The Fifth Avenue apartment offered a fine and high-priced view of Central Park, lush with May greenery.
The living room boasted contemporary art, billowy flowers from L’Olivier Floral Atelier and about two dozen women linked by their spouses or friends to Wall Street and banking.
Amid them stood Scott Harrison, 37, founder of Charity: Water, presenter of slideshows and indefatigable pitchman for his ambitious goal: giving 100 million poor people clean water in the next decade.
“I had two too many drinks, and I ended up buying two wells for a village in Tanzania,” joked Dana Auslander, the reception’s host and a former managing director at hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners LLC, whose charity work began with microfinance projects.
Harrison, a onetime party planner who sold bottles of Grey Goose vodka for $350 at his events, built the water organization by appealing to young people. His savvy use of social media helped Water attract more than 1 million Twitter followers. Then word spread to celebrities, such as Will Smith, his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Adrian Grenier.
Water’s budget grew from about $553,000 in 2006 to $33 million last year. Harrison said he expects to raise $40 million this year.
Auslander helps him connect with potential Wall Street patrons. For her 40th birthday, she asked friends to make a donation to the nonprofit instead of giving her gifts. Those that pitched in included Tony James, president of Blackstone Group LP (BX), where she used to work; portfolio manager Darren Myers at Perella Weinberg Partners LP; and James McGinnis of Halcyon Investments Inc.
A painting by Marilyn Minter faded from view as the lights dimmed for Harrison’s slideshow. After pursuing a “very selfish and arrogant lifestyle” through his 20s, he said he took a job photographing the work of Mercy Ships, which offers medical care to the poor. Some of the listeners gasped as Harrison showed a man with a cantaloupe-sized tumor spilling out his mouth.
In Africa, Harrison saw that most people were drinking dirty water, sometimes infested with leeches.
“Every time this woman would take a drink of water, she would throw up on herself,” Harrison said, while showing her picture. “We took the water to a lab at Rockefeller University, put it under a microscope, and they said, ‘This water is alive.’”
Donors can see how their money is being used by viewing well projects with Google (GOOG) Maps. At the end of the presentation, many of the listeners came to him and asked how they could become involved.
“This presentation was more moving than any event I’ve been to in 15 years,” said Amy Raiter, a project manager for store design at Ralph Lauren Corp. (RL) in New York. “This is the root of humanity.”
Jewelry designer Jennifer Miller, who donated $500 to Water before hearing Harrison, said she was riveted by his presentation.
“Water is my drink of choice, so I said to myself I’m going to write a check because it’s about water,” said Miller, who owns boutiques in New York, the Hamptons and Palm Beach. “What I’m thinking about now is how I can make a gathering like this happen again. I wish all my friends were here to see what I saw.”
Editors: Jeffrey Burke, Lili Rosboch.
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