Gary White's goal: bring clean water to a billion people who lack it
Gary White cofounded Water.org with actor Matt Damon. His success secret: Making sure local people are deeply involved.
Kansas City, Mo.
Nearly 1 billion people today lack access to safe drinking water. About 2.5 billion go without basic sanitation like a decent toilet, according to United Nations statistics.Skip to next paragraph
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If Gary White realizes his vision, everyone in the world will have safe water and sanitation.
It's a big, audacious goal. But those who speak with Mr. White, the executive director of Water.org, the nonprofit organization he cofounded in 2009 with actor Matt Damon, find it's not long before his can-do energy and thoughtful demeanor persuade them that he just might pull it off.
White has spent 20 years working in the trenches of what he calls "the water world" – the network of charities, relief groups, foundations, municipalities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) trying to solve the world's water problems.
His innovative, counterintuitive approach already has brought safe water to about 1 million people in eight countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It has also garnered multimillion-dollar donations from major foundations and made White a star, not just in the water world but in the larger sphere of global philanthropy.
"Gary comes to the problem of water access with the rigor and thoroughness of a brilliant engineer," says Claire Lyons, global grant portfolio manager for the PepsiCo Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the food and beverage giant.
"Gary is not out there to be a star," Ms. Lyons says. "That is not what drives him. But he does understand, with savvy, that what he has been able to achieve has great value. And now he is able to leverage that experience incrementally. And the humility that comes with just who he is as a human being is a selling point to others."
PepsiCo Foundation has invested $4.1 million in Water.org to support WaterCredit, an innovative program that uses micro-finance to help solve the problem of access to clean water.
WaterCredit was the result of what White calls an "orthogonal insight" – his term for inspiration that comes when seemingly unrelated ideas intersect to solve a problem in an unexpected way.
Most poor people have some money, White realized. But they have to spend an inordinate amount of it to buy water from private vendors. Many urban poor could connect their houses to a public water supply but lack the $100 or so to pay for it.
WaterCredit was launched in India in 2007. As of last June, more than 51,000 loans averaging $120 each were made by local microfinance partners rigorously vetted by Water.org. These loans have benefited more than 300,000 individuals and have been repaid at a rate of 97 percent.