Organizations Profiles

An Interview With Water Charity’s CEO, JahSun

Water Charity

There are all different sizes of philanthropic organizations. Some are small and have just a few dedicated volunteers. Others are large, with hundreds of employees and volunteers. And while it might be tempting to assume the larger organizations have a better handle on things or are more effective, that’s not always true. Often, large organizations are good at pushing for large, across-the-board changes, while small organizations can more easily focus on individual communities or issues.

Recently, Philanthropic People spoke with one such small organization. Called “Water Charity,” this nonprofit is run by just three volunteers, who take care of all their own travel and administrative expenses–meaning that 100% of donations go toward projects in the field. Water Charity’s mission is “to implement practical solutions to provide safe water, effective sanitation, and meaningful health education to those in need.” The group runs the Appropriate Projects initiative and has implemented projects in 60 countries around the world.

We talked with Water Charity’s CEO, JahSun, and here’s what we found out about this amazing organization:

1. Why did you start Water Charity? It’s quite a different venture from working in the entertainment industry, and your bio on the website states that you’ve been involved with many philanthropic ventures over the years. What made confounding this organization more appealing than getting involved with existing organizations?

Well, half the world’s hospital beds are occupied by someone suffering from a water related illness.  This is mind boggling!  I saw that there was absolutely no reason for this suffering.  We are not waiting for a cure, or a new technology.  We know how to fix this problem, and yet more people die from lack of clean drinking water than from all forms of violence combined… including war.

Water Charity was started to fill a vacuum in the response to the World Water Crisis.  There were certainly a few other groups involved in hydrophilanthropy, but none of them were doing what we intended to do.  The model that we devised was orders of magnitude more efficient than anything else we knew of… And it is still often 10, 20 times (or more) as efficient, in terms “bang for buck.”

When I found out the extent of the water issue, it was clear that something needed to be done, and I have never been the kind of person that thinks other people will “deal with it.”  I have little faith that people will do the right thing, and I know, from experience, that most charities only use a tiny fraction of the money they raise to actually help people.  We wanted to be an exception to the rule.  We wanted to focus on the results rather than galas and photo ops.

So we created a model where we utilized existing volunteers and local labor to do simple projects with the simplest technology possible.  The fact that we don’t fly people around is crucial because we can drill a well and install a pump for around $500 (depending on the water table), while a single roundtrip ticket to these locations can run a couple thousand.  Not to toot our own horn, but most charities spend more money scheduling a meeting than we spend finishing our projects.

We decided to make our 501(c)3 entirely volunteer, and not only do we not pay ourselves, but we actually use our own money to start projects, and then try to recoup our expenses after the fact.  In this way, we can get projects done in a very short amount of time.  Most of our projects go from inception to completion in under a month.  This, and the fact that we tend to use Peace Corps volunteers (who would often be stuck teaching English otherwise) to lead and oversee our projects, makes us very lean and streamlined.

2. Your website mentions that Water Charity is a new organization but has being conducting water projects for over 40 years. Can you give me an example of some projects Water Charity did before it was an official organization? 

We have been around for over 5 years now, but this figure refers to the fact that our COO was already doing water projects when he was a Peace Corps volunteer  serving in Bolivia in the mid 60’s.  After receiving his engineering degree, he also worked for the Cities of Los Angeles and Compton, designing water systems. (He eventually became a lawyer.)  Jacky has also spent decades working with water and has written many influential papers on the health benefits of drinking enough water; she was involved in determining how many glasses per day people require for optimal health, as well as water’s effect on heart disease.

As for me, my involvement in water projects goes back a meager 20 years to when I helped members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes deal with their contaminated water situation due to the Peabody coal mine.  It was tragic, as their coal filtered aquifer became highly unpotable when the coal was removed, and the water was filtering through uranium instead.

3. As CEO of Water Charity and an international DJ, producer, musician, and writer, you have a lot going on right now. What are your responsibilities at Water Charity, and how do you find time to get everything done?

Hehehe… Good question.

I suppose the short answer is that I just focus on one thing at a time while keeping a kind of multitasking overview on everything that I need to do.  I also manage to combine these various things at times.

For instance, I am now putting the final touches on our first Water Charity Benefit CD “WE ARE WATER,” to be released soon.  This is a labor of love I am producing with songs donated by artists from around the world, and includes tracks from a number of Grammy winners.  There are even a few exclusive tracks that can only be found on this compilation, including stuff by Jethro Tull and Marcus Miller.

The album will be available as a double CD and as a digital download on Amazon first, then after a couple weeks, it will be on iTunes and all the rest.  Proceeds will go to fund our ongoing water filter distribution program called Filters For Life.

Naturally, this is very exciting, and it allows me to combine a number of my interests into a single project.  It is also our first real attempt at what might be called publicity, so we will see where it goes.

To answer your other question, my responsibilities and duties at WC are usually whatever I want them to be.  I usually focus on the broad vision and goals of the organization.  I handle our outreach and public relations, make the pitches to foundations and large donors, and work on our overall strategy.  I like to get involved in individual projects, and interact with our volunteers when I am able, as well.  Most of the day to day paperwork and accounting stuff, though, is done by our capable COO, Mr. Averill J. Strasser Esq.

