Why the Case Foundation Still Believes in the Power of Playing Children

Jean and Steve Case could be forgiven for being a little shy about their efforts to expand access to safe drinking water in Africa. They’ve been around long enough to find out what happens when well-meaning plans take a turn in the wrong direction. (Read IP profiles for Steve Case and Jean Case).

The Case Foundation thought they’d found a game-changing solution to water scarcity when they put their weight behind PlayPumps International. Developed by a former advertising executive from South Africa, PlayPumps are cleverly designed to use an abundant and renewable energy source — playing children — to collect safe drinking water from underground sources.

The PlayPump consists of a simple merry-go-round that doubles as a motor. When spun, it activates a pump that can fill a large water tank. The water is then accessed through a faucet. If there are enough children around and the well is properly functioning, the device can produce a stable supply of potable water.

PlayPumps generated significant interest in the mid-2000s when they attracted the attention of donors. At the Clinton Global Initiative, First Lady Laura Bush announced a $10 million investment in the technology from the U.S. Agency for International Development, to be matched by $5 million from the Case Foundation. Mrs. Bush even held a press event in Zambia the next year trumpeting the completion of a PlayPump.

With all the fanfare that accompanied PlayPumps, it’s understandable that the Case Foundation felt stung when the technology turned out not to be the panacea its supporters had hoped. A UNICEF report documented a variety of complaints — from instances of dizzy, vomiting children to more serious concerns about the high cost of each unit.

To their credit, the Case Foundation acknowledged that PlayPumps were not the right solution for every community and vowed to forge ahead with a revised strategy. The PlayPumps franchise was folded into Water For People, where it would become part of a broader effort to promote safe, sustainable water supplies in Africa.

The Case Foundation kicked in $200,000 to support Water for People’s efforts, and has continued its six-figure support since. This time, the focus would be on engaging the private sector so the local community felt an ownership stake in its water supply. The technology would also be tailored to each area rather than insisting on a one-size-fits-all solution.

The Cases’ determination to move forward after taking their lumps is admirable, but it also illustrates their approach to philanthropy. They see themselves as venture capitalists, looking for the next big idea that will change the world. They know they’ll come up short sometimes, but the only thing to do is to keep moving forward.