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Why We Need Foundations at the Table for Sanitation Innovation

August 13, 2012

Providing access to sanitation is a critical issue on the WASH spectrum, and one that is intertwined with countless other issue areas, including health, poverty, education, human rights, and the environment, to name a few. But why is philanthropic investment in sanitation important? Why not just let governments take care of their citizen’s basic sanitation needs?

As one WASH evaluation report puts it: “While building infrastructure can help address the immediate need for access, building the capacity of communities, local governments, and the local private sector to provide water and sanitation services over the long-term is often overlooked.” 

While building infrastructure can help address the immediate need for access, building the capacity of communities, local governments, and the local private sector to provide water and sanitation services over the long-term is often overlooked.

At WASHfunders, we believe philanthropic investments can and do make a difference. Our funding map tells the story of philanthropy’s impact on WASH issues. Simply comparing bi- and multi-lateral giving to foundation giving will only show what’s obvious — that foundation giving is much smaller. However, grant-level data shows a variety of philanthropic players funding a wide range of initiatives, including advocacy and research. Many funders work with government and aim to build capacity and affect policy change. Some fill gaps that government cannot or has not been able to fill — funding work in remote areas or with vulnerable populations that are typically neglected, stigmatized, or excluded, such as the untouchables in India or HIV patients in sub-Saharan Africa. Still others innovate, educate, and scale up. (For more information on how foundations are tackling the water and sanitation crisis, read the Foundation Center’s research brief.)

As a cross-cutting issue, WASH affects everyone — a simple fact that many foundations recognize and work into their funding strategies. Yet it’s something that developing country governments cannot grapple with alone. This is where philanthropic investments come into play. Foundations working at the intersection of WASH issues can bring fresh, cross-sector solutions to the table — whether by approaching sanitation as a women’s funder, a health sector player, an education expert, or from another arena.

Not confined by government’s departmental silos or bureaucratic requirements, private philanthropic initiatives have the potential to be nimble and innovative. Real learning can happen in this way and as a result, funds can quickly be directed to the highest performing projects. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is a case in point. By investing in expertise, the Gates Foundation is then able to use it to combat sanitation issues in groundbreaking ways, as well as to make strategic long-term investments. These kinds of high-impact efforts have led to results that could not be achieved by governments or bi-lateral agencies alone.

Foundations have a stake in developing sustainable models and making sure their money is invested wisely. One funder informs us that they thought long and hard about: “the kind of investment we wanted to make and the kind of impact we wanted to have. By that, I mean did we want to simply… write a check? Or did we want to invest in research-based projects that sought to determine the most effective ways to address the WASH challenge and thus create sustainable long-term approaches?” They chose the second (harder) route.

Philanthropic investments in sanitation are driven by a strong desire for local communities to take ownership of WASH solutions. Many private foundations take painstaking measures to work at the local level with NGOs and governments, and to understand what is needed on the ground, while also bringing new ideas and technologies to the forefront of this work. Nor are private foundations limited to just making grants. Many opt to engage volunteers, influence policymakers, and share time, expertise, and resources, in addition to making grants. This kind of non-monetary social investment in sanitation issues positions foundations to be able to improve policy, combat inertia, and invigorate the sector.

Work done by Global Water Challenge, the WASH Sustainability Charter, trailblazing NGOs, like a child’s right and charity:water, and portals, like Glasspockets, has spurred foundations to become more transparent and to track and report their outcomes data. Slowly but surely, the philanthropic sector is holding itself accountable for investments that succeed and fail. Even more importantly, foundations are beginning to share that knowledge with others. Philanthropic investment in sanitation is not only crucial for providing basic access and building capacity, but for furthering a culture of learning and knowledge-sharing that can benefit everyone working on sanitation issues from government to local communities.

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