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The Problem With Charity: Water

No one really knows how many more people have water due to charity: water’s well-building efforts. Nor can anyone guarantee that’s all that charity: water does.

It’s seemed difficult for the last six years for press to find effusive enough praise for charity: water, a New York City-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that raises money to provide safe, clean drinking water to folks in developing nations. “Exemplary entrepreneurship,” Fast Company said of the group. Part of “a generation of young people working creatively to make this a better world,” wrote New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. Whoopi Goldberg, John Slattery and David Schwimmer all attended the 2012 holiday gala. MSNBC, Fox News, Time, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Good, and People have also acclaimed the organization.

Much of the praise is deserved. For one thing, everyone involved is really nice: friendly looking, engaged people, all attractive and bright, as documented in a gallery of quirky staff photos. Those I have met personally, I like, and I like the company’s approach. Because what sets them apart from other NGOs is that they undertake their mission with a dedication to total fiscal transparency and without a marketing budget. More than 20,000 individuals seem to agree, and have held birthday campaigns for the company, generating millions upon millions of dollars since it started in 2006. Most boosters create videos, social media posts, email campaigns and who knows what-all else to throw pals into a fervor of fundraising toward charity: water’s crystal-clear mission: getting people in developing countries clean drinking water. No marketing budget implies no fiscal waste: 100 percent of the funds raised toward water projects go toward water projects. Everyone involved feels good about everything.

The only problem is, no one really knows how many more people have water due to charity: water’s well-building efforts. Nor can anyone guarantee that’s all that charity: water does.

Let’s be clear. Charity: water is upending the traditional not-for-profit model’s reliance on obfuscation and fiscal padding as standard operating procedure. This has caused hubbub in the international development world, for good reason. It is noble and effective. “Let this be a lesson to other charitable movements, the more you share, the more we’ll share,” TNW magazine effused, equating the company’s transparency with fundraising success.

The dedication to transparency means that funds raised from the tens of thousands of YouTube videos and LinkedIn profile posts supporters have created over the last six years do not go toward company overhead, according to annual reports on the charity: water web site, a slick, interactive, graphics-heavy set of documents in which everyone acts enthusiastic about water. At the bottom of each page on the web site, you can share this enthusiasm by tweeting a link or, if you live in 2009, post it to Facebook. I repeat: Overhead is covered by a separate budget. This was independently audited and found to be accurate by Lambrides, Lambros, Taylor LLP, Certified Public Accountants and Consultants in June of 2012.

Let me back that up, because it can be hard to fathom: Here’s Digital Director of charity: water, Paull Young, explaining how it works: “We basically have two bank accounts. So, one bank account – 100 percent goes to water…. And the other account – there are about 193 major donors who give three years’ commitment, and they fund all operating costs.” The company calls this level of funding “the Well,” and it is led by a team of Angel Investors, who each donate a million dollars or more per year. They, too, are pictured on the charity: water web site.

When founder and CEO Scott Harrison, a former nightclub promoter, got bit by the good-doing bug and left the high-partying lifestyle in 2004, he bounced around for a bit, aiming to rekindle, as he explains in his company bio, “a lost Christian faith.” He paid an organization to volunteer as a photographer in Liberia for a couple years and, jokes comparing single-night bar tabs to annual incomes of locals aside, appeared to find his mission. His Christian mission. Clean drinking water for all.

His enthusiasm for this mission is as infectious as the cholera he aims to help eliminate – you can see it in hundreds of videos that he himself is in, or that his staff is in, or that are made by people celebrating upcoming birthdays asking for donations for the cause. By 2011 Scott Harrison had made Fortune’s list of 40 under 40, and Charity Navigator had given his company a rating of 65.14 out of 70 overall, and a 70 out of 70 rating for accountability and transparency.

The company’s been called out for the occasional misstep. There’s the slightly silly charge that charity: water, by working exclusively through social media fundraising channels, is leaving old-school, bulk-mail, money on the table that – despite the frenzy for social media presence – is still the bread and butter of international aid. But the company expresses no desire to compete with old models – or capture old money.

More problematic were charges of a misleading claim made by the company about the sustainability of built projects. For a while, charity: water’s donation slogan was “$20 can provide clean and safe drinking water to one person for 20 years.” It was easy enough for the company to demonstrate that building a new water project breaks down to an average cost per end-user of $20 (although admittedly, this varies quite a bit throughout the regions where projects are implemented). But it is less easy to prove that the technologies charity: water uses can last 20 years. So the company dropped the promise, explaining the change on its own web site.

