The following is a conversation between Gary White, CEO and Co-Founder of Water.org, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Some of you, in fact, I hope most of you, may remember a spot during the Super Bowl featuring Matt Damon. The message was if you purchase a Stella Artois beer or a limited edition chalice, you could help provide clean drinking water to a person in the developing world. The organization behind that effort is Water.org, and Matt Damon’s partner in this social enterprise is Gary White, its CEO and Co-Founder who is with us now. Good evening, Gary, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Gary: Thank you Denver.
Denver: Before we get into the specifics of the work that your organization does, provide our listeners with the dimensions of the problem.
How many people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water or sanitation facilities?
Gary: It is. It’s a huge problem. It’s about 884 million of us don’t have access to water. About 2.3 billion of us don’t have access to sanitation. We can get that at a visceral level, but what it means is things like, this year, 443 million school days will be lost because kids are walking to get water. Every day, women spend about 250 million hours walking to collect water because they don’t have it nearby. They have to go to a stream or a river, and that’s the time they could spend earning income for their family or growing food. Every 90 seconds, we lose a child because of water-related disease. It’s those big numbers boiled down into real human suffering and really holding people back from developing their full potential.
Denver: Has anybody ever been able to put a number to the coping costs of what it means not to have clean water or sanitation facilities?
Gary: Sure. It’s those costs coming in the form of that time spent collecting water, come in the form of people who live in urban slums paying water vendors that sell water from water trucks– often of dubious quality. The time that people spend going and trying to find a place to defecate because sanitation is a big part of this. All that rolls up into about $300 billion every year that people pay in these coping costs because they don’t have access to water at a faucet in their home, or a toilet in their home.
Denver: Gary, how severe is the water shortage in the world right now? For instance, Cape Town, South Africa is running out of water. I think they’ve referred to it as Day Zero. That day is going to be sometime in April. Whether it’s climate change or whatever, is there enough clean drinking water for all seven-billion-plus people inhabiting the earth?
Gary: There’s plenty of water on the planet to satisfy the needs of everyone… and far more. The question is where is that water relative to where people live? How clean is that water? And what is the cost to treat the water, to clean it up so that it is of drinking water quality? I think when we look at this problem: today everyone woke up and got water somewhere, right? And they went some place to defecate. The question becomes, how much time did they have to spend walking to collect that water? Or if they’re paying these water vendors, how much of their cash– and sometimes it’s up to 25% of their income to purchase water from vendors– and then: what’s the quality of that water? Those are the things that come together. There’s water everywhere, but the question is: how much do people have to pay in terms of the time and their health to get access to it?
It’s a huge problem. It’s about 884 million of us don’t have access to water. About 2.3 billion of us don’t have access to sanitation. We can get that at a visceral level, but what it means is things like, this year, 443 million school days will be lost because kids are walking to get water. Every day, women spend about 250 million hours walking to collect water because they don’t have it nearby. They have to go to a stream or a river, and that’s the time they could spend earning income for their family or growing food. Every 90 seconds, we lose a child because of water-related disease. It’s those big numbers boiled down into real human suffering and really holding people back from developing their full potential.
Denver: You mentioned a moment ago about walking to get water; this truly is a women’s problem, correct? They basically, literally and figuratively, carry the burden on this.
Gary: Absolutely. It’s women and usually girls that are walking to collect water because if you don’t get water today, nothing else matters. Everything gets subjugated to getting water for the family. That’s the question. Sometimes you have to spend an hour walking to a stream to get it. Sometimes during the dry season when that’s dried up, maybe you have to walk two or three hours. That’s part of the whole problem too. People don’t have consistency with respect to where they’re getting their water every day. If you don’t have that, you can’t go out and work at a paying job for instance because you can’t show up on time. So, this whole crisis and what it means for families, it underpins everything in terms of building a better life for your family, building the health of your family, and building the economy of your community.
Denver: I don’t think people realize what you just mentioned a moment ago, is that people actually pay for water, and they pay some pretty significant rates to get that. Tell us about that and how that provided you with your “Aha!” moment in creating the model for Water.org.
Gary: I’ve been doing this a long time, ever since I was an undergraduate in college. Always trying to find new insights into how we can do this better and serve more people. What I discovered was that people were paying 7 to 10 times more for water from these vendors than if they had a connection to a public utility. So, the subsidies that go into the system usually subsidize the people who already have faucets in their homes– the middle class and so on. What we saw was that people who were living in the greatest poverty were actually having to go to water vendors in order to get their water.
