the liquor and electricity bills. It's asset-light, so to speak. At high-end venues like Lotus, there are two categories of promoter. Filler promoters, or "subs", pack the place with ordinary paying customers and make it look busy. I was the other kind of promoter, an image promoter, tasked with upholding Lotus's status as the coolest club in Manhattan. Image promoters bring in the people whom the rest of the room wants to look like.
For years, I'd been pursuing the wrong things – from the BMW I'd bought as a teenager to the designer clothes I now wore, to the drugs I took and the hip cities I bragged about visiting. But where had it left me? With a numb body, a drug habit, and fingernails bitten down to ugly nubs. I'd been partying with some of the richest people I'd ever known, guys who'd gamble $10,000 on a hand of blackjack while looking indifferent as to whether they'd win or lose. I'd watched middle-aged men torch their marriages so they could date girls younger than their own daughters, only to see those relationships fall apart, too. And I'd enabled and curated all of it in the name of fun and money.
The only charitable act I could remember performing as an adult was throwing a party with Brantly for a nonprofit called New York Cares. We slapped the group's logo on our invitation and promised to donate a percentage of the door money. But when it came time to turn over the cash, we decided to give New York Cares a grand total of 1 percent. And I'm not sure we even followed through. I felt ashamed at who I'd become.
Seven months after vowing to get out of nightlife, I was going in deeper. On the surface, it was business as usual, but underneath I raged against myself, ashamed at my lack of courage.
I was shocked. For so long, I'd been living like I didn't care what happened to me. But now that someone else wanted me dead, life suddenly felt precious.
Focus on the Hope
A New Day
Patient Number One
When you're packed into a tight space with the same group of people, sharing three meals a day, and going through the same intense experiences together, relationships accelerate at warp speed. Friendships that might take years to develop on land happen within weeks on a ship.
"Action, Not Words"
"They Drink This?
I couldn't believe it. The water was disgusting. I didn't even want to touch it. And the people here were drinking it? I honestly hadn't understood water poverty before. It had been one thing to hear Lafe talk about people drinking bad water, but seeing it up close made me angry.
There was no worse time to ask for money. How could I even talk about the suffering of people thousands of miles away while 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater?
Better to Beg
Sometimes, when you want something, all you need to do is ask.
If it was really true – if half of all illnesses could be traced to bad water, then what could I do to help solve that problem?
No Strings Attached
If you'd asked me a few years earlier what I'd be doing on my thirty-first birthday, the answer certainly wouldn't have been "Oh you know, just trying to save the world". But now, as cliché and naïve and idealistic as it sounds, that's exactly what I wanted to do. I loved the feeling I got when my own small acts visibly changed lives.
I was planning to start a world-changing charity. How was I supposed to do that in a two-bedroom SoHo loft with bill collectors at the door and Brantly's friends coming by to snort drugs off the coffee table? How could I ask people to give me money for a cause when I owed $40,000 in back taxes?
[...] unlike cancer, malaria, and other problems that have sent thousands of smart people searching frantically for a cure – dirty water already has a cure. It's a completely solvable problem. Very often, clean water is already there, even in the poorest of villages, flowing like liquid gold in aquifers just beneath people's feet.
I had no seed money or personal savings to draw on, but I was willing to work day and night and do whatever it would take to get this thing off the ground. I wanted to start helping as many people as possible, as quickly as I could.
Nonprofits for Dummies
We had no cash, but plenty of energy and way too much confidence for two people with zero experience running a charity. It felt like we were building a start-up.
In the beginning, we spent most of our money on photo/video gear and trips to Africa – and most of our time creating videos and writing stories. Conventional wisdom says that you don't start a charity by prioritizing content, but I believed we needed compelling stories about real people who were drinking bad water. Without them, there would be nothing to talk about, nothing to inspire donors to care or give.
I made a vow that every single dollar charity: water raised from the public would be spent creating clean water projects built by local partners in the recipient countries. We called this our 100 percent model, meaning that all public donations would go directly to the field. I opened a second bank account, designating one for overhead expenses and one for water projects. I wasn't sure how we'd fund the overhead account, but I knew that the 100 percent model was crucial to our vision of reinventing charity – and reestablishing trust. To show how serious we were about the 100 percent model, I promised to also refund credit card fees.
Not only would we promise that all public donations would go to the field, we'd show everyone exactly where and how their money was used. When someone made a donation, we'd tag it to a specific project, such as a well or a water purification system in a designated region. Then, when the project was complete, we'd send them proof: photos, GPS satellite images, sometimes even videos.
