To raise awareness of the global water crisis, Mina Guli ran the equivalent of 40 marathons on seven deserts on seven continents in seven weeks earlier this year.
As a marathon runner, I salute her.
As a reporter who writes about philanthropy, I’m less impressed.
A “global leader, athlete, entrepreneur and adventurer” — her words, not mine –Guli is the founder and CEO of Thirst, a charity registered in Hong Kong that aims to teach young people, mostly in China, “to become responsible water citizens, managing their own water use and the use of those around them.”
Thirst has issues. What, for starters, does it mean to be a “responsible water citizen”? For Thirst, it appears to mean making small changes to conserve water: Drinking tea instead of coffee, eating chicken instead of beef, buying fewer T-shirts and taking shorter showers. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to know if Thirst’s activities change behavior. More important, it’s unlikely that water conservation on a personal or household level will do much about water scarcity. (It could even make things worse, as I’ll explain.) As it that weren’t enough, Thirst won’t say where its money comes from, or how much it spends, or even who paid for Guli’s adventures on seven continents and produced a series of beautiful videos documenting her feat.
Thirst would not be worth our attention were it not an initiative of the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. This organization consists of people under 40 selected by the World Economic Forum, the group that organizes the annual winter gathering of some of the world’s most powerful political leaders, CEOs and philanthropists at Davos, a Swiss ski resort. These young global leaders are “bold, brave, action-oriented and entrepreneurial” and committed to “serving society at large,” we’re told.
They are also smart enough to think critically about NGOs and their impact. But the WEF’s alignment with Thirst–see, for example, this posting on the World Economic Forum website by a WEF staffer–is an unwelcome reminder that for too many people, when it comes to philanthropy, good intentions are good enough. Even setting aside the issue of transparency, which is no small matter, the more important question that must be asked of Thirst, and of any NGO that aspires to tackle a big global issue, is a simple one: Where is the evidence that its work will bring about meaningful and lasting change? Continue reading