When researching water charities for last month’s long blogpost, and trying to understand why as many as 40 percent of water points in the developing world are broken at any given time, I was surprised to learn about the sector’s spotty sustainability performance. I was also struck by the lack of transparency about its work.
Why install wells, taps, pipes and toilets without following up, months and years later, to see if they still work? And why not be more open about what’s working, and what’s not, so everyone in the sector can learn?
Some groups told me monitoring is difficult and expensive. Others are awaiting technology breakthroughs, like sensors. Still others cited the reluctance of donors to finance follow-up visits and repairs.
None of that has deterred a Seattle-based nonprofit called Splash. Splash is smaller than some better-known water charities–it spent about $3.2 million last year–but it seems to me to be a model for water charities, as well as other NGOS, in several ways–its transparency, its commitment to sustainability, its focus and its ultimate goal of becoming obsolete.
[Before explaining, I want to thank Brian Banks of the Global Water Challenge, Sean Furey of the Rural Water Supply Network Secretariat, Ned Breslin of Water for People, Bob Kaplan of the InterAmerican Foundation, Marla Smith-Nilson of Water 1st, Stef Smits of IRC WASH and Susan Davis of Improve International for their thoughtful comments on the prior post. If anything, I’ve learned that the sector is even more complicated that I had realized; so it goes. I’m doing this blog is to get smarter about charities, so I can eventually take these stories to a broader audience.]
Back to Splash. What caught my attention, at first, was its transparency. Most water charities list their projects but, as Sean Furey of the RWSN Secretariat notes in his comment, counting taps, wells or beneficiaries says nothing about the quality of the water they get. On a website called Proving It, Splash list projects, feedback from beneficiaries, water quality reports, costs and more. Here, for example, are the results of a 2014 water quality test of a school in Kathmandu, Nepal, that says a bacteriological analysis found the water to be “unsatisfactory for drinking.” The practice of reporting publicly on failures is a great way to minimize and learn from mistakes. This, incidentally, lead me to wonder about Splash’s claim of a 99.3 percent success rate, although success, in this case, doesn’t mean no problems; it means that problems eventually get fixed.
By phone, I asked Peter Drury, director of strategy for Splash, whether it was difficult to talk about failures with donors and potential donors.
“It was courageous, maybe, in the beginning,” he told me. “Most nonprofits don’t like to tell stories that make them look bad.” But, over time, transparency has helped fundraising. He said: “Our value proposition is that we will tell you the truth when we fail. As it turns out, donors actually like that…We’re building trust.”
Then again, Splash has the luxury of working mostly with sophisticated big donors. George Russell Jr., who built an investment advisory firm in Seattle, is its biggest donor, and charity: water, a fundraising powerhouse that understands the water sector, has been funding Splash, which used to be called A Child’s Right, since 2010.
Influenced in part by Water for People, Splash also builds the cost of inspections, maintenance, repairs, hygiene education and community-building into every project. “We make a 10-year guarantee of monitoring and evaluation, training, spare parts,” Drury said. This commitment to sustainability means Splash does fewer projects but “there’s no reason to do our work in the first place if it won’t last ten years,” Drury says. A project that could be done for an upfront cost of less than $5,000 needs a $10,000 budget before Splash will go to work.
Then there’s the question of focus. Splash delivers clean water to kids in schools, orphanages, hospitals and shelters. It uses existing, commercial technology–the same point-of-use filtration systems installed in restaurants and hotels in poor countries. That way, Splash can piggy-back on the supply chains used by the likes of McDonald’s or Hilton. Drury says: “We’re committed fully to taking what works in a commercial environment and making it work for the poor.”
Finally, Splash is committed to putting itself out of business. That’s important because as Stef Smits of IRC WASH wrote on my prior post, the NGO/charity sector will always be relatively small compared to the public sector, and so it should focus on innovation, advocacy and a watchdog role. To that end, Splash aims create to create local, visible water solutions that can be scaled by government or the private sector.
As its founder, Eric Stowe, recently wrote on a Bridgespan blog:
We’re on a mission to become obsolete in the countries where we work—because others who are far more capable and way more appropriate will be carrying the mission forward.
Rather than focus on growing our organizational footprint, we seek massive scale by developing strategic partnerships with NGOs, governments, and businesses that have the wherewithal—capacity, infrastructure, and talent—to develop, sustain, and grow our safe water projects in urban areas long after we are gone. In effect, we’re teaching others how to solve a problem, one of the pathways to transformative scale
Or, as Peter Drury put it to me: “Everything starts with safe water and ends with exit.”
Splash’s exit strategy differs, depending on where the group is working. It has exited Thailand, where it turned its projects over to a private water company. It is also close to exit in China, where after nearly a decade it has provided filtration systems to nearly all of the nation’s 1,200 orphanages, spanning 31 provinces. Next year, it expects to leave those systems in the hands of either the government or a global brand that will make the work part of its corporate-responsibility program.
In Nepal, Splash wants to bring sustainable WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) to all 650 public schools in Kathmandu. Its plan is to equip a local affiliate to become a social enterprise, which would earn revenue by maintaining water systems for the government and for restaurants, hotels and others in the private sector. It aims to exit by 2020–a goal that could be slowed by the recent earthquake, which damaged about 25 percent of Splash’s systems.
In Ethiopia, meantime, Splash has run into difficulties. They include long, unexplained delays at customs when filtration equipment arrives in the country (and we can only guess what’s happening there) and a reluctance on the part of some government agencies, but not others, to admit to problems with water quality. Eight years after getting started in Ethiopia, Splash says on its website: “We are still learning, assessing, planning and strategizing.”
My takeaway: Splash has a strong sense of what it can do and what it cannot do. It sets public goals and timetables. It has an explicit theory of change that ends with its demise. And it’s honest when things go awry.
That’s the least we can expect of a charity.