Blog

How an Austin Nonprofit Turned on the For-Profit Taps

By Allison Brown

[Originally published in the Austin Business Journal on August 19, 2016]

http://www.bizjournals.com/austin/news/2016/08/19/how-an-austin-nonprofit-turned-on-the-for-profit.html

Austinite’s clean water enterprise yields new revenue stream

Sarah Evans has spent the last seven years running Well Aware, a nonprofit that provides clean water to people in Africa and has improved the lives of thousands. But the Austinite thinks she can have an even bigger impact running a new for-profit consultancy, Well Beyond LLC. The business helps non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, better use their funds and ensure they are doing their utmost to serve those in need.

Evans’ interest in environmental conservation began well before her nonprofit efforts. She graduated with a communications degree from the University of Texas and earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University with a focus on environmental law. Evans later clerked for the Environmental Protection Agency’s water department and worked in lobbying and securities law before pursuing an interest in the global water crisis.

In 2010, Evans went to Kenya for the first Well Aware project without knowing what she was really getting into.

“We got so lucky, knowing what I know now,” Evans said.

In the water charity sector, some organizations have seen millions of dollars wasted as projects fail or don’t function properly, so Evans made an effort to build key relationships with the East African communities she wanted to help.

Evans, Well Aware’s executive director, began forming a technical team on the ground in Kenya to make sure projects were completed correctly, giving the nonprofit a foundation on which to grow and take on more projects — all while keeping all of its wells up and running at some 30 locations around the country.

Other water charities began to look to Well Aware for advice because it was clear Evans had figured something out. One of her tenets she was happy to share: Successful projects are more than just donations and awareness.

In a recent article published by Wandering Educators, Evans said, “Direct contact with communities, real relationships with beneficiaries, and having an agile and flexible model is not just the most effective way to provide lasting clean water; it’s the only way to measure success and impact.”

Expanding the model

As more NGOs looked to Evans and her team for help, the idea for a consulting arm of Well Aware began to take root.

But Evans wasn’t sure if the team could take on the work and keep up operations on all of their projects.

“We realized a few things,” Evans said. “For many NGOs who need and want our help, it’s not in their best interest to work with another nonprofit doing the same work. That’s why we decided to pull the consulting piece out to be separate.”

And thus, Well Beyond was born this year. Well Beyond remains connected to Well Aware through licensing all of Well Aware’s intellectual property, as well as through sending a stream of profits to the NGO.

Evans’s for-profit business takes project requests from NGOs, conducts field evaluations, proposes fixes and follows up with yearly impact measurement studies.

“We want to instill in these organizations the knowledge to carry forward without our help,” Evans said.

As soon as Evans wrapped her mind around splitting the model into two entities, things happened quickly. Nonprofits were lining up to hire Well Beyond, government entities were looking to help, investment offers were put on the table and Evans set out to prove the concept would work before fully staffing a whole new team.

While Well Aware will remain only in East Africa, Well Beyond has the flexibility to work with more consulting projects in other parts of the world. The team was set to visit four projects in Haiti in August and one in Jordan in October.

“With Aurora, we can be nimble, adaptable, involved wherever we are needed in whatever capacity needed,” Evans said.

This new business model will enable Evans to recruit and pay talented engineers more than she was able to with the nonprofit model of Well Aware.

“As a small NGO, it’s really hard to pay competitively,” Evans said. “It excites me that we’re going to be able to hire more talent with the new business model.”

First up on Evans’ list of new hires: a hydrogeologist and engineer. She hopes to have those two technical positions filled by January and will later move forward to hire more technical team members, a project coordinator and an operations manager.

For now, the Well Beyond team remains just Evans, a few subcontractors and a part-time administrator. Evans will continue to serve as executive director for Well Aware and CEO of Well Beyond simultaneously, but she may look for a new director for Well Aware over the next year.

Evans’s objective in launching Well Beyond is to help NGOs better use their funds, so the affordability of her consulting service remains at the forefront of her mind. She has not yet finalized the price structure of Well Beyond, and she hopes profits from Well Beyond will one day cover any overhead costs of Well Aware, with a goal of being self-sustaining in five years.

And as the spigot of global aid continues to pump money into developing nations, Well Beyond will redirect it toward more impactful water projects, Evans said.

“As water problems globally become on the forefront of more people’s minds,” she said, “I want to be a part of that.”

Allison Brown covers a variety of topics and industries for ABJ.

 

 

The Water Charity Opportunity

The Conception of Well Beyond

[originally posted in Wandering Educator here]

It’s pretty sexy these days to rally around the clean water for all movement. There has been a lot of money invested in marketing and “awareness.”

The increase in awareness for clean water where it’s so desperately needed seems like progress toward ending this crisis. But this will not become an actual “movement,” but merely a branding technique – unless the companies involved in making this change know what change is necessary, who is implementing it, and how it’s being done (Moore, 2013).

The Hard Water Truth

Most of water charity work does not, in fact, work. The cumulative costs of failed water systems are estimated to be $1.2 billion (Chilton, 2014). Between 43-69 percent of water projects evaluated in Ethiopia last year were not functioning or not producing clean water (TetraTech, 2015).

