Innovating for Impact, a conversation with Jenn Beard

Having a success in a water money credit forum in India, Jenn Beard sat down and talked a bit about her work, water.org, and water in general. Jenn open the conversation on the data that 1 in 9 people don’t have safe water and that every 21 seconds, a child dies from a water-related illness. In the world today, there are more mobile phone than sanitary toilets. The problem of toilet is that it is not a financial need while a mobile phone is. For most people open defecation is a substitution to toilet while there are no substitution to mobile phone. So how does water.org go about this problem?

Water.org’s main solution is to increase awareness of the problem. It is hard to understand about the water crisis if you don’t know about the water crisis. Water.org and Matt Damon has been trying to solve the global water crisis through advocates, through charity, through collaboration, through education, and much more. Water.org has two main programs. The first is direct impact where a non-profit will help with infrastructure and educating the locals. The second is more innovative as water.org is providing locals with water credits to help stimulate a water based economy throughout the world. The ultimate goal is that everyone can have safe drinking water and everyone can have a toilet.

Jenn specifically focused on three innovations that water.org has done and has help millions of people throughout the world. The first is to integrate community into the direct impact mission. Water.org not only goes in and install the infrastructure for water and sanitation. They also provide the locals with education, with training, with monitoring, and with evaluation. Direct impact work has traditionally been a hit or miss. Over 50% of the direct impact work by non-profits has ended in failures. Non-profits that install a well or a latrine would leave after they build it without caring about the maintenance or service. Most traditional non-profits want a Kodak moment and would forget about it. Water.org is looking at this traditional method from a different perspective. But because of how monitoring and maintenance require manpower, water.org has been criticized on how little direct impact projects they have done compare to other non-profits.

To try to strengthen their outreach while not depleting resources, water.org came up with the second innovation of water credit. Gary White, the founder of water.org once visited a lady in Ghana who took money from a loan shark to build a toilet for her family. This started the idea that water credit can help individuals motivate themselves. Water.org work with local banks as well as philanthropic organizations to reach anyone who has interest in improving their water source. This innovation has been able to reach 5 to 10 times more people than direct impact. It took five years to reach a million people through water credit, and its projected that it will only take half that time to reach the next million people. 93% of the people who ask for loans are women and there has been a 99% repayment rate with an average loan of ~$100 USD.

The third innovation is engaging the developed world and have the developed world take action. Matt Damon is currently on strike for toilet until the vision of water.org is met. It is publicity such as the strike that Matt is doing that will get more people in the developed world involve. Deep inside everyone’s heart, we want to do good for the world. We are just lazy and organizations like water.org can help bridge the gap and give the public an incentive to invest in doing good. Water.org’s stand in the non-profit for safe water and sanitation is unique in that the organization links media with traditional non-profits. Matt brings to the organization a Hollywood perspective of engagement while Gary brings to the organization a business perspective.

With the Millennium Development Goal of halve the proportion of the population without safe water and sanitation by 2015, there is still a long way to go to reach water.org’s goal of having everyone with safe water and sanitation. Current innovations such as partnership with private industries and corporate social responsibilities are new frontiers. It is up to non-profits such as Water.org to keep its vision and incorporate this new innovation into the playbook. For example MasterCard Foundation has a goal of getting everyone access to banking system. Although not specific to water and sanitation, MasterCard and Water.org formed a collaboration in Kenya for water credit.

Besides the innovations, Jenn also talked of the challenges that she has personally see in her work. The first is culture. In some countries it is necessary for everyone to have a mobile phone while still culturally acceptable for open defecation. Infrastructures such as banking systems and government regulations and cooperation are another hurdle that may hinder the work. Visual work is another challenge. Most people in developed country do not understand how people in developing countries live. It is shocking to hear people when they gasp at the idea that there are more mobile phone than toilets in the world.

Jenn concludes the conversation with the promise that challenges often breed innovation. Ideas can pop out from anywhere. Had Gary not talked with the lady who took out loans from loan sharks, would the innovation on water credit come about? Maybe, maybe not.

Jenn Beard is the Global Learning Manager for water.org for more information please visit: http://water.org/about/staff/jenn-beard/

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About t5huang

Masters in Environmental Science at UPenn Candidate
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