Why Did This Corporate Funder Just Give Charity:Water Five Million Bucks?

The Caterpillar Foundation has been investing in Africa pretty heavily over the past couple of years. Since 2010, the foundation has distributed over $30 million in support for female empowerment, WASH, microfinance, and energy programs.

In its most recent round of grantmaking, Caterpillar announced that it would be giving a total of $11 million to NGOs working in Africa, nearly half of which was awarded to charity:water.

Chalk up yet another big score for charity:water, but this is also a large commitment for Caterpillar. So it's worth looking at the story in more detail. 

The five million dollars will help to fund the extension of a water distribution pipeline into Tanzania and Ethiopia. In Tanzania, nearly 60 percent of population does not have access to clean water and over 90 percent lacks access to sanitation. In Ethiopia, the story is much the same, with 58 percent of the population lacking access to water and 77 percent without access to sanitation.

The Caterpillar-supported project is expected to benefit over 126,000 people who are forced to travel for many hours to collect water that most often comes from unsanitary sources and is full of parasites.

A huge added benefit to providing access to clean and safe water in Tanzania and Ethiopia is that it will work toward reducing the number of child deaths resulting from waterborne illnesses, which is the second leading cause of death for children under five.

More specifically, in Ethiopia, around 300,000 children under the age of five die, mostly due to diseases that are transmitted via unsafe drinking water. In Tanzania, only an estimated four percent of the country’s estimated 47 million people have water piped into their homes.

This latest grant from Caterpillar isn’t the first time it has supported charity:water. The foundation previously supported charity:water for its work in Malawi, another country where it's common for women and children to spend hours every day walking to collect water. 

Beyond its interest in curbing the disease and death caused by a lack of clean water and sanitation, Caterpillar sees the WASH issue as integrally related to its core goal of empowering girls and women as a way to fuel economic development. In many places, girls don't attend school because they're busy hauling heavy jugs of water for their families. Girls and women also face the risk of sexual assault when they venture from their homes seeking to relieve themselves in private. 

Michele Sullivan, the president of the Caterpillar Foundation, is a big fan of charity:water and spoke at their 2013 gala. But the foundation has also supported WASH work by other groups. Last fall, it gave $8.3 million to Water.org, the bigger gift ever by the foundation, to expand its WaterCredit initiative to Indonesia, the Philippines, and Peru.

So this is not is a story about Caterpillar's unique romance with charity:water, a group that has famously entranced many donors. It's about the foundation's close focus on WASH as a linchpin issue when it comes to development, and female empowerment in particular. 

As Sullivan said at the charity:water gala, "We’re going to bring millions of people on the path of prosperity, through clean water."

Sullivan is a second-generation Caterpillar employee and has been with the company for over 25 years. We often see these kinds of company lifers in top corporate foundation jobs and, to be frank, many are not the boldest thinkers when it comes to philanthropy. 

But Sullivan has been different. She's the first woman to lead the foundation and she's grabbed onto the challenge of empowering girls and women with enormous zeal. In 2013, under Sullivan’s leadership, the Caterpillar Foundation pledged $200 million to work aimed at reducing poverty by investing in girls and women around the world.

Sullivan has also redirected the foundation's domestic giving to attack what she's called the "root causes" of poverty and focus more on measurable outcomes.