Denver: It’s very expensive to be poor, isn’t it?
Gary: It’s extremely expensive to be poor. That’s a great way of putting it. What we saw was like: How about if we can get people access to a small loan, so that they could pay the connection fee? Because what’s holding them back, the barrier between them and safe water, is this fee that they need to pay to connect to the public utility. That can be $200 to $300. They might have a dollar every day or $2 every day to pay a water vendor, but they don’t have $300 all up front. What we said is: Why can’t we get them access to micro loans so that they can get over that hump and get the connection, and then their expenditures go way down.
Denver: So, it’s access to affordable capital that’s at the heart of it.
How do you do this? Do you do it yourselves through Water.org? Or have you created a network of micro-credit institutions that you partner with?
Gary: We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and become a bank at Water.org. So what we knew is that there is this extensive microfinance network out there in the world. We piggybacked onto microfinance to get them nudged towards making loans for water and sanitation. I think what you see, it took quite a nudge to make that happen because they’re used to making loans for sewing machines or cows and things like that, and where you can see that people could start having a cash flow to repay their loan after a week.
People in the microfinance industry didn’t understand these coping costs and how much the poor were paying for water. What we can do is help them buy back their time with this approach. They can use that time to earn an income, and they can use the income to repay the microfinance loan. We’ve done this now. We’ve made over 2 million loans through our partner network. Depending on the country, those are repaid between 97% and 99%, and over 80% of the borrowers are women. This is having quite an impact so far.
Denver: Where do you get this capital to begin with?
Gary: We at Water.org raise philanthropic capital to be able to help cover the startup costs for this microfinance institutions. We help them do the market research. We help them hire the right staff, so that they can start making these loans. We use that philanthropic capital to basically get this ready for investment capital to fund the actual loans that go out to poor households, and we created a spinoff called WaterEquity that now raises social impact capital.
It provides a financial return to investors, but it also provides this huge social return. For instance, an investor that invests a million dollars in our fund that lasts for seven years, that million dollars will help a hundred thousand people get access to water over the course of that time. Each year along the way, the investor will get a distribution. We target about 2% to 3%, and at the end of the seven years, they get their million dollars back. It’s a way of bringing in more capital into the system.
The thing about this Denver, the problem actually contains its own solution. When you look at that $300 billion in coping costs, that’s money that’s already there. If we can use our access to capital for the poor to redirect some of those expenditures, then they’re going to get water, they’re going to have a lower water tariff, and they’re going to pay off their loan after two years, and they’re going to be free and clear.
Denver: Your first fund raised $11 million, and you’re now on your way to a $50 million second fund of which you’re about three-quarters of the way there. What kind of rate of return are your investors getting? You said they’re getting their capital. Do they get a little bit more than that?
Gary: Yes. On the first fund that we did, we paid our first distribution last year, and we paid 3.6% on that. That’s an annual distribution, and we anticipate the same on this next fund.
Denver: How many people have you been able to help through this process?
Gary: We have just recently crossed over 10 million people that we’ve helped get access to water or sanitation. The momentum is building. Before we had the water credit approach with microfinance, we were a more traditional water NGO helping get wells drilled and systems built. From 1990 up until 2012, it took us that long to reach our first million people. Now, we’re reaching more than 4 million people every year because of the multiplier effect of adding credit to the mix.
Denver: How much money do you think it’s going to take to address this problem?
Gary: If we want to meet the Sustainable Development Goal #6, which is safe water and sanitation for everybody, we’re going to have to invest about a trillion dollars, and I think that’s part of why we drove in the direction of helping people with finance because if you add up all of the funds that go into water philanthropy and water aid, it’s about $8 billion a year. If you need a trillion dollars, it’s going to take a long time to get there.
Denver: What do you see is the role of government in these emerging nations? And have you partnered with any of them in any particular fashion?
Gary: We have partnered with governments, and we do at different levels. One is that, water supply particularly in urban areas, is really a natural monopoly where it’s really more efficient to have one utility providing water rather than a lot of fragmented water solutions. So, we work with them to hopefully extend the network pipes into the poorer neighborhoods. So, they are responsible for that, but they also need paying customers to get the utility to work.
So, what we do then is help deliver those customers and collaborate with government to make the utilities more efficient and more effective because they can now start collecting these water tariffs and these connection fees.
