Water.org
Gary White
Co-Founder & CEO
"When our partners fully trust and rely upon us as the subject matter experts, we find the way forward smoother and the path to impact shorter."

How did you first become interested in the water and sanitation (WASH) crisis?

I’m an engineer by training. Technology and the challenge of problem-solving are as exciting to me as they are for the people who spend their lives building bridges, rockets and smartphones. During graduate school, I took a trip to the slums of Guatemala. While there, I encountered a very different kind of problem. The clean water, plumbing and even basic sanitation I took for granted back home in the United States was nowhere to be found. The people who lived there paid an enormous price for its absence: it crippled them economically, devastated their health and life expectancy, and robbed them of their most basic human dignity.

What I saw was wrong, and I was compelled to act. As I studied to get to the root of the problem, it became clear to me that this would become my life’s work. Because access to safe water is essential to health, prosperity and life itself, I decided to apply my training, my knowledge and my passion to solving the water crisis.

How did you become a person who is clearly purpose driven or committed to giving back? Was it something your parents taught you? Was it something you learned in school? Was there a moment when you remember learning the lesson of giving back or was it more of an evolution?

I became a person committed to giving back largely through the example set by my parents. They truly lived their lives for others, both for their children and the wider community. I have been fortunate enough to find a path that allows me to expand the community I can serve to the global level. I attended a Christian Brothers high school and my teachers there also helped instill in me a drive for social justice and a desire to look beyond the borders of our own country. This all came together for me when I realized that there was a powerful intersection between my desire to pursue engineering and my desire to help people gain access to safe water and sanitation.

Are there any particularly inspiring success stories from the past year that you want to share that would be especially relevant to a business audience?

With water and sanitation, families are enabled to elevate their entire standard of living. Those of us at Water.org see women who are freed from the need to wait in long queues or scavenge for water, those of us at Water.org see women taking jobs, starting businesses and taking classes.

One story I can share that illustrates this well is about a woman named Shakila. Shakila and her husband, Pitchamuthu, live in a rural village in South India. After finishing his college degree and marrying Shakila, it was not Pitchamuthu’s plan to live with family. Work was difficult to find, however, so the couple moved in with Pitchamuthu’s aunt and uncle and worked for their livestock business. Because they raise many goats and cows, the family required water for themselves and for the animals. During rainy seasons, it was easier to care for the livestock as canals and ponds were full of water. During the dry months, however, the family struggled. Shakila and her aunt would collect water from the public tap and hand pumps. They spent three to four hours a day carrying 40 pots of water home.

One day, Shakila met representatives from Water.org’s partner, SCOPE. They explained the benefits of taking out a small loan to establish a tap at Shakila’s home. She shared this program with her husband and his family. Together, they agreed this would benefit them and the livestock, so the family took out a WaterCredit loan. The amount was small enough that they could easily repay it in monthly installments.

Soon, construction was complete and the family had access to water on their property. Thrilled with the benefits of running water, they now plan to purchase a storage tank for holding extra water. Shakila shared that this was one of the best things that could have ever happened to her.

Water.org is fortunate enough to have some strong and supportive corporate partners–Cartier, Caterpillar, PepsiCo and IKEA – just to name just a few. While we realize you highly value all of your corporate partners, can you speak about just one and tell us what makes that particular partnership so strong? What has this corporate partner done right? What lessons can other corporations—especially those that are eager to begin forming strategic alliances with organizations like yours—take away from this example?

All of our partners are key contributors to our success for a variety of reasons. Each serves a unique role in working to solve the water crisis. For instance, the PepsiCo Foundation was our first corporate partner willing to help us truly scale WaterCredit. The Caterpillar Foundation got behind our programs in India in a powerful way and is a part of our expansion into the Philippines and Peru. The Cartier Charitable Foundation has been an invaluable partner in our work in Haiti.

For the purposes of this exchange, I will go a little deeper into our partnership with IKEA Foundation. IKEA is a great example of a corporate partner that is changing the way it looks at philanthropy. The leadership at IKEA has pushed beyond their past paradigm in giving to embrace a new and impactful way forward by supporting innovation. Funding innovation is nearly impossible if a foundation tries to fit a grant for a new idea (or a new market) into existing granting frameworks. IKEA actively encourages us to experiment. Experimentation with a new idea involves creating a brand-new set of success indicators. Together, IKEA and Water.org are launching WaterCredit in Bangladesh and we are exploring potential relationships with a broader set of local partners, including product manufacturers, utility companies and commercial financial institutions. Additionally, the IKEA Foundation is helping drive the growth of our portfolio in Brazil, Ethiopia and Indonesia. IKEA has joined Water.org on the journey as a committed partner supporting long-term, sustainable and replicable solutions.

I think many NGOs would like to see institutional philanthropy break free from doing things the way they have always been done. Doing what we have always done will get us what we have always gotten, so it is critical that we break ground on new methods if we are to solve the water crisis and other global issues.

We imagine that, along the way, there have been corporate partnerships that were not as effective. What, in your opinion, caused some of those partnerships to flounder? What could Water.org have done differently? What could that corporate partner have done differently? What were the big lessons learned?

It is essential that we, as grantees, understand the relationship between the foundation and the core business. We must take the time to understand our strategic partners’ objectives and how to help them get there.

Foundation teams can change overnight, so it is critical to build on momentum. For instance, when you have an opportunity to pitch for a big next step for a partnership, don’t wait. It takes a lot of time and energy to build a solid relationship with a new team and that is time lost when we could be saving lives.