4. What differentiates Water Charity from other organizations, such as charity: water and Who most benefits from the work Water Charity does?

We are a smaller organization than those two guys.  They have large staffs and offices… Their expenses in a month may exceed our entire yearly budget.  As such, we serve different purposes.

I praise both Scott Harrison and Matt Damon for bringing a lot of attention to the water issue.  I am sure that both of them really and deeply care about this.  So, I am in no way denigrating the great work that these other charities do.  I can only say, that we are a very different beast, in that we spend nothing on administration, and are generally much lighter on our feet so to speak.

We have completed about 1,300 projects to date in over 60 countries.  By comparison, even the bigger water charities around tend to focus on a much smaller number of countries, with most of them only doing work in 20 countries or less.  Some of their projects are bigger than ours, but I know of no other organization that has helped more people for less money.  The average price for a well in Africa tends to be cited at around $15,000, which does not include their administration costs.  We do them regularly for $555 all included via our Appropriate Projects Initiative.

This is not meant to be an indictment of other organizations.  I merely mention it to point out how extremely efficient and focused on results our organization is.  Also, we can not take full credit for this efficiency, as our model uses the fantastic resource of existing Peace Corps and Returned Peace Corps volunteers, and it is these worthy people who deserve a lion’s share of the credit.  By and large, it is they who design the projects from the ground up, hire the local laborers (creating jobs and even careers in the process), oversee the projects to completion… and even document the whole thing.

So, who profits from our work?  Well, the communities that receive our assistance, naturally.  But, also, the volunteers themselves.  These are people who are trained in a local language and stationed in remote regions of a country, but then by and large are left to try and do what good they can with no funding.  Often their mission is simply to teach.  Being the humanitarian go-getters that they are, the vast majority of them want to help their communities in more substantial ways, and Water Charity enables them to do this.  Many of our volunteers do a number of projects with us over the course of their 2 year service.  A few have done 10 or more, and even gone back to their country of service to continue to do projects after their terms were up!

In addition, as I have hinted at, the locals who get hired to work on our projects profit.  Not just in the immediate sense of a bit of work, but, in many cases, they are able to learn a skill that they can continue to employ long after our project is over.  We have many cases where workers on our projects have gone on to do similar work in neighboring villages… repairing pumps, fixing water installations, building rainwater catchment systems, and helping install needed water filtration systems.  For us, this is a glorious bonus.  We consider these collateral projects to be very happy bonus benefits to our work.  I am sure many organizations would even add them to their project total.

5. What sorts of results have you seen from the projects you’ve completed so far? Have your programs evolved over time?

Mostly our programs have just churned out more projects and the number of completed projects just keeps piling up.  We often start a few new ones a day.

The focus on simple, easily achievable goals is key for us.  We do not set out to tackle the moon… and, thus, we don’t have any failures to speak of.  We have had some projects that encountered snafus or setbacks, but every project we have implemented has borne fruit.  Every single project we have undertaken has given tangible benefits to the community, be it in sanitation, hygiene, or access to clean drinking water.

Sometimes our projects even give added benefits of water (or grey water) for crop irrigation, and we have also been active in a number of disaster relief efforts (most recently in the Philippines distributing filters in the aftermath of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan / Yolanda).

I suppose it is there, in the area of disaster relief, that we have grown most.  We started out basically only doing development work, and really got into disaster relief in Haiti after the earthquake there.  We had a number of projects nearby, and our volunteers were moved to help however they could.  We even had volunteers from the Dominican Republic pick up and drive to Haiti with nothing but buckets and bleach.  Because of this immediate “immediate response,“ we were actually one of the first organizations on the ground there.  The cholera epidemic that occurred in Haiti could have been a lot worse in retrospect.

6. What are your goals for Water Charity in the next five years, and how do you plan on achieving them? What challenges do you expect to come up against?

This is a hard question to answer.  We have reached a point where it is probably not possible for us to grow a whole lot without expanding our organization.  There are certainly areas we can expand and scale up without any real increase in administration (our filter distribution program for instance), but much of our nuts and bolts stuff is admin intensive.

As such, we have been debating (hotly) how best to proceed.  While we could take literally millions of dollars in donations and give out filters with this money, we are reaching a point where we might have to hire some people.  At present, we all volunteer our time, and are happy to do so… but we can not expect to attract competent people and assume that they will do the same.  Many people offer to help us and volunteer their time, but I am of the opinion that if we are still doing this in five years (knock on wood), we will have changed our model a bit to accommodate some admin and PR expenditures.

I have no desire to see us turn into a top heavy bureaucracy or socialite dinner club.  If anything, I would rather just continue on as we are.  We are already helping a lot of people as it is.  Well over a million people have been helped by our work.

However, as someone who works in entertainment, I am also keenly aware of the need for outreach and publicity.  I have been pushing for some time to hire a good publicist, but as of yet, this has not materialized.  If anyone knows a publicist or PR person who is willing to work cheap (pro bono being ideal), let us know.  At the very least, a decent press release for our benefit CD would be nice. Heheheeh.