The third pillar – and this was key – was that our branding needed to inspire people. When I looked at other charities for inspiration, I always came up empty. It seemed like most of them used tools of shame and guilt to motivate people into giving. [...] I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to build an optimistic, imaginative, hopeful organization that people would donate to because they felt empowered and inspired – not because we'd guilted them into it.
People always ask how we scored so many wins early on and what my process was for turning a no into a yes. Truthfully, the nos stayed nos most of the time. [...] But I simply asked so many people that eventually I gathered enough yeses to get things done.
Born in September
Running on Empty
As much as I believed in our 100 percent model, it was hard to get people excited to write checks for our salaries and rent. Charity: water was like a sleek, fuel-efficient race car, zooming around the track for the second year with fans cheering us on. If only they knew we were running on empty, about to flame out.
Actions, Not Words
Our failure video, as I called it, became a defining moment in charity: water's history. I knew that the only way we could reestablish the public's trust in charity was if we talked openly about our mistakes, and that video cemented charity: water's commitment to radical transparency.
Admitting mistakes in a very public way is hard to do. But I respected our donors too much to whitewash our failure in Moale. For many of them, we were their first encounter with a charity of any kind.
In 2011, charity: water turned five. If you only read the press back then, you'd have thought we were a hotshot start-up that was disrupting the traditional philanthropy model. [...] But in reality? We were hardworking novices who figured it out as we went along. I was a flawed founder who prayed constantly for guidance. And, frankly, we were still hustling to get attention, still struggling to raise money, still putting out fires.
Looking back on our early years, I always thought of charity: water as a start-up. And yet, I'd never even worked in a real office before. I had no clue what a start-up was actually like, much less what a CEO was supposed to do all day [...].
Despite our incredible growth, I still micromanaged my staff and obsessed over every detail, from the wording in our emails to the moment-by-moment traffic on our website. The organization had matured exponentially, but my leadership style hadn't.
Sure, I could tell my story to five thousand people in a conference hall, bring the audience to tears, and get them excited about giving money for clean water – but when I got back to the office, I was a terrible manager. Holding employees accountable, making organizational decisions, running meetings, hiring people – I didn't enjoy doing any of these things, and it showed.
I spent over a decade looking out for no one else but myself before I figured out that giving to others brought the greatest joy.
People around the world were donating money for clean water all because a little girl from Seattle had believed that everyone around the world deserved life's most basic need. This was the reinvention of charity I'd dreamed of. This was a global movement of compassion, spreading in real time across the planet. It blew my mind. A child was truly changing the world with a single act of selflessness.
Rachel's campaign closed on September 30, 2011, with 31,997 donations. Tens of thousands of people, most of them strangers, gave a total of $1,265,823 to make her birthday wish come true.
Dirty Brown Laundry
With No One Looking Over Your Shoulder
We'd been the cool charity on the block, beloved by the press, by celebrities and sponsors. But I had to accept that we couldn't please everyone. I had to stop worrying about whether everyone liked us. What mattered were our core values and our impact in the field.
Just Keep Going
[...] when you're spending hours upon hours crammed into Land Rovers and airplane seats next to your coworkers, they'd better be people you like.
All the Sound Bites Are True
Chief Water Boy
And while child-sponsorship programs are pretty good about providing regular updates, most monthly giving programs are notoriously bad about it. Once you sign, and your automatic payments start rolling in, you get ghosted. All communication ceases. Too many charities follow a "set it and forget it" model, where they hope that you won't notice the money leaving your bank account for theirs, month after month. I wanted us to do the exact opposite. Instead of ignoring our donors, we could intentionally remind them of their generosity. Regularly thank them. Recognize them. Tell them how grateful we were.
Someone Like You
[...] I thought about how dramatically my perspective had changed over the last ten years. There was a time when my mother's illness felt like such a burden. Now I saw it as a gift. It taught me that [...] I could endure pain, try harder, and find solutions where others saw only problems. I used to look back at the decade I spent in the clubs with shame and disgust. But I've realized that those experiences gave me skills (making people feel included, special, and united around a joyful experience) that I still use every day.
You Are Invited
Even if you think your past might disqualify you from a better future, I promise you, it's never too late to make a change. One day, you'll look back, connect the dots, and see how your past was a necessary part of the journey.