Why Foundations Come to Love You: A Case Study

Who has more juice: Matt Damon or Jack Dorsey? I suppose that depends on whether you care about movies or tech, but the question comes to mind as we think about the funding race between the two hottest NGOs in the WASH space right now: Water.org, which has Damon in its corner, and charity:water, which Dorsey promotes. (Note to hopeless nonprofit geeks: Dorsey is a co-creator of a little service called Twitter.)

Okay, we know: There's no "race" between these two groups, since nonprofits never compete with each other and are always happy that others in a given space are also doing "important work." 

And if there were a competition for funds here, it wouldn't even be close: charity:water pulled in $36 million in 2013, compared to $12 million by Water.org. As for actual impact, charity:water reported in its 2013 annual report that it served 999,867 people that year, while Water.org's report trumpeted that it has "enabled access to safe water and sanitation for one million people" through its microfinance program, although that number is cumulative. 

So let's put aside the crazy idea there might be a rivalry between these groups, which is crass to even contemplate given the real issue: seven-year-old girls walking hours a day to fetch water.

Instead, let's zero in on Water.org's hot streak lately with big foundations. 

Over the past year or so, Water.org has received several large commitments: $8.3 million from the Caterpillar Foundation last fall, $6.3 million from the IKEA Foundation in January, and $1.3 million along the way from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. In all these cases, funders were drawn to Water.org's signature program, WaterCredit, a microfinance program that helps people in developing countries finance such water and sanitation needs as paying for vended water, toilets, and sinks.

Related: Why Caterpillar Foundation Backs Water.org's Credit Program in India

This month, Water.org scored again, with a $2.9 million grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, although unlike with the other big foundation grants, the WaterCredit program is not a big focal point here. 

Before saying more about the Helmsley grant, let's pause for some quick math: Water.org has scored 50 percent more in four foundation grants in the past year than it raised in total in 2013. Something has clearly clicked for the group. 

As for Helmsley’s big give, it will be split, $1.7 million going toward improving sanitation and safe water access in Kenya and expected to help around 16,000 people. A portion of that money will also go toward hygiene education and improving healthy behaviors in the country.

The remaining $1.2 million will go toward the support of Water.org’s sanitation efforts in Ghana, with the hope of reaching around 26,000 people spread out over 15 communities with safe water and sanitation improvements.

Speaking of the grant, Gary White, Water.org’s other co-founder stated:

Without safe water and sanitation, a huge segment of humanity does not have the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty. With the help of the Helmsley grant, we will change that for 42,000 people in East Africa

Ok, so Matt Damon may help Water.org in the popularity arena by putting a recognizable name and face on the organization—not to mention that he and his wife are active donors to the NGO.

But even more sexy to foundations may be the WaterCredit program, which merges the hot area of microfinance with a WASH beat that's also gotten very hot, especially as the nexus between these issues and girls' empowerment has come into clearer focus. 

But there I go again, talking about what's "hot" when I should be sticking to what actually matters—like how, thanks to Water.org, around 66,000 households got water connections in 2013 and 73,000 toilets were constructed. 

Now there's stuff that important in everybody's life: A spigot that turns on, a toilet that flushes. 

As for a nonprofit's life chances, one thing that definitely matters is having a breakout program that deep-pocketed funders really believe in. Water.org has such a hit with WaterCredit.

Related: Grants for Water and Sanitation