About Getting Involved
Every community that does not have water deserves water. This is an enormous problem in every poor country.
One of the first things we look for when we’re deciding whom to help next is a local partner organization. These are non-governmental organizations that have proven their ability to undertake sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene-education projects.
Having a partner there is key to ensuring these projects last for the long haul. Through extensive research, we have found excellent partners, and working consistently with and through them has tremendous benefits, including:
- Sustainability. Our partner organizations are comprised of professionals – professional engineers, hydrologists, public health workers, and community organizers – who are from that area. The sustainability of our projects is dependent upon their expertise in organizing and training the communities to take responsibility for the project once it is completed. There is no guarantee that there is a highly competent organization able to carry out sustainable work in Community X where you may have a close personal connection. We believe that those people are best served if we can demonstrate a sound approach to project implementation and establish that as a model for all organizations to follow. If funders are proficient at channeling resources to organizations doing the best work, more highly qualified organizations will materialize and meet the need.
- Stability. Maintaining and increasing the capacity of the organization – investing in good in-country organizations and making them better. Typically, international aid organizations do not provide consistent funding; it’s feast or famine. It’s difficult to grow an organization if you can’t count on consistent funding. The organization may receive a grant and begin to develop a strong program, only to reach the end of a 3-year or 5-year contract that does not get renewed. The unfortunate consequence is that the organization must reduce its staffing levels. This means they lose the expertise they have developed and are no longer the same effective organization they were when the next round of funding materializes.
Efficiency and effectiveness. Working with specific partners makes the follow up and monitoring of projects more efficient and effective – you can evaluate past, current, and future projects all in one visit. Rather than jumping from partner to partner, from country to country, it’s more efficient to focus on a particular partner organization and help grow it. Because we provide continuous support to our partners, they are encouraged to try new approaches or make small changes in their programs. Local partner organizations working in certain areas earn a reputation among villagers in that region and natural growth and progress happens village by village, community by community. Villagers trust the partner organization because they have seen and heard about their neighbor’s successful water project. Villagers are suspicious of outsiders. Our local partners are from that area; they know the language and culture and how best to communicate and work with villagers.
Water 1st believes that the human resources capable of addressing these problems are best found locally. The technical expertise exists in the countries where we work. Local people know their own needs and how to solve their own problems best. Unfortunately, they lack the funding to make it happen. We want to support it and help grow it. We do not want to build a dependency on outside groups; we want to build capacity there.
You can help by raising awareness of the global water crisis and the work of Water 1st among your friends, family, colleagues, and donating money to help people solve their own problems with water and sanitation.
We do not want anyone to dismiss the value and power of a donation – for every donation is an expression of compassion and commitment to the people we serve. Our beneficiaries are extremely grateful that people they have never met would have a stake in their lives.
Consider getting involved with Water 1st – donate, volunteer, attend an event, invite a friend to an event, start an event in your community, go on a Water Tour with us. Your involvement is needed and necessary to help solve the water crisis.
It’s tempting to leap for a quick solution to this terrible problem, because the suffering we see is so compelling.
The truth is, there aren’t good quick fixes to the water crisis, for a number of reasons:
- they’re almost as expensive as long-term fixes (and sometimes more expensive);
- they only solve part of the problem;
- they don’t provide ongoing support for the communities in need; and
- they’re expensive to replace.
At Water 1st, we also want to end the walk for water and the burden of water-related diseases as soon as possible, and we believe our approach is the best way to achieve that goal.
- Our programs end the walk for water.
- We help communities create a sustainable system for managing their projects so that they last for the long haul.
Even if costs of household-level devices were reduced significantly, we believe our approach is still the most effective, because it isn’t a Band-Aid and instead transforms the communities most in need.
Water 1st has expertise in converting donations into results. We:
- give money in large enough quantities to implement entire community-level projects;
- write contracts with our partner organizations detailing all the activities they will do for the funding they receive;
- evaluate a proposal and determine if the design is a good one for the context;
- evaluate whether the costs are reasonable and competitive with other organizations;
- conduct a site visit and determine whether the outcomes on the ground match up to the stipulations of the contract. We can inspect infrastructure and detect any construction flaws; and
- conduct an interview with a water committee and evaluate their level of competence at managing the community system.
We have systems and relationships in place that streamline the process of soliciting, implementing, and monitoring a project. The oversight and coordination make it the most efficient use of donor funds.
Also, we have specific project contracts with our partner organizations so that we can consolidate a variety of donations and pool that money to make a village project possible.
Water 1st International’s expertise is in selecting and monitoring partner organizations. We provide extensive monitoring of our projects – past, current, and future – to ensure that the project gets done in a timely fashion and is still working well into the future. This follow-up also ensures that your donation has been put to good use. Learn more about our project monitoring and follow-up.
About Our Financials
We believe the solutions we provide our recipients are the most efficient and sustainable ones possible. Sometimes, donors feel they are making a greater difference by giving to organizations that claim a lower per-person rate
At Water 1st, we do not sacrifice best practices to faster and cheaper practices that are incomplete and/or unsustainable. A rate of about $75 per person is worth every penny to provide a solution to the greatest cause of illness and death for people living in poor countries, and to end the walk for water for women and girls permanently.
