Why the Dell Foundation is Thirsty for Business-like Water Projects

The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation is known best for its efforts to improve educational opportunities for the urban poor. But the foundation has also become a big player in the push for clean water and safe sanitation in developing countries.

The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation dove into the issue of clean water after deciding to expand its largesse to India in 2005. The data-driven foundation’s choice was made not because of Dell family ties or sentimental notions, but because there seemed to be an opportunity to help the country’s young population pull itself out of poverty.

The path to prosperity envisioned by the foundation was to expand the country’s stock of human capital by improving education. Its efforts to improve water and sanitation come from similarly utilitarian motives — a child sick with diarrhea will fall behind in school and never reach his or her full potential.

"I often tell young people that in order to succeed, they need to throw away their store-bought maps and draw their own," Michael Dell says. "And really, that’s what we’re trying to empower children in the India slums to do: plot a course out of poverty and dead-end jobs. The goal is to give them the tools and skills to work in growth industries like retail, hospitality, manufacturing and outsourcing so they can successfully navigate the path to middle class."

If you want to work with Dell, you’ll need to embrace their "hand up, not a hand out" philosophy. The foundation’s business-oriented approach is reflected in the strategy it takes when disbursing its cash — investments in businesses or microfinancing arrangements that allow local communities to take an ownership stake.

The foundation bought stake in 2011 in Waterlife, an Indian company that specializes in water purification systems. It also recently allotted $1.8 million to IntelleGrow, a Mumbai-based company that helps finance projects like wastewater treatment.

Another successful grantee is the Movement for Alternatives and Youth Awareness, or MAYA. The grant was inspired by SaniShop, a model developed by the World Toilet Organization and tested in Cambodia to expand access to safe toilets. MAYA recently received $560,000 to bring the SaniShop model to India. The project is another example of Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s businesslike style – MAYA will work with entrepreneurs and businesses to expand the reach of safe sanitation and make the benefits self-sustaining.

Tapping into concepts like these – sustainability, entrepreneurship, and opportunity – is the key to attracting the Dell’s attention.