Failure turns out to be an excellent marketing tactic. “One of the things we’ve learned at charity: water is – we’re really out there,” Young explains. “When we’ve expressed failure and uncomfortable transparency, people have really come out for us.” He tells a story about the company’s annual birthday celebration in September, where everyone gathers around a newly constructed water project. Two years ago, the party was in Malawi, where three previous attempts to dig a well had failed. “It’s very difficult terrain,” he says. “There’s 40 layers of sand and it kept caving in.”

Although the project didn’t take, the organization released the video – to much acclaim. “Of all the videos we’ve published, it had one of the most powerful responses to it. Nicholas Kristof was tweeting about how he was struck by the openness. The sector really engaged around it.”

Gestures toward transparency may keep critics at bay, yet what remains unclear is exactly how many more people have reliable access to clean drinking water now than did six years ago. “Since 2006, we’ve funded 6,994 water projects in 20 countries,” Partnership Manager Sarah Cohen tells me via email. “What we don’t know and are currently investing in, is technology to tell us in real time when the pumps are broken or need maintenance.”

In other words, as Young tells me in a separate meeting, “It’s really hard…. Every one of [our nearly 7,000 water projects] is marked on Google Maps, so you can go and see them all. The biggest challenge in our sector is monitoring and evaluation. I can’t know today that every one of those is pumping. And I’m sure they’re not all pumping today. But we don’t have the data yet,” he says.

He’s Australian, quick-witted, and charming. He launches immediately into his solution, placing remote sensors in the heads of water pumps that will send signals to a wall in charity: water’s office: green if the pump is functioning that day, red if it isn’t. “There’ll be a lot of red,” he admits. The expected completion date is three years out. The project recently won a $5 million Google Global Impact Award, although the remaining costs, charity: water states on its site, will come out of the water-project budget.

With a staff of less than 50 last year, charity: water raised around $27 million total. (Compare to UK-based WaterAid, founded in 1981, which raised $58 million in donations under a similar mission and working in a similar number of countries, with 570 employees. Note WaterAid America is a charity: water partner.) It’s a fantastic amount of money for an NGO that can’t prove effectiveness after six years on the ground, and will continue to be unable to for another three.

Other basic questions about charity: water have gone unasked until now, too. The first is about that two-budget financial model. While it does appear to be the case that 100 percent of the donations raised for water go to folks on the ground implementing clean drinking water programs, the staff and overhead budget donations have been rising just as steadily.

In 2010, the overhead budget took in $5.1 million, and in 2011 that more than doubled to $11.1 million. According to financial reports, nearly $3.5 million went into what might be considered operations: $2 million paid the salaries of the 46 listed staff members. (Charity Navigator lists Scott Harrison’s 2010 salary at $140,000 and $180,000 is designated for a Chief Operating Officer (COO).

There’s no COO currently listed on the company web site, although there is a Chief Financial Officer, Michael Letta, and a President, Christoph Gorder. If half a million dollars is being split among the top three executives, that leaves an average of $35,000 for everyone else, which means charity: water seems to be paying workers decent, but not extravagant, wages. Another $260,000 is slated toward credit card fees, so the donations budget stays pure. Travel, rent, shipping, events and other operating expenses are each duly tallied as well.

But that leaves $7.6 million unaccounted for. “In 2011, we had a really good year in terms of operations fundraising and were able to invest and save the remaining funds to have nearly 12 months in the bank. This allows us to begin long-term planning and the flexibility to make key hires and grow the business,” Cohen explains when I ask where that money went.

However, “12 months in the bank” explains only half of the missing budget – which suggests charity: water’s business model might not be that different from the obfuscatory practices and inflated budgets of not-for-profits that have drawn criticism in recent decades.

It’s just that, on top of this shadiness, the company also raises donations to bring, as the mission statement explains, “clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.”

Which the organization does do, Cohen assures me, working, “with more than 21 implementing partners around the world to assess and determine areas and communities of greatest need.

“Our partners are experts. They’re professionals with years of proven success. We pick the countries where we work based on water scarcity, poverty, political stability – and the availability of these strong local partnerships. Our Water Programs team uses careful discretion for the water programs we fund. We don’t take offers or solicitations to use specific technologies or solutions. Our financial team reviews all granting budgets and completion reports to ensure that 100 percent of the money raised and sent to the field is used for water project costs. We require strict financial reporting, including detailed budgets from our implementing partners to prove how the money has been spent.”

