March 22, 2017; Fast Company
Lack of access to clean water is a leading cause of illness and death in the developing world. Waves for Water, founded in 2009 by Jon Rose, works to solve that by providing water filters to areas where clean water is hard to come by. That, while noble, is hardly a novel solution to a difficult problem. Where Waves for Water finds a small opening to innovate is in one of the most difficult portions of the supply chain: the “last mile.”
Waves for Water piggybacks on the international trips its volunteers take to deliver water filters to remote third-world locations. Say someone has an upcoming trip to a developing nation, maybe to go hiking or surfing. That person can bring one or more water filters with them in their luggage to deliver to the region in need. This solves a difficult problem both international nonprofits and shippers in general face.
While the specific techniques Waves for Water uses do not directly translate to most nonprofits, there are valuable lessons to be learned here. First, use your volunteers! Waves for Water has found a great way to get people who want to make a difference involved in the process, and in a way that costs the organization very little. Volunteers want to help (otherwise they wouldn’t be volunteers, would they?) so put them to work. If a particular volunteer or group of volunteers has plans to do something that complements your mission, see if they would be amenable to putting their plans and your mission together.
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Second, don’t make the process difficult for your volunteers. Waves for Water offers crowdfunding so couriers don’t need to bear the cost of the water filters above and beyond bringing the filters with them. A simple supply-and-demand analogy explains this best: When the cost of doing good increases, less good will be done.
Finally, and this is rote by now, think outside the box and embrace innovation. The whole program is a lesson in embracing new technology. The interconnectedness of people, ideas, and things allows Waves for Water to put donors who want to give filters to problem areas in touch with people who have the means of delivering them. It is a remarkably efficient process that would not fit into an old-school nonprofit model.
One thing that this process bypasses, and something that tends to be particularly costly, is the red tape involved with international shipping and customs. Many of the couriers keep the filters among their things and bypass customs altogether.
Waves for Water has found a way to reduce costs and efficiently provide relief to developing countries facing shortages of potable water. While not directly translatable to the average nonprofit, all nonprofits can learn a thing or two from these “guerrilla humanitarians.”—Sean Watterson