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Difference Maker

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.

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The loans also make more charitable dollars available to those in absolute poverty, for whom a full subsidy is necessary.

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White planned to be a civil engineer when he was a student in the early 1980s at what is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. A trip to Central America changed all that. In the slums of Guatemala City, he walked streets running with sewage and saw children carrying home containers full of contaminated water.

"That was really a seminal moment for me," White says. "When I saw that intersection of engineering and the whole water and sanitation crisis, that's when I started to learn more about it, to try to figure out how I could make a difference."

After college, he worked for Catholic Relief Services on projects in Latin America and the Caribbean and went on to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During that time he formed WaterPartners, which attracted grants from philanthropies.

One such grant was from H2O Africa, a group cofounded by actor Matt Damon. After a lengthy courtship, WaterPartners merged with H2O Africa in 2009 to become Water.org.

Early on, White became frustrated by the staggering rate of water project failures. In the 1980s and '90s, an NGO typically sought out a needy community, drilled a well for it, celebrated with a plaque and a photograph, and called it a day.

The projects "were very much top-down, very charity-driven without a lot of focus on long-term impact and results," he says. "And projects were failing at a tremendous rate, about 50 percent."

White's approach is different. Communities that want a water project must take the first step and contact a local NGO certified as a Water.org partner. Community members are seen as partners and must assume responsibility for construction, hygiene education, collection of water tariffs, and maintenance of the project.

The community also must pay at least 10 percent of the cost, either in cash or building materials, or in sweat equity.

"The fact that they invest their labor and their cash increases the likelihood that [the project] will be sustained," he says.

Water.org has an impressive record of success. White has received many awards and recognitions, including induction into the Philanthropic Hall of Fame in 2008. But there's still a long way to go. Does he really think his goal can be attained? "Oh, yes," White says. "We're going to get there."

• To learn more, go to: Water.org

• For more stories about people making a difference, click here.

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