In other words, a crystal-clear paper trail assures donors that partner organizations account for every dollar raised toward water projects. But fiscal transparency only goes so far, and isn’t accountability. What charity: water lacks is a process for ensuring that on-the-ground organizations are actually doing what they report on paper – and that they’re not doing anything else.

Charity: water acknowledges the murkiness – to a point. The company promotes itself as friendly and accessible. “Questions? Concerns? Send us an email and we’ll answer them as best we can,” signs off blog posts. In truth, however, this cheery transparency falls short of the mark.

Charity: water cheerfully – and consistently – failed to respond to follow-up questions and requests for an in-person office visit after a single initial meeting (with Young) and a perfunctory email interview (with Cohen).

Deflection and obfuscation aren’t new to donor-based organizations. Neither, for that matter, are the on-the-ground partners charity: water funds: Ethiopia-based A Glimmer of Hope; the poverty-fighting Concern Worldwide; The International Rescue Committee, which is big in the under-documented but well-funded anti-trafficking field; and the water-to-urban-youth-in-poverty organization formerly known as A Child’s Right, now changing its name to Splash, to name just a few. Many have been operating for decades, although charity: water’s recent influence on brand identity is clear.

If only all their influence was. Let’s look at Cambodia. According to a fourth-quarter donor report from 2011, “About 14.5 million people live in Cambodia and nearly 40 percent lack access to clean drinking water. Diarrheal disease is a leading cause of death here, especially for kids.”

This is fairly accurate: The population estimate is a little high – World Bank lists it at 14.3 million, and the clean drinking water statistic – actually 36 percent – comes from CARE.

The on-the-ground partner in charge of the 2011 water project, Samaritan’s Purse, has been around for about 40 years. With charity: water funds, they constructed 16,000 biosand filters with implementing partner, Clear Cambodia. (This appears to be the new name of Hagar International, an organization largely devoted to the contested anti-trafficking movement.) These filters are innovative concrete boxes containing gravel, sand and a layer of microbes that eat most water impurities. They take training to use, however, and can be expensive to maintain.

“Each family has the choice to sign up for the program,” charity: water explains in the report. Participants build their own filters, are charged a nominal fee ($5), and receive “hygiene and sanitation training by our partners’ staff.”

If it seems off-putting to have folks in need build and pay for their own charitable project, note this: Requesting minimal investment and fostering skills-building are two solid long-term strategies for bolstering public health. Biosand filters have a much lower rate of efficacy (76 percent) for new users, and regardless, training folks to build and maintain their own water systems is a part of providing access to clean drinking water.

“We believe if they build it themselves, they’ll be more likely to take ownership of it, and care for it long after we’re gone,” Cohen explains. “We don’t consider our projects ‘complete’ until the community receiving them is engaged and empowered to care for them. Where possible, our partners enlist local community members to help dig wells, construct filters, build ditches for piping or help out with any other construction tasks. Our maintenance models for each project reflect the community; often, this means our partners train a local Water Committee to collect fees to maintain their projects.”

All well and good, assuming those fees are kept to a minimum. The problem is that Samaritan’s Purse does more than build water filters. Charity: water donors might not be aware that the on-the-ground project they’re funding is a Christian ministry, first and foremost. (Hagar International also does faith-based work.) “The organization serves the Church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” concludes the mission statement. In traditionally Buddhist Cambodia, with a growing Muslim population the US State Department has flagged as a concern, conversion to Christianity is no small matter.

Among the Cambodia narratives on the Samaritan’s Purse web site, “Worshiping the True God” and “Heralding the Good News” were the first listed: The first describes a seed program in which farmers are given vegetable seeds and fruit trees, seemingly in exchange for spiritual conversion. The second describes a water-building project not unlike charity: water’s – and although in a different province, around the same time frame.

“Samaritan’s Purse implemented a clean water and hygiene program in TmoSen last year. On the closing day of the project, 200 villagers attended a celebration party. A staff member who is training to be a pastor got up to speak. He talked about how the water filters make dirty water clean by removing the impurities. He then said all people do bad things called sin. ‘Men and women are sinners,’ he said. ‘We need a filter to purify our life. That filter is Jesus. The Christian God, Jesus, loves you. You must believe in Jesus and the gift of eternal life is yours.'”

