Nonprofit funds water for the world

By Elizabeth Cernota Clark

A young North Carolina artist recently raised more than $500 for WaterPartners International, an organization dedicated to providing clean water for developing countries.

In the big picture of fundraising, $500 may be a drop in the bucket. But for Gary White, every drop holds a world of significance.

“He was so inspired by the water needs of people around the world that he turned his artistic and entrepreneurial skills toward making penguin earrings and then selling them to raise money for WaterPartners’ projects,” White says of Elijah Long, one of the youngest WaterPartners in North Carolina, where the nonprofit has roots.

White is co-founder and executive director of the Kansas City-based nonprofit, which has provided $2.5 million in grants and loans for life-sustaining water projects since its inception in 1990.

Its efforts over that time have touched the lives of more than 165,000 people in Honduras, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Kenya and the Philippines.

White returned to North Carolina in February for “From North Carolina to the World,” the group’s 15th annual benefit auction, which was held at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and raised more than $96,000.

“About 20 percent of the people were new to the event this year,” says White, who did graduate work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  “So we are growing and still retaining many of our loyal supporters.”

Inspired by his travels as a UNC student, White turned frustration into action in 1990 after observing Hondurans struggle with impractical and unsustainable solutions to their water crisis.

While working on his master’s degree in environmental engineering, with an emphasis on water supply and sanitation in developing countries, he dedicated himself to helping people obtain safe, sustainable water supplies.

Initially, his goal was to link people in the U.S. with those in need of safe water in the developing world, forming partnerships that would allow financial support to flow to water projects, he says.

“However, fairly quickly we adopted the vision of the day when everyone in the world could take a safe drink of water,” he says.  “Once we adopted that big vision, I knew we had to find ways to scale our work and that we would have to be innovative in our approaches.”

WaterPartners has averaged a 51 percent increase in revenue each year, from $4,000 in 1990 to more than $2 million in fiscal year 2006.

Support from foundations comprises almost two-thirds of the group’s operating budget, he says, with the majority of the remainder coming from individuals and government sources.

In 2006, WaterPartners received a $4 million grant from the Agora Foundation and $3.1 million as part of a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to a consortium led by CARE International.

Last year alone, the group worked with 13 partner organizations and more than 50 communities to establish safe water and sanitation facilities for approximately 60,000 people, completing 14 projects and launching another 12, says Nicole Wickenhauser, communications manager.

WaterPartners’ 16-member staff, which includes personnel in India and Kenya, helps manage the organization’s current projects in Honduras, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

“I knew that we could impact the lives of millions of people if we developed the right solutions,” White says.  “The next few years should see even more acceleration in what we are able to accomplish.”

* Water-related diseases are the leading cause of death in the world/

* Natural disasters like droughts, hurricanes and earthquakes can lead to water shortages, unsafe drinking water and unsanitary toilets. War, poverty and political upheaval compound those disasters.

* March 22 is World Water Day, with the theme “Coping with Water Scarcity.”

Source: WaterPartners

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