Do you ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed by challenges in the world? It’s easy to become despondent and feel like whatever we do doesn’t have any real impact.
Today’s guests have been exposed to the challenges of poverty around the world and decided that, instead of becoming despondent, they would ask, “How can I help?”
In today’s episode, we talk with Matt Damon and Gary White, the founders of water.org, a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world. They want to make it safe, accessible, and cost-effective.
In today’s episode, we discuss how Matt Damon became a water warrior, Gary’s path to head up a global non-profit, how the donations get used, and the system they’ve created. We get to hear an amazing success story and so much more!
Let’s jump straight in!
Matt Damon is the co-founder of water.org & WaterEquity as well as an actor, producer, and screenwriter. In 2006, he founded H2O Africa Foundation to raise awareness about water initiatives on the continent. Matt’s active participation in the work of water.org & WaterEquity has positioned him as one of the world’s experts on water and sanitation issues.
Gary White is the co-founder and CEO of water.org & WaterEquity. In 1991, he launched Water Partners, now the international NGO known as water.org. Today, he leads two organizations in creating and executing market-driven solutions to the global water crisis, driving innovations in the way water and sanitation projects are delivered and financed.
Both Matt and Gary credit their mothers for influencing them from an early age and inspiring them to be part of a giving culture. When you see a challenge, don’t just walk past it, try to solve it.
As an engineer who is trying to make a social impact, Gary doesn’t look at a challenge like water and throws up his hands when he hears that 771 million people are without water and 1.7 billion are without sanitation. Instead of drilling wells that solve a few people’s challenges, he thinks like an entrepreneur and focuses on global solutions to solve the crisis with a dogged determination and innovation.
Water.org is committed to continuously learning from people directly impacted by the challenges and constantly updating their insights from the people on the ground and turning those insights into new ideas.
Water.org has pioneered things like WaterCredit: small loans with a big impact. Instead of feeling overwhelmed that there’s never going to be enough charity in the world to get everyone water, they use charity and philanthropy more smartly.
Let’s hear how Matt Damon became involved.
To understand how big a problem is, we first need to know exactly what the challenge is with water around the world and why Matt and Gary care so much about it. It first started for Matt when he looked at extreme poverty and asked the question, “How can I be of greatest service?”
“Water just underpinned everything. There are millions of girls who can’t go to school because their job for the family is to collect water. Without water, we’re dead. I was in Zambia in 2006, and a girl opened my eyes to this. It was the first time I’d ever done a water collection. I was waiting for this girl. She came home from school and we walked together to get water — me and her and an interpreter. I’m talking to this kid and I [ask], ‘Is this where you want to live?’ She started to get kind of shy and she [said], ‘No, I’m going to the big city of Lusaka [to] be a nurse.’” – Matt Damon
Matt connected with her because he remembered being 14 when he and Ben Affleck were going to the big city of New York to become actors. As a teenager, your entire world lies in front of you.
Driving away, Matt reflected on this connection that he had to this kid and realized — had it not been for somebody having the foresight to sink borewell a mile from her house, she would not have been in school. (To sink a borehole is to drill a hole vertically into the ground to reach the water below the earth’s surface.)
“She would’ve been spending her entire day trying to find water for her family. As it was, she had to spend about two hours to walk there, fill up these heavy jerry cans, and walk back. 300,000 kids under the age of five will die this year because they lack access to safe water and sanitation, but on the other side of it, there’s this whole opportunity lost. What are these lives that we’re not allowing to become what they could be?” – Matt Damon
That is a crazy amount of people dying just because of no access to safe drinking water and sanitation. However, even more people don’t get to live up to their greatest potential because so much of their time and energy is focused on having enough water. That was what pushed Matt to become involved in this work.
Let’s hear Gary’s journey to start Water.org.
There are many organizations out there trying to tackle the water crisis, but Water.org is different because they’re loaning people the money raised as opposed to building the wells themselves. Water.org’s philosophy is unique.
“There are a lot of people who are in such extreme poverty — they need that free well. But what we discovered is there are hundreds of millions of people, if not more than a billion — what they need isn’t just a handout. They know what water solution they want. They know there’s a water filter in the shop down the street that they want to buy. They know that there’s a toilet that would be right for them. They know that there’s a water tank that would be best for them. It’s empowering them to be able to procure the best solution that they want.” – Gary White
Water.org has identified that, while people may not have access to water and live in poverty, there are different levels of poverty. A one-size approach including handouts is not necessarily the right thing for both the beneficiaries and how to best use the donations raised. Water.org wants to recognize people who need a boost and empower them to solve their problems with the best solution they know works for them.
Water.org based their understanding on an analysis Gary did 15 years prior, which noticed that people in some of the poorest places in the world were already paying for water — but sometimes even that water wasn’t clean.
“Sometimes they were paying with their time where they’d go stand at a community tap and have to wait for three hours, and they’d be taking time away from a job that they couldn’t do. What they were doing was paying every single day for [water and sanitation], sometimes up to 25% of their income. Gary had this idea that if you took the concept of microfinance that Muhammad Yunus pioneered in the Grameen Bank, you could apply it to water. It wasn’t a traditional loan because it wasn’t an income-generating loan, but it would be an income-enhancing loan because you’d be buying somebody’s time back and they could work those extra hours.” – Matt Damon
Gary’s critical insight turned into their pipe dream about helping people gain back their most important commodity: time.
