How did you get started in the water industry?
I went to a university in upstate New York, St. Lawrence, and I was fortunate enough to have a professor from Somalia who took an interest in me. He facilitated me going to Kenya as part of a school program. I ended up working on a water project in northern Kenya, on the Ethiopian border, and I was just hooked by it all. Across this desert, we would meet women and girls traveling with camels, carrying these huge sacs of water made out of camel skin and lugging them all the way back to their camps. And I was struck by what they were doing, and that they were going to come back and do it all over again the next day and the next day after that.
So I launched from that into working in Africa for close to 20 years on water and sanitation issues, working in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya. I just have a great passion for it.
What led you to Water For People?
We were living in Mozambique and my wife does aids work for the Burnet Institute of Health in Australia, which wanted her to take on a new program in Southeast Asia. We thought that’d be great. But then my father-in-law became gravely ill and we realized that where we lived, if we had to move fast and get back to the States, it would take anywhere from 48 to 56 hours. So we realized that we had to come home.
I had come across Water For People in a couple of different venues and I thought they were quite intriguing, particularly their link with the North American water and wastewater community. So I sort of kept an eye on them and luckily a position came up at the time we were making this decision. So I applied for it, got it and we moved to Colorado. That was 2006.
How has the mission of Water For People evolved since its inception?
Water For People, when I joined, was like a lot of other water organizations. They did interesting work, good work, but it was mostly project-based. So we’d do a project here and a project there. It was more opportunistic than strategic. And that’s what most organizations are. The biggest change for Water For People was deciding to become a game changer, setting ambitious goals, but remaining nimble.
We basically stopped doing projects all over the place, and the first step was to try to consolidate in districts and municipalities. Everybody’s got a water problem, and we shouldn’t just respond to people who hear about us. Why don’t we see if we can do a program that does what nobody else has really done: Take that district or municipality to full coverage. Let’s be strategic. Let’s develop a program that really means something and transforms lives and get away from needing assistance from philanthropy down the road.
So we’d have to operate differently. We’d have to think much more long term. We’d have to think beyond projects. And I think that’s really what we’ve done. Water For People is an organization of people with a lot of courage and vision. The whole point of our work is to do it in a way that they don’t need us or anybody else again. And that’s where Everyone Forever emerged.
Tell us about the Everyone Forever campaign.
First, there are districts and municipalities, which can be anything from 20 villages with 10,000 people to 2,000 villages with 665,000 people. Can we do programs where every family, every school and every clinic in that area gets water and sanitation?
Secondly, we’re going to set that goal for our staff, but not give them enough money to succeed. So they’re going to have to be creative and draw down money from governments, which have the money already budgeted for water and sanitation (although it’s not always used). Third, we’ll commit 10 years of post-project monitoring. For many people, the project ends when it’s implemented.
The last two things are what people really get excited about. One is that the districts and municipalities we work with will never need another international NGO, that’s the “forever” part. Finance has to be in place to replace the system, and deal with changing water resources. It has to replicate, and in some instances without us. We want neighboring municipalities to say, “Whoa! How did you do that? And how can we do that?”
You are launching an ambitious effort to apply Everyone Forever to a large region in Rwanda. How did that come about?
We’re doing this in Rulindo, Rwanda, a district with 265,000 people. Their government is already saying let’s take this national. The Rwandan government is so progressive and it’s really trying to do things differently. We found an initial and warm affinity with them from the beginning. They want to tackle big problems. They’re coming out of the genocide, and they’ve decided to rethink things.
What is the biggest challenge your organization has faced in the last 10 years?
In the past, it was getting people comfortable with this big shift. We were successful at what we were doing, but everyone realized that we were just going to keep doing projects. We also had to hire different kinds of people, and that was challenging. One of the big shifts in the organization was decentralizing that authority and getting our staff to see and recognize that they were in control. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. It took a long time for our fund-raising department to think differently. Our messaging had to shift. The fact is, we wouldn’t have been able to do it if we didn’t have board members with a big vision. The challenges weren’t programmatic, they were more organizational.
What is the greatest challenge ahead?
Looking forward, there are two major challenges: The “forever” part of it is really hard. Pushing toward forever is great, but I would never underestimate the challenges going forward. That will be the biggest challenge, but also the most fun. The other challenge is, there are all kinds of discussions around “brand identity” and we’re setting up a program that in some sense is “debranded.” If you look at our logo, with no reference to us, you have no idea that that’s us. We’ve done that purposely because we want people to join this movement, as opposed to this is a Water For People thing. But there are huge challenges around doing that. We have to lose a little control. But I think we’re always a couple of steps ahead.
How can the water industry support Water For People?
One of my goals, and this may sound a little arrogant, but I really want to redefine philanthropy in some ways. The problem with philanthropy right now is the approaches. “I’m gonna make you feel real good about what we do, and then I’m going to ask you for money and you’re going to give it to me. And then I’m going to come back and tell you what a great job I did.” I think that will die someday and I’d like to get us ahead of that. I think the future approach will be: What are our collective skills? How do we use our shared values to do something bigger?
Let me give you an example: You can take a company like Coke, which has huge assets that are critical to what we’re doing. They have an absolutely unparalleled distribution chain for their (soda) bottles. I lived in Zimbabwe during one of the great droughts during the early ‘90s, and you couldn’t buy a bag of maize meal, but you could buy a Coke. So how is that an asset that can be utilized to get people things they really need. Can you win people over to the vision that my contribution isn’t just money, it’s actually my brains.
That’s thinking beyond just “give me money.”
How can we leverage beyond the water industry to garner a broader base of support?
The challenge in the United States sometimes is that people get focused outside the U.S., but a lot of companies in the water industry do have global vision.
We get confused because the technologies are different. You look at Africa and it’s simple, right? It’s this low-cost technology that doesn’t compare with Denver Water. But again, the issues are the same. I think the power of the U.S. water industry is that they do think beyond their borders; if there was some way to capture that. We’re all in this together, we’re all facing the same challenges. Don’t be confused by the technology. We understand that water and sanitation matter more than anything else. Let’s build a movement around that principle, whether it’s Denver or rural Malawi.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without at work?
You know what I hate about work? Desks. We’re redesigning our offices now and there’s an argument that nobody should have a desk. It’s more collaborative if you have to figure out who you’re working with on any given day. So we have laptops and kind of wander around and plug in wherever. And I want all our walls to be whiteboard. But the one thing I need is music. I have to plug into music at some point every day.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I had a lot of bad jobs. I worked my way through college by cleaning dishes in a cafeteria, landscaping, things like that. I have had no bad jobs as an adult, but all my jobs as a kid? I worked in Produce Aisle One at a supermarket for years.
What’s on your to-do list?
We’re doing a project called “Reimagining Reporting,” this idea that reporting is not doing what it should do. We could actually use technology and visualization and creativity to transform the way we reflect on our work.