Osprey Foundation Speaks Softly, Carries a Big Dowsing Stick

It may sound like a small bird-watching club from the Maryland suburbs, but over the last few years the Osprey Foundation has quietly become one of the United States' largest funders of global water and sanitation projects.

Related: Osprey Foundation: Grants for Global Development

The Osprey Foundation was launched in the early 2000s by Bill Clarke, a Baltimore resident who made his fortune in the financial industry but retired early to pursue philanthropic interests. Clarke and his family initially focused on local charities like the Boy Scouts and human services organizations, with the occasional feel-good expenditure on stuffed animals for impoverished children abroad.

But the Osprey Foundation has taken an increasingly global view in recent years. It started with relatively modest donations to Doctors Without Borders and the Carter Center’s effort to eliminate Guinea worm. But the Clarke family’s contributions to global development, and water and sanitation in particular, has grown steadily. And where some big donors attract attention for large, data-driven endeavors, the spiritually rooted Osprey Foundation dishes out its cash with a sound-no-trumpet-before-you sensibility.

Grant-seekers should keep in mind that faith-based charities receive a large share of the Osprey Foundation’s grants, and its investments in water and sanitation are no different. Church World Service has made use of numerous six-figure grants to carry out its water resources efforts in East Africa. Lutheran World Relief has received similarly generous support for its work to expand safe water supplies and protect environmental resources around the world.

Other projects are more specifically targeted. The Osprey Foundation has supported the Palestinian Hydrology Group, which conducts water conservation and other projects in the West Bank and Gaza. A foundation grant also helps the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies develop a solar-powered apparatus to turn the Gaza Strip’s brackish water drinkable.

But you don’t need to be a faith-based organization or work in an important center of religion to attract the attention of the Osprey Foundation. The Clarke family is also one of the largest backers of Water For People — taking no backseat among contemporaries like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Not bad for a foundation that bills itself as a little mom-and-pop operation from Baltimore.