“[The] borrowers are 97% women, and these loans pay back at over 99%! Some of the poorest people in the world, if you just give them a chance, if you nudge a market towards them, they will do the rest. And it’s like, we get out of the way, and these people solve their problems.” – Matt Damon
Traditionally, to build a well, the cost to get somebody clean water for life is about $25. With Water.org, the money gets recycled and goes back out, meaning you can get somebody clean water for life for $5 because heroic women are, one after another, paying these loans back.
To date, Water.org has reached 43.7 million people globally.
Let’s take a closer look to understand how these loans work.
With people in so many different communities, Water.org had to tackle the challenge of providing loans in remote areas.
“There are banking people [locally] who are providing loans to them for these income-generating things. And let’s work with them to nudge them towards water and sanitation loans. That’s [how] we use that philanthropic money — to go and develop these partnerships.” – Gary White
It makes sense to start with the existing infrastructure, but even with that, they had challenges. Many banks or institutions loaning money had never heard of loaning money for water or sanitation — and there was great resistance.
“When we said we want to do water and sanitation loans, they [said], ‘You know people aren’t going to pay these back because they’re not making something. They’re not buying a sewing machine with the loan and sewing clothes and having a revenue stream. They’re getting a toilet or they’re getting a water connection.’ What we did with the philanthropy was to de-risk this for them. These hundreds of financial partners that we have around the world now, we used philanthropic capital to help them train to develop new types of loans.” – Gary White
Gary and Water.org now take on the risk of these loans and turn them into capital that they go out and get from the commercial markets and then reloan to people in poverty. Amazingly, the initial thought about loans not being repaid was completely wrong.
“The loans repay at 99%. The risk that we took didn’t [materialize]. That’s how we multiply the philanthropy, and now it’s been about $3.5 billion in these loans that have been made around the world.” – Gary White
Every repaid loan creates the opportunity for another family to get the safe water and toilets they need, fast and affordably. It is a sustainable pay-it-forward system that makes it possible to help more people.
Let’s now hear what that impact means to someone receiving the loan.
Water.org is giving people an immediate solution to their problem in a way that “buys back” the precious commodity of time. By providing loans to overcome the first hurdle, people have an opportunity to sustainably change their circumstances. Let’s hear what an impact these micro-loans had for Leonard Reza in the Philippines outside of Manila.
“She was paying [a] water vendor that sells water off the back of a truck $60 a month, $2 a day. She took out a loan [of] $275 [and] used that to connect to the water utility. Now she has water at her home. Her loan payment is $5 a month. Her water tariff is $5 a month. That’s $50 more every month she has in her pocket — all she needed was that nudge of that loan to get over the hump. But for us having water and sanitation loans for her, she would’ve been stuck in that forever.” – Gary White
By making it more affordable and instant as opposed to spending time and money to get water, people taking out loans can immediately save the money they were already spending for water in the first place. I love Gary’s epiphany about this:
“I say that this problem contains its own solution in that sense. It doesn’t take charity directly to her, but it takes charity to set this all in motion.” – Gary White
I’m donating today and inviting people listening to this episode or people like you reading this to go directly HERE and make a donation too. We often feel that a donation of $5 or $10 is insignificant, but $5 can change another human being’s life.
That often feels too small a contribution to make an impact, but imagine if my two million subscribers on YouTube or Instagram all donated $5 — together we’d give $10,000,000! Every dollar donated to Water.org helps unlock $13 for water and sanitation solutions, so suddenly, that donation equals $130,000,000 of impact!
Is that enough to solve the problem? Gary takes his engineer brain and quickly calculates the numbers for us.
“It’s a trillion-dollar problem to get access to safe, sustainable water and sanitation to everyone in the world. [There are already] inefficient [use of] water [with] more than $300 billion a year right in [the water] system. It’s about redirecting that $300 billion using entrepreneurial approaches to nudge it in the right direction, so that [Leonard Reza] gets her loan.” – Gary White
Every “little bit” helps change the face of the world’s water future.
Guys, this episode was filled with such interesting information about the water challenges around the world. I couldn’t fit all the information into this post, which is why I recommend going to Episode 1,248 to listen to the full episode.
I also recommend visiting their website, which has details about the work they do, how to get involved, more success stories, and even a list of products you can purchase that directly impacts Water.org by giving percentages of sales.
They also have a new book, The Worth Of Water: Our Story Of Chasing Solutions To The World’s Greatest Challenge, detailing how everyone can have access to clean water and have their responsibility and ownership of clean water to dream and go live their life. We should all have access and the ability to do what sets our souls on fire.
I’m inspired by the mission and Gary and Matt’s dedication to service. I love how they both use their talents to continue researching and obsessing over water for a life focused on solutions to this challenge.
As always, I posed one final question to each of them to find out what their definitions of greatness are:
“[Using our] different talents [to] fundamentally leaving the world a better place than you found it.” – Gary White
“Being in service to others. Believing that we’re all in this together, and to give of yourself so that people feel that connection so that we all solve these problems together and grow and evolve.” – Matt Damon
If you liked this episode, we would love it if you could tag Water.org, @water, and me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with what stood out most to you. Also, please consider giving us a 5-star rating on Apple Podcasts because they help spread these messages even further!
This episode is for you if you’re looking to understand how to tackle a large challenge as big as clean water worldwide! So join me for Episode 1,248 of The School of Greatness, and see how quickly and easily you can become part of global change.