Such narratives may concern charity: water donors – especially when no selection criteria for participating families are on offer. One donor, whose friend ran a birthday campaign last year, told me she was a little perturbed by the possibility that her money may have supported more than water. “I try not to support religious institutions in any way, since I have no personal affiliation with an organization, and I’m opposed to help being given to only people who are willing to be ‘ministered’ to. It’s patriarchal and patronizing in my opinion,” she writes anonymously.

Now, faith-based organizations do excellent social and environmental justice work: No one’s saying they don’t. Yet neither religious instruction nor Christian values are mentioned in charity: water’s mission statement. (Neither organization responded to direct inquiries as to whether charity: water donations fund missionary work.) Given Scott Harrison’s personal faith, it isn’t unthinkable that his organization may have adopted similar values. But why would an NGO devoted to transparency hide it?

There are bigger picture concerns, as well. Even if we overlook incomplete financial transparency, a lack of organizational accountability, the potential misrepresentation of the scope of funded projects, and the possibility that a large percentage of the projects fail, charity: water is still focused primarily on individual water projects in developing nations. Some countries struggle with real problems, not of lack of resources, but of resource allocation. By focusing on the small picture – building wells – the task of developing sustainable resources to access water throughout nations or the developing world goes unaddressed.

As with its devotion to financial transparency, charity: water’s grasp of the need for systemic change is inconsistent. In Rwanda, Young tells me, the local government covers between 30 percent and 40 percent of water project fees, but other countries offer no official assistance. In particularly corrupt nations, like Cambodia, this often means the government is allowing an NGO to do work (even under duress) that it should be doing itself. Without also pushing for changes to systems of resource allocation within developing nations – in other words, well-building allows current, and often corrupt, resource misallocation to go unchecked and unamended. On-the-ground partners, swayed by the big bucks charity: water pulls in, may be devoting resources to water projects when their efforts could be more effectively applied elsewhere.

In not-for-profit parlance, questions of sustainability and effectiveness often come down to what an aid organization is doing “to work itself out of a job.” In addition to inquiries about faith-based work and accountability, monitoring and evaluation processes, however, this direct question went unanswered by charity: water in a November 27 email and a December 4 follow-up.

Indeed, it seems the NGO simply isn’t engaging in big-picture questions about water access, and thus its future – as something of a PR front for aid organizations doing on-the-ground water work – remains bright.

The organization’s success from a media standpoint isn’t in dispute. In our meeting, Young shared several stories of funders, (although none of funding recipients), like the 6-year-old who’d made an “epic” YouTube video; the man who had two competing donation streams, one to cast a vote to keep his beard and the other to vote to shave it off; Justin Bieber; Adam Lambert, Soledad O’Brien; and a woman who, if her funding goal was reached, promised to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco without a bathing suit.

“We have 1.3 million Twitter followers, and our videos might get viewed a couple of hundred thousand times,” Young explains. The company defends these efforts as movement-building; but without participants having any clear idea what change is necessary, who is implementing it, how it is being undertaken, and whether or not it works, it’s not a movement. It’s branding.

Yet, of what? Clearly, charity: water is very good at promoting itself – as well as the seemingly endless list of corporate sponsors and Hollywood stars that associate with the cause. Not to mention the much-lauded birthday donors, mostly Millennials the mass media have tagged as otherwise apathetic. “One of the things that we’ve done,” Young explains, “is about helping people see their impact. My birthday was last Tuesday, and myself and two friends raised $15,000 which funded [a water project] in Rwanda. So there’s going to be a sticker on it with their names. Which we’ve seen to be very motivating to donors. It’s not so much the sticker or the plaque – it’s more the representation of what they’ve done.”

Yet what donors have done remains in question: How many more folks have daily access to clean drinking water now? How many jobs have been created in developing nations? How many people have been offered religious or other instruction? (Contacts in Cambodia have no answers: They’ve never heard of charity: water, a possible side-effect of the on-the-ground partners system, which also speaks to concerns about accountability.)

Until these questions are answered, charity: water’s biggest provable impact may be that it puts the names of Millennials on new, but perhaps not always functional, wells in poverty-ridden countries. Again: That’s branding. Not a movement.

If it’s true that the charity: water model proves that honesty – not quarter-measures, like fiscal transparency – fosters support, the organization has nothing to lose by immediately investigating and divulging answers to these questions.

And if it’s not true, I’ll swim across Lake Michigan without a bathing suit.

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