Although we don’t have access to the budgets of other organizations and therefore can’t set up direct comparisons, the following issues impact Water 1st project costs:
- One goal of our projects is to end the walk for water, with safe water available at convenient locations. Sometimes a central water point or hand pump in a community does not achieve this goal. Therefore, in our Honduras and Ethiopia projects, a large part of our funding (as much as 70 percent) goes to pay for piping to carry the water from the well or spring source to house taps or multiple public taps. Piping can add significant cost, but our partner organizations are masters at conceiving and implementing large water supply systems that serve as many people as technically possible, often in several villages.
- Our beneficiaries are active decision-makers in their projects, and they are responsible for long-term operations and maintenance. In addition, our in-country partners cooperate with local government and coordinate with other aid agencies in order to ensure that our projects reach those that need them the most and prevent duplication of effort. These activities require time and effort on the part of the staff of our in-country partners, and are too important to us and our beneficiaries in the long-run to disregard in order to make our project costs per person cheaper now.
- Changing behavior is not easy. Using toilets, washing hands, and using safe water for all purposes (such as bathing and clothes-washing) are the best ways to prevent the spread of disease. However, experience has shown that knowledge is not enough, and people tend to know more than they practice. (Think of how hard it is for us in the U.S. to exercise and eat healthy foods even though we know it’s important for our long-term health.) Therefore, we support the implementation of comprehensive hygiene-education programs by our in-country partners. The programs typically take longer to implement than the construction of water points and toilets. Our experience has shown that personal contact, a variety of strategies, and time are needed in order to help motivate communities to turn their knowledge into behavior change.
- Our projects leverage local resources as much as possible. Our local partner organizations are recognized and respected in the regions where they work, and because of their great relationships, they are able to use available local resources: people, funding, and materials. In many of our projects, the project beneficiaries themselves are responsible for project construction and provide local construction materials such as sand, gravel, and wood. Our partners also work closely with local government, enabling them to make use of available government resources, such as professional staff, equipment, and funding. This benefits everyone: field level local government staff feel valued, beneficiary communities are able to demonstrate their commitment to the projects, and Water 1st funding is stretched further.
- Capital cost recovery is a unique aspect of our India and Bangladesh projects. Even though our beneficiaries are poor, they help pay 40 percent to 100 percent of the capital costs of their projects through monthly installments. This financial investment on the part of our project participants tells us that they place a high value on improving their water supply and gives us a greater assurance that a project will be well-maintained. The loan program also helps Water 1st and our local partners reach more people in need of safe water and toilets; repaid loan funds are used to begin additional projects.
Although it sounds reasonable that a higher percentage of money spent on building wells means more money goes directly to people in need of safe water, we believe that our operational costs fund important activities and are needed to ensure that our donors’ gifts get to where they are most needed and effective. Additionally, we encourage supporters compare IRS Form 990 data. In the Form 990, organizations report actual expenses, and the percentage of funds we spent on our program expenses is similar to other organizations in this sector. Finally, we encourage you to look at our financial reports. We conduct a yearly audit because we want our spending to be completely transparent to our supporters.
While the general percentages are one way of evaluating a nonprofit, supporters are also interested in our program outcomes. What you accomplish with the funds you spend is at least as important as the relative percent of money spent on program versus administration and fund raising. Our where we work pages provide information on our projects, and you can click here to learn more about how we closely and thoroughly monitor our projects, both old and new.
About Our Projects
In the regions where we work, we have never heard a woman say that she misses carrying water for 5 hours a day. They only give thanks that they have safe, clean water nearby. A common response we hear is, “I thought I’d never see the day of having this water project in my village.” We once made the mistake of asking a woman in Honduras if she would walk with us to the water source she used before the water project. She politely but firmly refused. She said she never wants to walk to that water source again. The truth is that the social interactions at a water source are often very unpleasant. Women vie for the best locations to fill containers. Women who come from greater distances are considered intruders and often endure verbal and even physical abuse. When those women get access to a water source, they are elated. When they are actually part owners of the system, the part of their day that used to bring them shame becomes a source of pride.
It is true that there are cultural differences around the world. We can’t assume someone living in a far-off place wants the same things that we do. But having clean, easily accessible water is a fundamental human need. It transforms lives and lifts communities out of poverty. It ends terrible suffering.
We do work with local partners to insure cultural differences are respected and understood. This helps our projects succeed and last for the long haul.
We think our work is unique in these ways:
- We’re more focused on local capacity building – assisting indigenous organizations in their efforts to address the local water-related issues. Everyone has heard of waste and ineffective charity programs. At Water 1st, we are committed to addressing the underlying causes that have plagued international aid, such as investing in the development of our in-country partner organizations.
- We back-up our claims of sustainability with diligent project monitoring. We follow up more thoroughly and frequently than other groups. We learn different things about our programs when we visit a project after five years versus a site visit at two years. The things we learn at both of those visits provide important data to guide improvements that foster sustainability.
