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Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, known as “The Minimalists” to their 4 million readers, help people live more meaningful lives with less through their website, books, podcast, and documentary. As featured on: ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, BBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME, and The Atlantic.

Giving My 31st Birthday to Charity

Listen. Can you hear those kazoos? I turned 31 today (October 23, 2012). But this is not another list of things I’ve learned over my lifetime. Rather, this is me pleading for a few thousand dollars worth of birthday gifts. Sort of.

I’m inspired by a lot of things, but the most inspired I’ve been lately was at Chris Guillebeau’s WDS, a 1000-person event at which Millburn and I spoke alongside our friend Joshua Becker. One of the event’s keynote speakers, Scott Harrison, spoke about the tumult of his early twenties, a time in which he partied endlessly, drank heavily, took drugs frequently, and did everything a stereotypical out-of-control twentysomething does. He was a popular guy. Very popular in fact. He was a fixture in all the cool social circles. Everyone—well, everyone who was anyone in NYC—knew who he was. But Scott’s solipsistic lifestyle spiraled him into near oblivion, which eventually left him alone and empty inside.

After hitting rock bottom, Scott paused and thought hard about how to change his life. Long story short: He gave up drugs and alcohol. Then he decided to give a year of his life to charity. After years of parasitic behavior, he wanted to contribute beyond himself and add value where the need was great. He headed to Africa.

In Ethiopia, Scott was tasked with taking photographs for doctors who were volunteering to help remove large-growth tumors from people’s faces. Scott witnessed unimaginable things. Real pain. Real suffering. Disease. His pictures were surreal: 7,000 tumor-stricken people wrapped around the stadium in which the doctors performed their surgeries. The tumors were massive. Beyond belief. Flesh-eating diseases. Cleft palets. Blindness. Chunks of people’s faces were missing as they gurgled and choked on their own malignant growths. Disease was everywhere. But why?

Within his first hour on the job, Scott was so overwhelmed that he had to walk away, cry in a corner, and then go back to his post with the doctors. On his way back to the stadium he noticed a few natives gathering filthy water from a puddle, and he asked his guide what they were doing. The guide explained that this was the only water to which they had access. They bathed, drank, cooked, and cleaned their clothes with this filthy water. “No wonder there’s so much disease here,” Scott said.

Inspired to make a difference, Scott knew he had to do something. He started a nonprofit organization and called it Charity Water. He began looking for donations. It was a rough start. He found that people didn’t want to donate money, mainly because they were uncertain where their money went whenever they donated to charities  Scott revamped his business and developed the 100% model, wherein 100% of the organization’s operating expenses are paid by a small group well-off donors (i.e., a few rich guys keep the lights on), while people like you and me see 100% of our donations go directly towards drilling wells and providing clean drinking water to people in need. Yes, 100% of the money donated to Charity Water goes directly towards helping people. And it’s all trackable down to the donor level. Brilliant!

And then Scott had another brilliant idea: he wanted to give up his 31st birthday for charity. Instead of people purchasing material gifts he didn’t need, he asked them to donate money towards this fund. So far he’s raised over $10 million and has helped more than 1 million people get clean water. There is, however, still 800 million people in the world without clean water. The story gets braver and better, but I digress. (Watch Scott’s video if you want to learn more.)

So, here’s my plea to anyone who’d like to give me something on my birthday:

We take for granted so much in this world. Clean water is one of those things. What most people don’t realize is that dirty water is responsible for more deaths than all violent acts combined, including deaths from war. We are fortunate to have water, we are fortunate to have the Internet, we are just fortunate. Let’s pay it forward.

I’d like to raise at least $5,000 for Charity Water for my birthday (Update October 26, 2012—I reached my goal! If you still want to contribute you can until December 31, 2012). You can wish me a happy 31st by taking action now: donate $31 (or $310 or any amount) at my personal Charity Water page. Remember: 100% of our donations go directly towards getting people access to water. Thus, when we reach this goal, we’ll bring clean water to 250 people. Together we can radically improve a few hundred lives on my birthday.

I’m going to send a personalized postcard from Montana to anyone who donates at least $31. Simply forward me your donation-confirmation email and include your mailing address. Email: [email protected]

I’m in. Are you willing to help?

UPDATE 1/23/2013: We did it! Thank you all for your contributions. Together we we raised over $5,000, which is going to make a huge difference for hundreds of people. How awesome is that!

UPDATE 10/23/2014: Two years ago we raised $5,536 for my birthday, which has been put to good use in Cambodia over the past two years: we brought clean water to the Snao School, which serves 322 people, and the Reang Community, serving 270 people. Thank you all for your support.