Our organization has been changing recently, though… with Jacqueline Chan having moved away, and I having finally stopped spending so much time abroad.  This dynamic means that I am now absorbing a bit more of her former workload.  Also, over time, some of my “grand ideas” that were seen as pipe dreams, have not only come to pass, but have become our standard working model.  It is likely that in time, more of my broad visions will take shape as well.  At any rate, we will probably get someone to help us with PR at some point.

7. How much money has Water Charity contributed to projects in its lifetime (also, when was it founded? I can’t seem to find the date on your site)? Is the major source of income donations, or have you held fundraising events and/or received grants?

We were founded in 2008.  Although our first project in the Guatemala city dump was actually done before we officially began.

We have operated on about a quarter of a million dollars in donations a year, though it is difficult to say how much we have actually contributed to projects, because this  figure does not include any money for salaries or expenses.  Not only do we donate our time (how much is that worth?), pay all our own expenses, and front the money for new projects out of our own pockets… but we often wind up adopting some of our projects ourselves when we can not find funding for them.

By and large, though, the vast majority of our projects are funded by people who come to the website, and click the donate button on the page of a project that they want to support.  Much of this is like $20 at a time.  We do get some people who absolutely love what we do, and will adopt a great many projects.  Some people even give to us regularly, and do not choose specific projects, allowing us to place their money where we can best use it.  These people are epitomized by those who set up regular monthly donations.

The individual donors, and even a lot of our business donors, tend to like to pick out individual projects, though, and are happy to see directly where each dollar is going.  This is a level of transparency that is unmatched in philantropy.  Some people like to support projects in certain regions, or specific countries for which they have an affinity.  Others are supporting a loved one who is involved in a project (families of the PCVs, for example).

We do get some grants occasionally, and have had some larger corporate sponsors.  At one point, we got a good portion of our funds from a partnership we did with Six Senses Spas and Resorts.  When that chain was sold, the new owners didn’t continue to support us, sadly.  At least, we have not been receiving funds from them as of yet. 🙂 It is possible that we may be getting some funding from a foundation started by the new company being run by the old owner…. Soneva and their Worldwide Water program.  (fingers crossed)

We have held a few fundraisers over the years, but never really made much money from them.  One rather large fundraiser thrown for us in the Maldives by Six Senses on their Laamu resort attracted a good deal of attention and even some stars, but still wound up not raising much money.  This was somewhat disappointing to be honest, because many of the stars that did show up were my friends, and went there specifically to support us, only to find that the event had been turned into a symposium and was to benefit WC and 2 other organizations as well.

8. How did you, Jacqueline Chan, and Averill Strasser first meet, and what eventually brought you three together to found/lead Water Charity?

Considering that none of us feel that this is about us, and prefer to keep the focus on the work we do, I will just say that our personal relationships are not really important.  Suffice it to say that I met Jacky through Averill, whom I have known all my life.

Averill and I got the idea to do this, and went to Guatemala together to implement our first project (giving water filters to “workers” living in the horrific Guatemala City Dump).  It was on that trip that we solidified our ideas and concepts around what we wanted to do.

We saw how a relatively large aid organization there, Camino Seguro, operated and knew immediately that we wanted to do something vastly different.  We didn’t want to be regional, or focus unduly on any single group of people.  We wanted to focus entirely on the single issue of water and use the cheapest and most readily available technologies.

As a former Peace Corps volunteer himself, it was Averill’s idea to work with PCVs if we could… and this turned out to be the foundation of what we have done ever since.  On that first trip, we met a good half dozen volunteers who all went on to do projects with us.

Also on that trip, I designed our logo based on some Mayan and Toltec designs that signified water and man’s dependency on it.  By the time we returned from Guatemala, Water Charity was a reality.  In short order, we brought in Jacky, filed for 501 (c)3 status,  and quickly grew into what we are now.

Water Charity was born out of the direct experience of how utterly senseless and devastating it is for people to have to go without clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.  That is still what keeps us going.  By the estimates of the WHO, the number of people doing without clean water has gone down from over 1 billion when we started to about 830 million today (2.5 billion still go without adequate sanitation).  This is an improvement, but it is still rather pathetic in my opinion, considering that we three people have helped over a million people ourselves.

The fact is, that every single person currently doing without clean water could be given access for a measly $10 a person.  We can often do it for $1 a person.  Even if it cost $40 a person or more, we are talking about 40 billion dollars and it would be done.  To put this in perspective, the US spends 682 billion a year on direct military spending.  This is nearly 59 billion dollars a month.  So, the wildest, most extravagant estimates for solving the entire World Water Crisis are still significantly less than a single month of our Defense Budget.  Makes you think about what our priorities are.

In the end, we would love to be put out of business.  I would like to say that we would love to put ourselves out of business, but that would be basically impossible as it stands.  Still, it is not beyond the capacity of the global community to put an end to this travesty.  We are not at a loss for what to do.  We are not facing some intractable situation… The Water Crisis is not like cancer or climate change… We simply have to care enough to fix it.