Untapping the potential of a sanitation NGO

Ned Breslin is the CEO of Water For People a non-profit international development organisation that partners with communities in developing countries to create sustainable, locally-maintained drinking water solutions. Water For People’s main focus is on lasting programmes that deal with entire districts and regions rather than households and villages. Water For People’s vision is a world where all people have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, a world where no one suffers or dies from a water or sanitation related disease. 

Fergal Byrne: Can you tell me a little about the scale and impact of your operations today?  

Ned Breslin: We are active in nine countries around the world, five in Latin America and three in Africa and two states in India and we chose that because that's a really diverse range of countries.  You have diverse cultures, diverse economies, diverse politics, diverse challenges, diverse psychology, diverse settlement patterns, diversity poverty challenges. It's a good mix that allows us to look across the globe and say, “If what we are doing makes sense and we can see movement in these three areas then there might be something to that.”  

At Water for People, we define scale and replication and impact slightly differently from others. The conventional approach to non-profit work, whether it's in the UK or the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America is basically size based: good organisations are seen as fairly big and have lots of programmes around the world and impacting lots of people. We try to do it slightly differently. We basically ask two questions: “What size do you need to be to be influential? And how can we model success so that other organisations want to replicate our ideas?” 

The second thing is we kind of judge our work really on whether others take it up and the others we're looking at are basically governments. If you look at water and sanitation, a lot of people argue that the way to help all these people around the world who don't have access to water, is to provide more money. In fact, if you look at the size of the pie, a very thin slice of it is aid and charitable donations. The vast majority, something like 97% of the money is actually in government. So the question is how do you use philanthropic money or aid to creatively and flexibly unleash the money that already exists in the country and is not being spent.

FB: How easy is it to work with local governments?

NB: Interestingly, the only thing sustainable in any of the places we work is actually local government, which is going to be there forever. Businesses are going to come and go, NGOs are going to come and go, community leadership is going to come and go; but local government is actually an institution that has some legs and so you have to deal with it. By bringing local government in, and helping them do their job better, by understanding the political incentives of people wanting to rise up the chain, and by bringing communities in with a voice, you can navigate this.  

FB: What is a realistic time frame to create change? 

NB: I think one of the reasons it's hard to create change is that people look for enormous change almost too soon. At Water for People we believe that you have to model that change. You have to demonstrate it and then people will see the potential of what we are doing.

It's taken us four years with several local governments around the world to actually develop this trust, get money moving, get real momentum towards full coverage. We have two districts in the world that we were working in that have achieved full water and sanitation coverage. One is an opposition district in Bolivia, which is absolutely fascinating.  

Because we took the time to build trust, and because we are patient in the field, people can start to see it, we generate momentum and we progress faster. We have about five more projects that are coming online this year. I think sometimes social entrepreneurs just try to jump too quickly.

Only 3% of organisations actually monitored to improve. Most do it for donors or PR.

FB: Can you tell me about how you think about measuring impact?

NB: I think if you set up your enterprise or organisation with a big, very audacious goal it's key to to track and monitor it from the outset. You know that you're not going to achieve your final goal right away but you basically you need to focus. You need to track your progress quarterly, or on a biannual basis, whatever it is, and look for one or two key things, and everything becomes focused on achieving that outcome. 

So for us it's full water and sanitation coverage at a district level, that then spreads to other districts and goes national. You have to get that first part right. And to continuously ask what is working? That's great - let's build on that! And what's not working?   

The job of entrepreneurs, the really good ones, is to hold the space with bad news if something is not working as planned. The goal is still the right goal. So the question becomes: what are we going to change and what are we going to do differently? But you need to have the flexibility to do that. Most organisations don't have that flexibility. We've done a lot of work to build that flexibility. We build around strength and pivot around weakness or challenges and that’s when you get the good stuff.  

That is where excitement comes from; that's how you lure really creative people who want to change things. It's really about understanding that momentum, good and bad, intervening and trying to keep the momentum going forward, while spreading lessons and ideas beyond where we're working on the path to that bigger goal.  

FB: How well are social businesses in the water sector at measuring impact? 

NB: It's pretty dire, frankly, most organisations don't monitor. Most organisations talk about how they should monitor but they complain about not having enough money or not having enough time, those are unhealthy organisations and also the ones who could be big, they could reach scale but they're not very effective and they know that. 

The Bridgestone group in the US did a fascinating study on monitoring in the non-profit sector. They found that only 3% of organisations that they surveyed, and it was a big survey, only 3% of organisations actually monitored to improve. Most monitored for donor needs or for PR and those organisations miss the point.  

If you monitor to improve you will lure donors. If you monitor to improve and get better all the time then you will have the PR, if you will, that maybe isn't about you per se, but is about the issue. If you monitor just to please other people and not really to get better, then you are going to be stagnant and that's how things are playing out in the current landscape. The majority of organisations are stagnant and the ones that are good have invested in monitoring for improvement and will get better. 

Photo by IUCN Web