The top three US water charities raised a total of $171.3 million in 2013 (Gunther, 2015). But millions of those dollars are estimated to likely be wasted.

The colossal waste of resources isn’t the only tragedy. Providing a struggling community with a water system— one they significantly invest in and learn to rely on—that breaks will leave them in a worse environment than they were before.

Band-Aids for Bullet Holes

Most propositions for reform still focus on a standardized system to carry out water work successfully and to be able to measure success and impact. Or, some gadget or gimmick that donors and angel investors promise to be the “magic bullet” to solve this crisis ends up a shocking misuse of funding and offensive vandalizing of the landscapes of developing nations.

The many and complex variables in each project are unique to that area, and they are evolving politically, environmentally and economically. The nuances in project implementation also make the overall algorithm even more impossible to disentangle.

Where, Oh Where Did Your Dollar Go?

Four of the five largest US water charities do not implement (actually build) the water systems they fund (Gunther, 2014). Their websites read that they carefully select the partners to whom they send your dollars and that they receive reports on water well completion.

However, if the water charity has a pile of documents reporting on what probably happened in the field with their funds or if they have running reports on which of their projects are working (Moore, 2013), many times the organization can do nothing about those exact problems. It’s also not a viable solution to take additional donor money to build another separate program to run around countries and make repairs to projects that should have been completed correctly in the first place.

With every pass-off of every contribution, accountability and investment impact is diluted. This weakens the ability for the charity you gave to in the first place to do anything about project failure.

As an NGO, if we don’t even know which systems work, it’s impossible to understand what went wrong and how to avoid that mistake the next time. When the top four US water charities were asked if they knew which of their projects were functioning, the answer was usually no (Gunther, 2014).

Water Charity Isn’t Working: How You Can Help – A perspective from a “Water Charity”

It’s pretty sexy these days to rally around the clean water for all movement. There has been a lot of money invested in marketing and “awareness.”

The increase in awareness for clean water where it’s so desperately needed seems like progress toward ending this crisis. But this will not become an actual “movement,” but merely a branding technique – unless the companies involved in making this change know what change is necessary, who is implementing it, and how it’s being done (Moore, 2013).

It Can Be Done

Knowing that the project is in working order does not denote success. With that piece of information only, we cannot even assume the community (intended beneficiary) is even the group using it. Overtaking land and infrastructure is common in developing countries and water is more valuable than gold. Nor can we know that the water is staying potable, or that the system is creating any positive impact at all.

Considering the world we live in today and the current progressions in technology and obstacles in political and cultural complexities, there is only one way to responsibly provide clean water to those who have none.

So, What Now?1. We give up the gimmicks.

We must stop investing in unnecessary technology such as merry-go-rounds (Stellar, 2010) and straw filters (Goldmark, 2011) that end up wasting millions of dollars and litter the communities where they are distributed. We should also stop giving to organizations that are unable to clearly report on their success.

2. We demand accountability.

International water organizations that are operating projects down the chain of command without understanding the local politics of the community (or local organization/implementor of the project) will fail to truly address the needs of the people they wish to serve by failing to recognize the underlying issues.

3. We get to work.

Direct contact with communities, real relationships with beneficiaries, and having an agile and flexible model is not just the most effective way to provide lasting clean water; it’s the only way to measure success and impact. Just as each project implementation must be approached with a unique solution each time, measurements of success must also.

4. We think about the future.

There is a troubling lack of consideration for the long-term effects of water project work, as well as how the future will significantly change how we do it (Rifkin, 2015).

Our goals for providing clean water to those who have none should be measured by how our efforts and resources have affected long-term change. This requires monitoring, metrics for success, and evaluation over years.

While the immediate impact of water aid such as that beautiful photo of the young girl gulping crystalline water from a faucet is exciting. It’s also fervently fulfilling for donors, but, it’s only a moment. Creating more of these moments will require long-term planning.

5. We accept and embrace these complexities.

There is no single way to fix an area-wide water crisis because every area is so different, dynamic, and context-specific. Some of the factors that impact access and allocation of water include level of education, the fertility of the land, various scales of politics, the health of the surrounding economy, and the state of gender equality. The measurements of success and impact in a community, once they have a source of clean water, will also be unique to them. The endless variables and ever-changing project nuances require human negation through thoughtful and meaningful relationships.

There will be failure, and not just the little things that can be mitigated. There will be overall project failure, and it needs to be disclosed. Attempting to protect donors from bad news is actually depriving the industry of valuable lessons learned.

Our failures should be immediate opportunities to switch gears, to use as an opportunity to improve our procedures. We should commit to an overall objective with clear goals but understand that reaching those ends requires creative solutions and excellent (and immediate) change management.

With the understanding that we are working toward permanent change instead of immediate gratification, we should demand NGO accountability (and see past the marketing).

Developing real relationships and community partnerships are imperative to creating locally relevant, adaptable and sustainable water systems, Failure can be used to refine or adapt our work but should still not be the norm. If we use this understanding in our water aid projects, we can, together, be the people who solved the water crisis.

Photo by: Greg Davis Photography