We have also found that site visits are an important element in helping a potential partner “catch the vision.” Providing strategic donors with the opportunity to see our work and impact on the ground—and meet our local partners and beneficiaries—is invaluable when looking to build a long-term partnership. It helps us create a solid foundation built with trust—trust born out of firsthand experience.

When our partners fully trust and rely upon us as the subject matter experts, we find the way forward smoother and the path to impact shorter. It sometimes happens that a reporting matrix used by a corporate partner in the past does not provide an effective, realistic or meaningful measure of success. A willingness to explore evaluation tools and shift away from an old format that no longer works can make a huge difference in the longevity of a partnership.

Today's young people are very attuned to social and environmental issues. If a recent college graduate were reading this Q&A, what would you say to this person to encourage him/her to pursue a cause he/she cares about? What do you wish you had known when you were starting out?

One thing today’s youth seem very aware of is the total connectivity that exists. They understand, at a deep level, that what impacts a family in Kenya, ripples through the system and eventually impacts us all to some degree. The idea of being a global citizen has never been stronger. We have found young people to be a sophisticated and exacting part of our grassroots base. They align with causes that speak to them, not brands or catchphrases.

Now, more than ever, we have time and energy surpluses that can be used in collaboration with like-minded people to solve the world’s problems. I tell the university audiences I am often fortunate enough to address to find the intersection between their passion and the world’s greatest needs. I encourage them to keep their minds open to the possibility that solutions may come from unlikely sources.

How do we need to rethink our relationship with water (and access to sanitation) as we move into the 21st century?

We all need to recognize that water underpins everything. In industrialized countries, water access is so completely accepted as a natural part of life that it has become nearly invisible to us and we do not see that water is involved in everything we do. We use water for washing, cooking, cleaning and growing our food. The clothes we wear are manufactured using water. Can you think of anything that does not depend on water at some level, in some way? Even the people we love are 60 percent water and cannot live a week without drinking it. In our abundance, we forget.

We've heard that Water.org functions very differently from the typical nonprofit. Can you explain? How does Water.org operate differently—and, more importantly, why does Water.org operate differently?"

Water.org is thoughtfully explorative in nature. We created our own venture fund—a pool of catalytic philanthropy—which enables us to take risks when it comes to testing new solutions. We deliberately combine for-profit minds with international development expertise so we can think orthogonally and find solutions in places not traditionally looked at by nonprofit organizations. We have invested in finding new financing mechanisms, community engagement tools, and other potential solutions, which, if never tested, would have held us back from innovating beyond traditional charity models. Our mindful exploration brought us to creating a solution, WaterCredit, which yields strong impact numbers, is scalable, is shareable and has brought the concept of ROI to solving a global issue.

WaterCredit puts microfinance tools to work in the water and sanitation sector by connecting individuals and communities in developing countries with financial institutions. The individuals and communities obtain small loans for water and sanitation solutions. We began to explore microfinance as a solution when it became clear that charity alone would not solve the water and sanitation crisis. By venturing into microfinance as a solution for water and sanitation needs, we found that financial inclusion of those living in poverty has a ripple effect that projects into sustainable growth for a community, a country and a region.

Bottom line, we refuse to take no for an answer. If we find a barrier, we don’t stop until we find a way over, around or under it. Why? Because I believe we can and will solve the water and sanitation crisis in my lifetime.

The theme of this year's report is "the power of participation." Does this phrase resonate with you, your colleagues and your corporate partners? If so, how?

At Water.org, we embrace the “power of participation” in its magnificent ability to multiply impact. It is the foundation of our efforts to solve the global water crisis. It is what makes our solutions sustainable in each community and in each home. We are committed to developing solutions that most effectively and efficiently respond to the specific needs of each community. And to do so, the community or individual in need must be involved and empowered. We see people in need differently. Water.org views the nearly one billion people who are living and dying for water access as customers with rights, responsibilities, financial power and the energy to design their own futures. We see Water.org as a catalyst—creating solutions with, and through, these individuals.

We deliver our portfolio of demand-driven solutions through carefully screened, certified local partner organizations who best understand the unique needs of the communities we serve. From project planning to construction and financing, our local partners are completely engaged. The result is sustainable solutions tailored to the needs of each community.

The power of participation also works to raise awareness of the water crisis and generate money to fund solutions. We rely on individuals to spread the word about the water crisis by donating their voice to the cause. When you “donate your voice," you agree to leverage your social networks to help others become more aware of the challenges associated with not having access to safe water. Once you sign up, Water.org automatically posts content about the water crisis to your Facebook and/or Twitter timeline. This amplifies our voice and the voices of those in need of safe water. We also encourage people to actively participate in raising money. Instead of making a donation, start a fund-raiser. With the tools we provide at http://give.water.org, we empower others to use their influence to change the world.

What are Water.org’s goals for the year ahead? What is next for the organization?

We want to continue working with philanthropists and philanthropic organizations and corporations to give people in need access to safe water. We have been very successful with support from the PepsiCo Foundation, Caterpillar Foundation, IKEA Foundation, and Cartier Charitable Foundation—and a number of other corporate foundations. We want to continue to leverage that philanthropy to reach more and more people with safe water through programs like WaterCredit. We have reached more than 1.2 million people with WaterCredit and the loans are being repaid at a rate of 99 percent.

From there, we want to get smart about other ways we facilitate access to safe water. We want to take the experience we have gained and the success we’ve had and invite others to follow that path. Specifically, we want other organizations to adopt the ideas supporting WaterCredit and replicate them. We want to share the philosophy, the tools and the learning platforms so that they can do it themselves and reach more people than we could ever reach alone.

Gary White