I was just in the Philippines recently where we’re working with the utilities and microfinance there. I think there’s a really great example of how we need to do more of this because I met a woman there who before she had her water credit loan, she was paying about $60 a month to these water vendors. And she took out a loan, and now her water tariff is about $4.50 a month, and her loan payments about $5 a month. So right there, she went from paying $60 dollars a month down to $10. After she pays her loan off, she’ll be paying $5 a month. So, you can see right there why people want these loans so much. But right next to her in this conversation was her neighbor who wanted to do this desperately, but the utility hadn’t extended the pipes yet to her home. So, that’s why we need to work with the utilities to help them understand if they invest in that infrastructure, these paying customers will show up.
Denver: There are indeed some very good customers at the base of the pyramid, aren’t there?
Let me turn to your organization for a minute.
How did you and Matt Damon first connect to join forces to start Water.org back in 2009?
Gary: Well, Matt had started with some other folks, an organization called H2O Africa and was really moved by the need that he saw in terms of water supply and other issues of poverty. That organization was going along great. Of course, I had co-founded Water Partners back in 1990, and we got introduced. Matt and his team were in the early stages. They were doing really well raising funds and raising awareness, and they obviously had a great platform.
What we were, we were like the heads down, wonky engineers that knew how to get stuff done down on the ground. So, as we got to know each other, H2O Africa was basically investing their funds through us to go get the work done. So, Matt and I got comfortable with each other. It’s like, there is a real symmetry here. Maybe we should just bring the organizations together. We worked on that, and then we merged in 2009 and rebranded as Water.org which was the URL we already had, and we’ve never looked back.
Denver: Worked out quite nicely. You’re really complementing each other.
Gary, Water.org is very much of a bottoms-up organization. When you go into a country, you’re more likely to address the poor, be with them, see what their problems are in accessing water, as opposed to, let’s say, setting up a meeting with the Minister of Health.
How do you think that approach has impacted how you go about your work?
Gary: That’s a really great insight. It really is a bottom-up approach. What we’ve done is say, and I consider us as much an innovation organization as a water organization, and when we say: What are the barriers that are standing between people and safe water? Initially, we thought that was pumps and wells; and that is part of it. But what we saw was that really, hundreds of millions of the people could get access to safe water if they just got access to affordable capital.
The bottom-up approach is… people know – like the woman in the Philippines – she knows that if the pipes came closer to her home, she would be able to pay the fee; she could have water, Boom. Done. What we saw was so many people knew exactly how they wanted to improve their water and sanitation. They just lack the capital to do so. And that’s the bottom-up approach. That’s the barrier that we saw. So let’s take away that barrier of affordable finance so that they can get the solutions that they need. That has allowed us to really accelerate reaching more people. Because we take people’s donations now and multiply them.
We put about $21 million into getting water credit jumpstarted in different countries around the world. That’s now raised over $700 million in investment capital that actually makes those loans to the poor households. So, that bottom-up approach has potential to really scale.
Denver: You’re really not just going through the bottoms-up, you’re just going to where the answers are, and those answers are in those communities. These people know exactly what they need to make this work.
Speaking of innovation, you have something called the New Ventures Fund, which is made up of philanthropic capital, sort of your R&D arm, if you will. Anything there with any real promise that you’re excited about?
Gary: A couple of things. We’ve used that New Ventures Fund as research and development for us to expand water credit into new geographies, new parts of the world where we have to adjust the model and do things differently. We’re in about 17 countries now. We can expand geographically with that. We can use that New Ventures Fund to get into more digital finance. There’s a lot that’s happening in developing countries with respect to reducing the transaction cost of these loans. Instead of having a loan collector go around on a bicycle every week and collect cash from these borrowers, we’re looking into digital finance where they can have electronic accounts and make that happen. We wouldn’t have WaterEquity as a new organization in a spinoff if we hadn’t had the New Ventures Fund. WaterEquity was incubated inside of Water.org until it was ready to spin off as a separate fund investment manager.
Denver: You really believe in market-based solutions but from a philanthropic perspective. Has it been a challenge to get people interested in financially supporting the cause, and in most cases, they’ve never really actually witnessed?
Gary: It has been a challenge. I really believe that that tide is turning. I think that most people in the United States have never really been thirsty. We’ve been thirsty if we’re out for a run or something like that. But we’ve never experienced gut-wrenching thirst. Or if we have a child that has diarrhea, it’s just kind of a thing that happens; it passes a couple of days and goes on. It’s so different for people if that all of a sudden becomes life-threatening. People are starting to wake up to this, I think, they are responding more to water and sanitation needs from the top down, but also from the bottom up, and the grassroots donors are beginning to respond.
