March 18, 2015

The Little NGO that Roared

Splash, an international charity dedicated to bringing clean drinking water to children living in urban poverty, is on a mission: to become obsolete in the countries where it works. And working with local partners--like NGOs, governments, and businesses--will help them get there. 

By: Eric Stowe

My tiny NGO is on track to achieve what few aspire to: irrelevance.

Splash is an international charity dedicated to bringing clean drinking water (along with hygiene and sanitation) to millions of children living in urban poverty. What makes us different is our definition of success. We'll know we have arrived when we can hand over the keys to the shop, so to speak, and walk away—leaving our local partners to build on what we started together.

So we're on a mission to become obsolete in the countries where we work—because others who are far more capable and way more appropriate will be carrying the mission forward.

Let me explain. We understand that Splash, a Seattle-based charity with a $4 million budget, is simply too small to achieve the global impact we seek, especially trying to do it alone. Rather than focus on growing our organizational footprint, we seek massive scale by developing strategic partnerships with NGOs, governments, and businesses that have the wherewithal—capacity, infrastructure, and talent—to develop, sustain, and grow our safe water projects in urban areas long after we are gone. In effect, we're teaching others how to solve a problem, one of the pathways to transformative scale. We focus on cities because increasingly that's where the poor concentrate as more and more flood into urban areas seeking opportunities.

Our core theory is this: we can leverage international philanthropy best by creating the conditions for local success to stick. Toward that end, we don't care who our partners are as long as they commit to long-term support for the model we created together. Three examples illustrate how these partnerships work.

Equipping NGOs: In Bangladesh, we've forged a new partnership with BRAC, the world's largest NGO, to reach 150,000 students in 500 schools in Dhaka, the country's capital. Splash installs the schools' water systems, BRAC furnishes sanitation (proper disposal of waste), and we jointly develop instructional materials that explain the link between poor hygiene practices and disease. Our three-year joint project kicked off in January, 2015.

To put this partnership into perspective, BRAC is, quite simply, massive, with over 100,000 employees in Bangladesh alone. It has seen incredible success over 20 years serving millions of the country's rural ultra-poor. Now BRAC is eager to figure out how to work with the fast-growing numbers of urban poor. This is where Splash is perfectly suited to step up.

We have a proven, scalable model for providing clean water, built on the technology and supply chains that multinational food and hotel companies use to deliver safe water to their customers in developing nations. Similarly, we have learned and adapted best practices from companies doing hygiene work internationally. Rather than work solo, we took advantage of a chance to share our knowledge, networks, and technical expertise with BRAC. Together we are shaping a model that BRAC can take over and grow to serve hundreds of additional schools across Dhaka once Splash exits.

Collaborating with government: In China, Splash accepted an invitation from the Chinese government to collaborate on providing clean water to 180,000 children in the country's 1,200 orphanages. At the point of exit next year, we plan to leave in our wake a fully functional, financially independent small business—Splash China—contracted by the Chinese government to ensure clean water flows for years to come in all of China's orphanages. Unlike Bangladesh, where the social sector was our best option, we believe the government in China represents the best long-term financial supporter of this work.

Influencing business: In Thailand, Splash started working in 2011 with some of the largest orphanages and centers for disabled children in the country. But we quickly found the for-profit sector was better equipped to do the work. Hence, Splash decided to partner with a publicly-traded Thai-based water filtration company—the same company that serves a significant share of the multinational food and hotel chains.

By law, publically traded companies in Thailand must take part in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. Prior to working with us, our partner's CSR work had not taken advantage of the firm's core strength in clean water. We spent three years cofunding projects and working directly with this corporation to plot out how they can best use their own knowledge, staff, funding, and resources to reach the initial target group of some 10,000 orphans and disabled children. In addition, the company has dedicated a portion of its profits to provide clean water to thousands of school children in poor neighborhoods. Our belief is that the firm can do the work quicker, leaner, and ultimately better than Splash alone, and they have the ability to cover the costs to create both scaled coverage and sustainable implementation through their own revenue streams.

As of January, 2015, Splash exited Thailand. But we continue to watch and support (with content knowledge and resource sharing rather than direct oversight and international funding) as this Thai corporation mimics our model to serve more children than we could ever serve on our own.

Letting go is difficult. We can't dictate what BRAC, or the Chinese government, or our Thai business partner do over the years ahead to expand the projects we began together. But what I know for sure it this: Keeping myself in a job, and keeping whole communities dependent on Splash represents a dying model for charities. Our work is not about us, it's about the children we serve. And the most durable solutions will come from local private, public, and social sectors adopting Splash's mission and work, re-articulating it to meet their own needs, and ultimately making its success their own.

Eric Stowe is the founder and director of Splash (, an international nonprofit dedicated to clean water for kids living in urban poverty.

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