5 questions for Water 1st, Seattle’s million-dollar water NGO

‘Drinking safe water’ from Water 1st’s Flickr

The Northwest is a hub for what has been variously called the nonprofit-industrial complex or aid-industrial complex. The multi-billion dollar Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is just opened a huge new campus across from Seattle Center. From Federal Way, the evangelical behemoth World Vision coordinates its operations around the world. The health group PATH works in more than 65 countries and moved into an 111,000 square feet headquarters on Westlake Avenue not long ago.

Water 1st addresses poverty around the globe, much like those groups. But its character is unmistakably local and grassroots. Over 80% of donations from the Seattle community. It has only five full-time staffers who worked out of a residential home during the organization’s first two years.

Yet Water 1st just announced that in 2011 alone, they raised $1.2 million and established water systems for additional 16,225 people in communities from Honduras to Ethopia to Bangladesh. Over $500,000 of that came from a single benefit event in October.

The Globalist put five questions to Marla Smith-Nilson, a Executive Director of Water 1st, on how such a lean organization has managed to raise so much money during a recession for genuinely sustainable work.

$1.2 million is a lot of money. How have you achieved so much fundraising success?

Marla Smith-Nilson

Water 1st was started by a handful of professionals in 2005 with solid experience in the water and sanitation and fundraising fields. Our focus was simple: build an organization from the ground up with the ability to consistently implement quality water and sanitation projects that provide permanent solutions for the world’s poorest communities.

Our vision was to focus our investment on local, in-country organizations (our partners in this work) with a proven track record of implementing effective, long-lasting water and sanitation projects. Rather than jump from country to country to fund projects, we identify local, in-country non-governmental agencies who had a proven track record of implementing sustainable water projects and invest in them, fund them consistently, year after year, building them to capacity.

On the fundraising side, we made a conscious decision to focus on grassroots funding. Too many organizations find themselves forced to tailor program design or location to the wishes of the donors versus the needs and conditions of the beneficiaries. Grassroots fundraising allowed us to have consistent support during a recession (we are diversified amongst thousands of donors).

Did being based in Seattle help in any way?

Yes, we think it does. When I’ve thought about what makes Seattle unique as a community for Water 1st, I think there has to be some connection the number of people living here that were born in other countries. There are really talented people working for Microsoft, Boeing, etc. So it’s pretty easy for our supporters to imagine that countries like India and Ethiopia are poor countries, but they are also countries with talented people. Our approach of investing in local people and building the capacity of local organizations makes sense to Seattle-ites.

I also think we have perspective here about how our problems in the United States compare to problems faced by people living in poor countries. I’ve worked for other organizations in other parts of the US, and at fundraisers for those organizations I have been asked, “Why are you working in other countries when we have poverty here in the United States?” I have never been asked that question in Seattle.

Seattle is known for big health nonprofits like the Gates Foundation and PATH. What’s the environment here like for a smaller international NGO like yours?

First, our work is very focused – we only do water and sanitation projects and even though we are small in comparison to other organizations in the area, we are considered experts in our field. That allows us to tell our donors precisely what was accomplished with their support. We know how much a PVC pipe costs in Honduras and how much hygiene education costs in Ethiopia.

Second, because we are focused, we know the status of every single project we have funded. It’s estimated that 35-50% of water projects fail in the first 3 to 5 years. That appalling statistic has remained true for the past 30 years. Why? Because less than 10% of projects receive any follow-up after the ribbon cutting ceremony.  We have a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation program that allows us to see if we are meeting our project objectives and learn from experience.

Finally, we don’t believe in magic bullets or that the problems of poverty are simple.  One of the drivers of the not-for-profit world today is a deep-seeded faith in innovation.  But the reality is that addressing the root causes of poverty is really hard, slow work.  Poor people are their own best resource in escaping poverty, and I think we have to be willing to support solutions based on the priorities and perspectives of the poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them.

Looking back on your growth over the past six years, do you have any advice for other lesser-known nonprofits looking to emulate your success?

My advice would be to not have a goal to grow fast and instead to just focus on what you do best. For us, that has meant that we have concentrated on building long-term, trusting relationships with our supporters and providing what we think are the best solutions to the global water and sanitation crisis. I know from experience that when you are a small, start-up, there is a temptation to try and be everything to everyone.

Where does Water 1st go from here?

We believe our self-monitoring program works well, but nonetheless, we are essentially filling out our own report card. Given the current environment of failure in the sector, we believe collaborative monitoring through what we are calling the Water and Sanitation Accountability Forum would encourage strong project implementation and create transparency.

The Accountability Forum that we envision is basically a 3rd party rating system for sustainability of water and sanitation projects. Most nonprofits pay for independent audits of their finances (showing only 20-25% of how an organization spends its funds), so we’re trying to develop a system audits of sustainability in water and sanitation (an independent evaluation of how nonprofits spend the bulk of their funds).

In my opinion, the best projects are implemented by organizations that value following-up on their completed projects and are constantly improving their work. There need to be mechanisms that drive more groups toward this practice. We think the Accountability Forum could be that mechanism.

The Common Language Project reported on the water crisis Ethopia, including Water 1st’s work, as part of a series of 2008 articles. Read the article here and check out the rest of the series here


  1. Excelende,promocionar lo que estàn haciendo en otros paises,lo de Honduras por ejemplo,vi el video cuando estaban en India

  2. Excelende,promocionar lo que estàn haciendo en otros paises,lo de Honduras por ejemplo,vi el video cuando estaban en India

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