Denver: I mentioned in the opening the cause-related marketing program you have with Stella Artois. Provide us with some more details of how that promotion works, and maybe also some of your other corporate partnerships.
Gary: We’ve been really fortunate with the Stella Artois relationship. We’ve been really fortunate with Ikea Foundation, MasterCard Foundation, Caterpillar Foundation. We’ve really struck a chord with a lot of different corporate foundations.
Denver: You’ve had some big partners.
Gary: Absolutely. They’ve been fantastic. Our model resonates with them; the bottom-up and the market-based solution. With Stella in particular, you mentioned the Super Bowl commercial; that was an opportunity not to really promote Stella Artois or Water.org itself, but it was to draw attention to this crisis so that more people can respond. Some people just need a very simple way to get involved, and if you can go out and buy a Stella Artois chalice, and it gets safe water to someone for five years, then that’s a pretty good deal. That promotion actually runs through the middle of April. So, when people pick up a 12-pack, that helps people get a year’s worth of clean drinking water.
…we see ourselves as much as an innovation organization as a water organization because when you see a crisis that’s so massive, and you see that the status quo is like drilling one more well and incrementalism, you have to take a step back and say: If we really are in this to solve the crisis, we can’t just keep drilling another well. We have to rethink fundamentally how this works. We need to be social entrepreneurs in this pursuit.
Denver: Sounds pretty cool to me.
Tell us a little bit about the work culture you’ve built at Water.org, and maybe one or two things that you think makes it a very special and a distinctive place to work.
Gary: We get so many people wanting to work for us, and that’s a great thing. Whenever we post a job opening, we get tons of applications. The culture is one of service, and it’s also one of innovation. What I refer to sometimes as” boldness with humility.” We have to be bold in terms of finding that next innovation. What is the next water credit? What’s the next water equity?
So, the culture is such that; I mentioned before, we see ourselves as much as an innovation organization as a water organization because when you see a crisis that’s so massive, and you see that the status quo is like drilling one more well and incrementalism, you have to take a step back and say: If we really are in this to solve the crisis, we can’t just keep drilling another well. We have to rethink fundamentally how this works. We need to be social entrepreneurs in this pursuit. That’s what we’ve done. You don’t bump into too many nonprofits that have an R&D fund for instance that’s dedicated towards this. So, the culture is one of always pushing, looking for new ideas, testing those, and I’m an engineer. I like evidence, right? So, we test. If things don’t work, we move on. But if they work, we build the evidence base so that we can make the compelling case to donors and investors that this approach works.
Denver: Let me close with this Gary. We had a fellow on the show a couple of months ago by the name of Louis Rosenberg. He’s the CEO of Unanimous AI, and what they do is they deploy people in the swarming technique, and then they use algorithms. They actually come up with very, very good answers, better than an individual would.
The assignment they had was Jeff Bezos asked: What should he do with his billions of dollars? And they used Unanimous AI, and swarmed in the algorithms, and the number one answer was make sure that everybody on earth has access to clean drinking water– something which I’m sure you would agree with.
Were you surprised by that? And do you believe that that actually will become a reality in your lifetime?
Gary: I was surprised. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it came out in the top five or something like that because it’s such a wide net that they cast. But it speaks to how much people have been tuning in to this issue and having local water crises around the world– whether it’s in Southern California or whether it’s in Sao Paulo, Brazil or now Cape Town. It’s much more in the consciousness of people… and water quality… and how we’re taking care of the environment.
That doesn’t surprise me that it came out in the top five; at the top one, yes. We absolutely can solve this in our lifetime. There is no doubt. We’ve known how to make water safe for more than a hundred years here in the United States. And as I mentioned, the capital is already there. We don’t need to go out and raise a trillion dollars in philanthropy to make this happen. We just need to rearrange the money that’s already on the table by providing these nudges to the system, as opposed to trying to fundraise our way out of it.
Denver: Gary White, the co-founder and CEO of Water.org: Thanks so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, what listeners may find there, and how they can help support this work.
Gary: We do need that philanthropic capital to continue to push us forward. So, people can come to water.org and make a donation and help fuel water credit. They can also, later this year, be able to make a loan as little as $100 to fund a water credit investment fund going forward. So, we need all hands on deck. We need people showing up with the donations, as well as the investment capital.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks Gary. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Gary: Thank you, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6 and 7 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on I Heart Radio. You can follow us at bizofgive on twitter and at facebook.com/businessofgiving.