Skip to main content
Global Philanthropy

Part 2: Philanthropy’s Role in Increasing Access to Clean, Safe Water

By September 16, 2020October 13th, 2021No Comments

This blog post is Part 2 of a four-part series highlighting the funding strategies, challenges, and lessons learned shared in The Thoughtful Funder’s Guide to Global Giving. Check out Part 1: The Thoughtful Funder’s Checklist for Global Giving, and stay tuned for posts about addressing the global refugee response crisis and improving conditions for women and girls. And whatever your area of focus is, it’s helpful to remember the six Powerful Practices used by thoughtful funders as unearthed through our research for this guide. These ideas are not new, but they continue to re-emerge as core values and principles to guide more ethical and participatory cross-border philanthropy.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, one of humanity’s most serious threats was lack of access to clean, safe water. Now, with one in every nine people living without readily available safe water, the health and safety of families around the world is at even greater risk. More than a quarter of all people, over 2 billion, not only face diseases caused by unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation, but also the inability to simply wash their hands. COVID-19 has made clear the dire need for adequate WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) around the world.

For funders seeking to increase access to clean, safe water, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 is designed to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” and provides guidance for funders’ efforts. Strengthening WASH systems can seem daunting, but the payoffs are well worth the effort. As Brian Arbogast from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation emphasizes: “If you can provide a community with great sanitation, it’s like providing them with a super vaccine.”

In TPI’s newest publication about international philanthropy published in 2019 – The Thoughtful Funder’s Guide to Global Giving – we outline key approaches to increasing access to WASH that are proving all the more relevant and urgent in our changing world. As funders consider implementing one of the seven strategies below (and we know there are others!), there are important elements to keep in mind as you seek to have impact with funding in this field.

First, collaboration across sectors, involving government, private sector, and community actors, is key. Although private philanthropy may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to bilateral and multilateral WASH financing, funders of all sizes fill important gaps and provide support to early stage innovative ideas to develop “proof of concept” to attract government funding.

Second, it’s important to consider long-term infrastructure and maintenance. Between 30-50% of WASH operations fail within two to five years, often because what is delivered includes maintenance demands and accountability structures that are neither planned for nor met. To understand the impact of an initial investment five, ten, and fifty years from now, funders should ask: Who will maintain water delivery systems such as pumps? Where will the equipment for maintenance come from? How will these workers be trained and paid? At the same time that funders consider these long-term questions, it is also useful to have an exit strategy in mind. As the One Foundation explains, funders should determine how to essentially run their philanthropy support out of business by creating self-sustaining models.

Third, the most sustainable WASH solutions are those developed in partnership with the local community and the people most affected. As noted in a recent article in SSIR about learning from community-led responses, “Top-down, centrally-managed systems of power can end up wreaking havoc… whereas locally designed and collaboratively built acts of solidarity, which view the vulnerable as participants in their survival rather than passive consumers of assistance, inform a model of community resilience with implications far beyond their immediate impact.” Those results are worth the time it takes to achieve them.

WASH funders appreciate the value of relationships and networking, and new players of every size and interest within this area are welcomed into collaborative learning and action. The following strategies are drawn from lessons learned by WASH funders and can help accelerate and increase funders’ impact from the start.

Seven Strategies for Funders to Consider

  1. Invest in a long-term future. Change is not real change unless it lasts for more than a year, or five. Ideally, each project you fund should be something others look back on in ten or fifty years as having made a real contribution to what WASH becomes.
  2. Partner with local government and local communities. Federal and local governments will likely be the primary sources of consistent funding for WASH projects that work long-term. They will be the regulators, and they will likely oversee maintenance and improvements. Likewise, the local community should be engaged from the outset for sustainability.
  3. Fund sanitation and hygiene. The most well-known aspect of WASH has been access to drinking water. But NGOs and private philanthropy have quickly realized that addressing access to toilets and other sanitation issues makes safe drinking water more possible and decreases disease. Focusing on all elements of WASH funding is more important today than ever before.
  4. Focus dually on rural and urban populations. While the needs of the urban poor are growing, they are more apparent and often receive more funding. Rural populations – totaling more than 1.5 billion people around the world – are being left without basic sanitation. Funders can be key to making sure these people are seen, heard, and supported.
  5. Employ technology and innovation. New technologies and inventions – from reimagined toilets to portable water filters – as well as new management approaches are components of successful WASH funding and exciting program opportunities that are underway today.
  6. Support market-based solutions. Some $1.7 trillion is needed to achieve universal, if basic, WASH goals by 2030. Philanthropists can play a role in funding start-ups and testing best practices, with an eye toward projects becoming as self-sufficient as possible over time.
  7. Act nimbly and be willing to take risks. Risk is not always something from which to shy away. Large funders can minimize risk by diversifying their efforts, or lean heavier into opportunities that might yield more powerful results. Small funders, in turn, can take advantage of their ability to be more flexible and explore innovations sooner in their development and evolution.

Real innovation in the WASH sector overall is in the early stages. Yet according to the World Health Organization, every dollar invested in water and sanitation services yields a US$4.30 return due to reduced healthcare costs for individuals and society, and greater productivity in the workplace. Layer in change on other Sustainable Development Goals around hunger, sustainability, responsibility, and life on Earth, and it’s an exciting time to be a part of the WASH funder community, leading the way for so many others into a new global future.

Click here to learn more about TPI’s Center for Global Philanthropy and our work supporting funders of all kinds who wish to effectively give around the world. The Center supports individuals, families, foundations, and companies to have an impact through their giving. Contact us to learn more about how we help funders and companies do more and better giving worldwide.