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I recently attended a meeting where a representative from Charity: Water presented. Their goal, like UNICEF’s Tap Project and Water Aid in the U.K. is to raise funds to address the world’s shortage of available clean drinking water. They tend to focus more on drilling wells, than on sanitation.

Their presentation was great and should be a model for other charities. Their growth has been meteoric, successfully raising more funds, and completing more projects year after year, even through the financial crisis. They are being more successful in my opinion for a number of reasons:

First, they have choosen a worldwide problem that if solved would have geometric consequences. People cannot survive without water, so it is a first tier problem. In some cases, children and their mothers travel many miles to obtain clean water. Lack of clean water causes multiple health problems which impact families and communities. Time spent obtaining water is time lost on education or other productive work.

Second, they only have one issue: clean water for human consumption. They have one brand and stick to it.

Third, clean drinking water is a problem that could be readily solved on a near permanent basis with very little resources. For instance, it costs only $500 to drill a well which will provide water for a small community. It is a one time cost, which will last many years, with minimal maintenance.

Fourth, they engage the local community in well creation and maintenance, encouraging local buy-in and skin-in-the-game. They understand sustainability.

Fifth, they target only a few countries at a time so that their resources and efforts are not spread thin and timely completion is assured.

Sixth, they use GIS to map and video each well drilled to verify for each donor where their contribution has been spent. They understand audit; what charities refer to as monitoring and evaluation.

Seventh, they revisit where they previously drilled to be sure the wells are still functioning and that the community is active in maintenance. They can then report to their contributor to demonstrate the long term viability of their contribution. Again they understand sustainability and audit.

Eighth, they have a distinctive business model. 100% of public donations go the projects. The organization’s operating costs are funded separately by large donors.

Ninth, they are internet savvy.

The approach they have taken is a business approach. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a similar approach to health issues, albeit it has the advantage of being a foundation (with massive resources), rather than a public charity. Nonetheless, Gates’ focuses on health problems that have worldwide geometric consequences that can be substantially solved long term, within a few years, for relatively little money. There is nothing wrong with picking low hanging fruit first.

Many charities and foundations are interested in developed country issues, even in emerging countries without basic resources. Sometimes basic resources are not a sexy issue; they are harder to raise money for in developed countries. Museums that get money to construct a new wing, when they don’t have enough funds to maintain their art, is a classic example in the developed world. In the emerging world provision of basic resources should be the responsibility of foreign governments that may be failed or corrupt states. There is reluctance by donors to be their surrogates.

Some at the conference were from Haiti and Nepal. They were trying to raise funds for their issues. Charities mostly raise funds from individual donations, not from foundations or even government grants. Having an internet presence is important if you are to raise funds. Assuming cross-border fundraising legal issues would not be an issue, internet fundraising is difficult in many countries such as Haiti or Nepal because they have erratic or non-existant electricity to support a continued internet presence. Charity to purchase and maintain electrical generators might prove more useful in the short run than the cause they are trying to promote. For this type of charity, public/private collaboration is likely a necessity, as would be the case for transportation infrastructure. This type of charity is at the other end of the spectrum from the Charity: Water model, as it is larger scale. It is similar to Charity:Water in its geometric implications.

Most international charitable giving is focused on health, education and the environment. Human rights issues and the like are worthwhile endeavors but are hard to solve and in my estimation should be a lower priority, as they are in fact. Charity: Water is just a fundraiser, as are many charities in the international sector. They subcontract the actual work through local grants. Given a limited pool of funds, like other charities, their fundraising approach is siloed. Their cause would be better served if all charities focused on clean water collaborated. They could also collectively finish off one country at a time, until the whole world problem is substantially solved. This would bring scale and more efficiency. I think they and other follow-on development charities would also benefit by vertical collaboration. They should baseline the opportunity cost of not having ready clean water before a project starts. Knowing what the local community would otherwise be doing, or could do, if water was readily available would present the opportunity to engage the next development charity. For instance, if the village did not have adequate education, then educational development could follow solution of the water problem, as children would have more time. The follow-on development charity should also be a specialist in that region for that one problem.

Charities are finding it difficult to raise funds, and their models are having to evolve as donors require more of them. Charity: Water is not a template for all, but it presents a different model that would work for small to medium size charities. I suspect that the model becomes more difficult with a large organization. Charity: Water already has a fairly substantial headcount relative to its size, so it may have to evolve as well.

Disclaimer: I do not work for, raise funds for, or receive any benefit from Charity: Water. I have no conflict of interest. I do fully support solving the world’s clean water issue and I like their approach.