Big Challenge, Small Grants: Meet Some Low Profile Funders Taking on WASH

Big-league funders like the Gates, Hilton, Ikea, and Caterpillar foundations throw millions upon millions of dollars at various WASH-related projects ranging from improved basic infrastructure to new kinds of technologies like Gates's “Reinventing the Toilet” challenge.

But these funders are hardly the only ones worried about water and sanitation. Many smaller funders also work in the WASH space. Before saying more, though, let's take a look at the state of this critical challenge. 

In 2002, the WHO estimated that 1.1 billion people worldwide lacked access to improved water sources. At that time, the WHO projected that an additional 260,000 people per day, every day from 2002 to 2015 needed access to improved water sources to meet the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In 2015, 663 million people still lack access to improved water sources. That’s a 40 percent improvement in a little over a decade.

Also in 2002, 42 percent of the world’s population, or around 2.6 billion people, lacked access to improved sanitation. In 2015, 2.4 billion still lack access to improved sanitation, making for a less than 8 percent increase.

So what we have, here, is another good-news/bad-news story on global development: better access to water, but little progress on toilets.

Historically, improving water and sanitation have ranked among the most basic responsibilities of government. Given the scope of the unmet needs, here, along with the cost of meeting those needs, this is a tough place for philanthropy to make a huge dent, especially those funders without deep pockets. Still, anything helps, and plenty of smaller foundations work in this space in meaningful ways.

It isn’t uncommon for foundations with massive resources like Gates or Hilton to focus support on large NGOs working on WASH. But there's plenty of good that can be done by backing groups working at the local and grassroots level, and some smaller funders target grants in this direction. Here are just a few of the low-profile funders trying to move the WASH needle:

Flahive Family Foundation

Based in Littleton, Colorado, the Flahive Family Foundation awards $5,000 to $15,000 grants to groups working in the fields of maternal health and wellness, women’s healthcare, education, and access to clean water in developing countries.

Related: Flahive Family Foundation: Grants for Global Health

On the sanitation side of things, Flahive awards grants to groups providing sanitary napkins to women and girls in Africa. Reducing the stigma associated with periods and combating the lack of access to pads for girls and women in developing countries is drawing growing attention in the global health and rights landscape.

Flahive’s support related to water includes providing support to groups that are digging wells in Africa to provide clean and running water to local communities. The foundation also directs a portion of its grantmaking toward the costs of installing sustainable energy solutions to support the power needs of the newly installed wells.

Laird Norton Family Foundation

Laird Norton’s giving is squarely focused on water and sanitation. The foundation’s grantmaking is based in its belief that access to clean water and sanitation is key to improving the lives of poor and disadvantaged populations in developing countries around the world.

Related: Laird Norton Family Foundation: Grants for Global Health

The foundation awards grants from $20,000 to $50,000 to organizations that are developing WASH resources, advancing point-of-use technology, and promoting WASH education. Notably, Laird Norton’s point-of-use technology zeroes in on affordable and manageable solutions at the household level, including disinfection products and filters.

International Foundation

This foundation has been around for decades, and over that time, its grantmaking has evolved to embrace improving the lives and livelihoods of poor people living in the Global South, with WASH being its main area of funding interest. One note about this funder: It doesn’t fund groups working in active conflict, chronic instability, or where natural disasters have recently occurred.

Related: International Foundation: Grants for Global Health

Most of International’s $15,000 to $25,000 grants are directed toward clean water initiatives rather than sanitation efforts, particularly those carried out by local and grassroots groups.

Elmo Foundation

This Virginia-based funder has been ramping up its global giving over the past few years. So far, Elmo’s grants come in around $10,000 to $30,000 with a sharp focus on clean water access projects.

Regarding Elmo’s grantmaking ramp-up, we’ve spotted a noticeable increase in both the number of organizations receiving funding and in the size of individual grant amount. Which are the main reasons why it deserves a mention here.

Related: Elmo Foundation: Grants for Global Development


Here’s a cold, hard, truth: There aren’t too many WASH funders out there. That's partly understandable, given the scope of the WASH challenge relative to the resources of philanthropy. On the other hand, increased access to clean water and basic sanitation is a key to tackling many of the global health and development problems that continue to plague the world. WASH is the kind of critical leverage point that smart funders are always scouting around for.

As former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan once said:

We shall not finally defeat AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or any of the other infectious diseases that plague the developing world until we have also won the battle for safe drinking water, sanitation and basic health care.

Annan’s quote doesn’t even speak to the catalytic impact access to basic water and sanitation has on global poverty and the rights of women and girls. People who aren’t spending hours each day carrying water are able to use that time for other pursuits, like earning an income, running a business or going to school. Women and girls are most often tasked with schlepping buckets of water every day, and improving access to clean water and sanitation can be transformative for them.

While there are no quick fixes to the world’s WASH problems, there's plenty of room for more funders in this space. And there are lots of places where smaller foundations can make a difference working with NGOs that do great a deal with modest grants.