By Emily Chau
“What was the first thing you did when you woke up this morning? Chances are, you used water. Try to imagine life without water.” 1 (Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=womIxQqO2tE )
According to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund), approximately 663 million people in the world live without access to clean, safe drinking water.2 What if I told you an answer to this water crisis was as easy as pledging your next birthday? That’s what Charity: water, a non-profit organization that brings clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations, has come up with.3 People can pledge their birthday, asking for donations, instead of gifts, to their campaign to reach their set goal with the promise that all of the money raised will go directly towards funding water projects. This is known as Charity: water’s “100% Model,” in which 100% of public donations go towards funding water projects, while overhead costs are covered by private donors, foundations, and sponsors.4 This “100% Model” is what drives their popularity with donors. It was what drew me in.
In the spring of 2014, I pledged my 19th birthday to raise money and provide clean water to people in need.5 With help from friends and family, my campaign raised $500. I was so thrilled and excited that I raised this money and I knew 100% of it would go directly to the worksite to fund a water project, while overhead costs were covered by someone else. Eighteen months later, I was notified that my $500 helped fund a hand-dug well project in a rural community in Ethiopia.6 I was provided with information, pictures, and the ability to see where the water project was built via Google maps as proof that my money made a concrete impact on a real community with real people. I shared the news with friends and family who donated to my campaign and they were also pleased they were able to see how their donations made a real impact. The 100% Model and the proof that Charity: water provides is what sets them apart from other non-profits.
Charity: water prides itself on this transparency. They wanted to be a “charity that would use 100% of the money raised to fund clean water solutions and prove each project,” and show their donors the impact their money made.7 On their website, they break down their approach: what goes into the planning process, the implementation, the maintenance, and, most importantly, the proof.7,8 They take every effort to be as transparent as possible.
However, critics9,10 accuse Charity: water’s “100% Model” to be problematic, and in fact, they aren’t very transparent after all. Joe Garecht, founder of the Fundraising Authority, claims that Charity: water is creating a problem for other non-profit organizations because they have propagated the “overhead myth,”9 in which overhead expenses are bad and perhaps even unethical. Charity: water is hurting the non-profit sector as a whole by undermining the importance of operations. In actuality, you can’t have one without the other. Overhead expenses go towards the betterment of non-profit organizations by allowing them to carry out their work. 9 It’s just as necessary to fund overhead as it is to fund direct on-the-site work.
In a 2013 investigative report on Charity: water from Truthout,11 the author raised additional issues. One particular concern came directly from Charity: water’s Partnership Manager, Sarah Cohen: “What we don’t know and are currently investing in, is technology to tell us in real time when the pumps are broken or need maintenance.” 1
In March 2014, they launched Pipeline, a sustainability project where they equip local leaders and mechanics with the tools and knowledge they need to fix broken pumps.12 Pipeline’s singular purpose is to help communities keep clean water flowing, and create reliable local systems that can one day function without [their] support.” 13 The “technology” that Cohen mentioned above is a sensor within the pumps that detects when the something is faulty and alerts local mechanics trained by Charity: water.12
As of today, Charity: water has yet to announce plans to restructure their 100% model, but I still believe in this charity and I’ve seen the good work that they do. I recognize that they have flaws and it’s necessary that critics continue to critique their work if we want to see improvement. We’ve already seen how they listened to concerns about their sustainability issue and brought Pipeline to life. Only time will tell if Charity: water plans to take further steps to improve accountability and transparency.
- “Why Water.” Accessed on Feb 21, 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=womIxQqO2tE>
- “UNICEF: Water and Sanitation.” Accessed on February 22, 2016. <https://www.unicefusa.org/mission/survival/water.>
- Charity: water. “Birthdays Are Changing the World.” Accessed on February 22, 2016. <https://www.charitywater.org/birthdays/history.php.>
- Charity: water. “The 100% Model.” Accessed on February 22, 2016. <http://www.charitywater.org/100percent/.>
- Mycharity: water. “19 for 19.” Accessed on February 22, 2016. <https://my.charitywater.org/emily-chau/19-for-19-1.>
- Mycharity: water. “Gerebhinguluk Community.” Accessed on February 22, 2016. <https://mycw.charitywater.org/p/myprojectsview?campaign_id=52817&project_id=ET.RST.Q188.8.131.52.>
- Charity: water. “Dollars to Projects.” Accessed on February 22, 2016. <http://www.charitywater.org/d2p/.>