- We support projects that significantly reduce water collection time by women and girls. In rural villages, especially in Africa, sometimes a central water point or hand pump in a community does not achieve this goal. We support projects that reduce water fetching time to 15 minutes or less.
- Our money goes to community-level projects that integrate water, sanitation, and hygiene education. Community-level projects provide equal benefits to all community members and are the best approach because:
- They allow for the most efficient and cost-effective solution. The cost of developing a spring or well can be shared by many individuals.
- They offer greater health benefits. A major pathway of waterborne illnesses is person to person. If my neighbors are still getting sick because they haven’t adopted better hygiene practices, then I don’t reduce my risk that substantially by making changes in my household, particularly in communities where people live close together and kids spend a lot of time at the homes of their peers.
- They are sustained by the support of many trained, motivated people in the community. When the project is ultimately owned and operated by the beneficiary, people have the motivation to keep it running.
- We develop relationships with our beneficiaries and local partner organizations.
- We respect our beneficiaries and local partners. We listen to our beneficiaries and what their greatest need is.
Lack of access to water is usually a factor of lack of resources. The communities we work in are very poor and can’t buy the materials and services necessary for a reliable water, sanitation, and hygiene-education project. Even if they did have the resources, organizing as a community and creating a good solution is beyond what one could expect from individuals who are already working very hard to eke out a subsistence-level existence.
Water is also a woman’s job, and resources (even in modern, wealthy, equal rights American society) are often under-allocated to issues that affect women disproportionally. One could argue that governments should assume this role. After all, most of us in the U.S. and other rich countries rely on government-built and operated water and sewer systems.
Our experience is that governments (even our highly-responsive western democracy) under-invest in the problems of the poorest. And the governments of poor countries don’t have a great track record when it comes to maintaining the systems they have built. Rather than wait for the governments of the world to voluntarily address the needs of the poor, we believe in empowering the poor so they can better advocate for themselves in the competitive political arena.
Household filters can purify water. But they’re not a solution to the world water crisis, a far more complicated problem than unclean water. Here’s what household filters don’t do:
- Household filters don’t end the walk for water, which is about time and gender equity; and they don’t carry water for women and children. Women and girls in poor countries walk up to 5 hours a day carrying home heavy containers of water for their families. This prevents them from taking part in economic and development opportunities that move their communities forward, such as starting a small business. It also prevents millions of girls from going to school, thus perpetuating a cycle of illiteracy among women. The lack of education has an impact on the population and economy of a country as a whole: the countries with the least educated people are the poorest.
- Household filters don’t make water convenient and accessible, which makes it possible to increase the quantity of water used by the world’s poorest. Why is water quantity so important? Unlike your average person in the U.S., who is using too much water, our beneficiaries need to use more water. Water is the foundation of good hygiene. Good hygiene, such as frequent hand washing, bathing, and the washing of dishes and clothes is as important, if not more important, than clean drinking water if the goal is to prevent the spread of disease. Household filters only purify the water you have. When a significant component of the problem is that people don’t have enough water to practice good hygiene, household treatment devices such as filters are woefully inadequate.
- Water 1st projects address all the pathways to disease: food preparation, eating, working with animals, sanitation, and drinking. Having an accessible water supply and toilet nearby addresses all of these things.
- Household filters typically cost a lot, especially when you take replacement costs into consideration, and not all villagers in a community can afford them. It’s actually less expensive and more sustainable to do a Water 1st community-level project that addresses water, sanitation, and hygiene, than a household filter.
Filters don’t develop communities and help communities solve their own problems, beyond water. They are a quick fix, which really isn’t addressing the primary public health problem.
We believe our in-country partner organizations and beneficiaries are smart, efficient people. We help solve their most basic needs, unlocking the potential of poor people, who by lottery of birth, happen to lack access to water, a toilet, education, and a decent wage.
We don’t live next to our water sources and that’s a good thing. Dense populations near water sources lead to contamination.
Our beneficiaries have been living on their land for years. They have legal title or have a long-term agreement with the government to farm on certain land, which is their livelihood. So they stay where they are for good reason.
Lack of access to water is often caused by two things.
- As population grows, people begin to inhabit the land on the outer edge of the current community. That usually means that they have to travel a little farther to get their water. Because of the weight of water, it doesn’t take long for the distance to the water source to become a barrier to good health. Each person needs about 10 gallons of water per day for drinking and personal hygiene. In order to achieve that quantity, total water collection time must be no more than 15 minutes.
- Some water sources have disappeared. Water sources can disappear due to overuse, contamination, or a change in climate.
A corollary to this question is often, ”Why don’t people move to urban areas where there are water supply systems and sewer systems?” Many people are already doing this. For the first time in human history, the number of urban dwellers exceeds the number of people living in rural areas. Unfortunately, the pattern of migration to urban areas is already overwhelming the urban life-support systems. Few cities are able to meet the current demand for water and sewers, let alone effectively manage other health issues like trash collection and surface water runoff, and often ignore the needs of poor squatters who typically have no legal way to connect to public water systems or sewers. We believe it is better to help people create a better life for themselves where they are.
Water1st is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Our tax ID number is 20-2601035. Our current tax-deductibility status can be verified here on the IRS website.