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How Voluntourism Creates Movements

charity water

We’re a huge admirer of charity:water and have been raving about them for their simple yet life-changing mission to bring clean drinking water to people in developing nations and for their marketing and fundraising prowess. We love founder, Scott Harrison’s story even more because the seeds that spawned this whole movement were planted from a volunteer tourism trip.  We’re seeing, in real-time, the far reaching effects of voluntourism. In two years, charity:water has raised over $7 million and funded 1,247 water projects in 14 countries around the world.  You can viewed all the completed wells with Google Earth.

So how did this all get started? Read Scott’s account of his amazing journey of personal transformation and get inspired to consider how your travels can make a difference!

scottselfportIn 2004, I left the streets of New York City for the shores of West Africa. I’d made my living for years in the big Apple promoting top nightclubs and fashion events, for the most part living selfishly and arrogantly. Desperately unhappy, I needed to change. Faced with spiritual bankruptcy, I wanted desperately to revive a lost Christian faith with action and asked the question: What would the opposite of my life look like?

I signed up for volunteer service aboard a floating hospital with a group called Mercy Ships, a humanitarian organization which offered free medical care in the world’s poorest nations. Operating on surgery ships, they’d built a 25-year track record of astonishing results yet I’d never heard of them.

Top doctors and surgeons from all over the world left their practices and fancy lives to operate for free on thousands who had no access to medical care. I soon found the organization to be full of remarkable people. The chief medical officer was a surgeon who left Los Angeles to volunteer for two weeks – 23 years ago. He never looked or went back. I took the position of ship photojournalist, and immediately traveled to Africa. At first, being the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court felt strange. I traded my spacious midtown loft for a 150-square-foot cabin with bunk beds, roommates and cockroaches. Fancy restaurants were replaced by a mess hall feeding 400+ Army style. A prince in New York, now I was living in close community with 350 others. I felt like a pauper.

But once off the ship, I realized how good I really had it. In new surroundings, I was utterly astonished at the poverty that came into focus through my camera lens. Often through tears, I documented life and human suffering I’d thought unimaginable. In West Africa, I was a prince again. A king, in fact. A man with a bed and clean running water and food in my stomach.

I fell in love with Liberia – a country with no public electricity, running water or sewage – Spending time in a leper colony and many remote villages, I put a face to the world’s 1.2 billion living in poverty. Those living on less than $365 a year – money I used to blow on a bottle of Grey Goose vodka at a fancy club. Before tip.

Our medical staff would hold patient intake “screenings” and thousands would wait in line to be seen, many afflicted with deformities. I learned many of these medical conditions also existed here in the west, but were taken care of – never allowed to progress. The amount of blind people without access to the 20-minute cataract surgery that could restore their sight astonished me – all part of this new world.

Over the next eight months, I met patients who taught me the meaning of courage. Many of them had been slowly suffocating to death for years and yet pressing on. Praying, hoping, surviving. It was an honor to photograph them. It was an honor to know them.

For me, charity is practical. It’s sometimes easy, more often inconvenient, but always necessary. It’s the ability to use one’s position of influence, relative wealth and power to affect lives for the better. charity is singular and achievable.

There’s a biblical parable about a man beaten near death by robbers. He’s stripped naked and lying roadside. Most people pass him by, but one man stops. He picks him up and bandages his wounds. He puts him on his horse and walks alongside until they reach an inn. He checks him in and throws down his Amex. “Whatever he needs until he gets better.”

Because he could.

The dictionary defines charity as simply the act of giving voluntarily to those in need. It’s taken from the word “caritas,” or simply, love. In Colossians 3, the Bible instructs readers to “put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”

Although I’m still not sure what that means, I love the idea. To wear charity.

– Scott Harrison, 2006
excerpt from charity:water

Charity:water holiday giving campaign is launching today. Each year Americans spend about $450 billion celebrating the holidays. Consider these alternative holiday gifts that bring clean water to people in need.

photo credit: charity:water

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  • GotPassport said:

    what an incredible and inspiring story! thanks so much for sharing.

  • travelanthropist (author) said:

    glad to share. definitely awe-inspiring! traveling really let you see first hand the dire conditions some people live under everyday that no television images could ever capture.

  • Kelly Galaski said:

    super inspiring, and super impressive. That’s a lot of money and a lot of projects in a short time. Kudos to you!!

  • Josh said:

    Hey there,

    Thanks for this excellent background on charity:water and its founder. A lot of us over on the website I help out with, nextstop.com, are huge proponents of traveling responsibly. We share our travel experiences usually in exchange for offsetting carbon in our atmosphere or raising money for charity. This holiday season we’ve launched an initiative to donate enough so that charity:water can build a new well for people in need. If you’re interested, you can read more over on our site:



  • travelanthropist (author) said:

    it’s great what you’re doing this holiday to get a new well build. you guys are doing some great stuff with nextstop.com

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