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?
In the case of Thirst, that evidence is scant. Guli says she undertook her #run4water (you knew it carried a hashtag, didn’t you?) “for one reason – to raise awareness about the water crisis.” Certainly Guli attracted attention. Her adventures generated breathless coverage in dozens of news outlets, ranging from CNN to the UK’s Daily Mail to the Australian Broadcasting Co. to Fortune (“Why This Marathon Runner Is One of the World’s Greatest Leaders”) to Runner’s World to redbull.com. But, while the stories invariably touch on water issues, most of the coverage is devoted to her running.
Thirst tried to raise money to support the #run4water, but that didn’t go well either. Its crowdfunding campaign raised just $2,747 out of a goal of $70,000. Those donations, it’s safe to assume, did not cover the costs of flying Guli and her support crew, which included a photographer, to those seven continents.
So who paid the bills? That’s a mystery. On its website, Thirst says: “We are a model of transparency, integrity and honesty. Donors and the wider public know exactly where we spend our money.” [Emphasis added] So I emailed Guli to ask her why Thirst doesn’t provide much financial information on its website, or in a 2015 annual report.
Transparency is extremely important to us and we try to provide as much information as we can about the work that we’re doing. It’s a focus area for us and we intend to continue to report as much as we can about the results and impact we’re having.
The annual report you have seen on our WE program is a showcase for our work and the results we are seeing through the hard work of our team. We do not rely on public funding to support our activities and in most cases our funders request funding details not to be disclosed. We do however engage in regularly reporting to our partners.
Guli added that she plans to talk “with the team and our partners” about how Thirst can provide more information “whilst still respecting their confidentiality requirements.”
Are you as puzzled by this as I am? Thirst may not “rely on public funding” but it seeks donations. And why would corporate partners would want to remain private? Usually they crave attention. (A Google search turned up one sponsor, Swiss watch maker IWC Schaffhausen, which sells luxury timepieces for up to $63,000.) Hong Kong charities are very lightly regulated, so Thirst has no legal obligations to disclose its financials.
The more important question is whether Thirst’s educational work with young people in China is likely to do any good. David Zetland, a water policy expert who teaches at Leiden University College in The Netherlands, is skeptical, as he explains in this post on his Aguanomics blog. Zetland is the author of an excellent (and free!) book called Living With Water Scarcity that explains what any Davos attendee should know: That the best way to manage a scarce resource like water is through some mix of smart regulation and pricing.
As Zetland writes:
Prices help people prioritize their water uses. Some will stop watering their lawns; others make take shorter showers so they can water their gardens. On an industrial scale, higher prices increase water recycling at factories, efficient irrigation on farms and so on. 
In San Diego, for example, water is cheap. So people use more of it:
Average daily consumption per person is around 600 liters (150 gallons) — double what someone in Sydney Australia consumers and five times an Amsterdam resident’s consumption. 
Put simply, pricing is more powerful than persuasion. If we have learned anything from the climate crisis, it’s that asking people to recycle, bike to work or adjust the thermostat has modest effects, at best. Guli should know this; she previously worked on carbon reduction projects for the World Bank and in China, projects that rely on economic incentives to reduce emissions. She also knows that more than 70 percent of the world’s water is used by agriculture, and that switching from coffee to tea won’t lead farmers to curb their wasteful water use.
“We’ve already been enormously successful”
Personal conservation efforts could even backfire because of what’s called the “single action bias”–the fact that some people decide, after buying a small car or eating less meat, that they’ve done their part to solve the problem.
But Thirst says “every drop counts.” By email, Guli tells me:
Consumer behaviour is powerful. When we consumers understand the impact of our buying patterns on larger issues like water conservation, we make smart choices, and industry adapts to meet consumer demand. We have already seen this happen in the green market, in the organic market and in the fair trade movement.
Fair enough, although organics and Fair Trade have standards and metrics. They go well beyond awareness.
In her CNN interview, Guli makes a similar point:
Just me running has joined together literally thousands of people around the world who’ve been following me. People have been making declarations to reduce their water consumption, everything from choosing to drink tea rather than drink coffee, or to become vegetarian for just one meal, or to give up chocolate. I had a whole bunch of my girlfriends give up chocolate for the seven weeks that I was running. All of these small things seem like crazy stuff but they make a huge amount of difference to our water consumption on the planet.
Really? I’m all for eating less meat. I might even give up chocolate, so long as it is just for seven weeks. But where’s the evidence that any of that will make “a huge amount of difference?”
When CNN asked Guli how she will measure success, she replied:
We’ve already been enormously successful on this campaign. Over a billion people have seen our messages. Hundreds of thousands have made declarations to reduce their water consumption. When we set out to do this, it wasn’t about raising money, it was about raising awareness.
But to what end? I called up Zetland, who said: “Consumer awareness does almost nothing. Most of the conservation message are fairly worthless unless they are reinforced by pricing messages.”
None of this would matter much, as I said, if Thirst didn’t market itself as “an initiative of the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum.” The Davos crowd should know better.
Zetland, as it happens, has a suggestion for young global leaders who want to do something about water scarcity.
“Everyone of those people is extremely ambitious,” he says. “They have high caliber CVs. Getting them to commit to going to a board meeting of their water utility once a month would be a lot more purposeful and effective. Just show up and ask a couple of questions.”
That won’t get you on CNN, but it might begin to make a difference.