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How Are Foundations Tackling the Global Water Crisis?

March 22, 2012

(Seema Shah is director of research for special projects at the Foundation Center. She can be reached at sms@foundationcenter.org.)

World_Water_Day_logo_2012It's World Water Day. And for those of us lucky enough to be able to take clean drinking water for granted, the numbers can be difficult to wrap our heads around. Nearly one billion people globally do not have access to safe water and more than two billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. The implications for the physical, economic, and educational well-being of communities, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, are far-reaching. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted during last year's World Water Day events, "The water crisis is a health crisis, it's a farming crisis, it's an economic crisis, it's a climate crisis, and increasingly, it is a political crisis."

Given the scope and scale of the crisis, what are foundations doing to address the situation?

A year ago, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which has a twenty-year history of supporting safe water initiatives, awarded a grant to the Foundation Center to create a Web portal that would serve as a data and information hub for grantmakers working on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues.

Launched in October, the portal, WASHfunders.org, seeks to promote greater coordination among established WASH funders, while also serving as a resource for new funders in the sector. The centerpiece of the site is a robust mapping tool that helps funders minimize duplication of effort by identifying other foundations that are working on similar issue areas or in the same geographic region. Funders visiting the site also are able to share lessons learned through case studies that highlight both challenges and successes in the WASH arena. And they can access the latest WASH-related research, aggregated in one place. All these resources are designed to help funders work more efficiently and effectively, allowing them to maximize the impact of their grant dollars. (In fact, the portal has become a model for funders working in other issue areas, as they seek to become more strategic and use data-driven decision making and peer-to-peer insights to strengthen their grantmaking.)

WASHfunders_chartIn conjunction with its work on WASHfunders.org and this week's World Water Day events, the Foundation Center has released a new research brief that summarizes foundation investments in water, sanitation, and hygiene. Among other things, our findings show that support for WASH issues has been on the rise since 2003. Between 2003 and 2010, the number of funders making WASH-related grants jumped from 24 to 78, and that growth was accompanied by a nearly five-fold increase in the number of organizations receiving grants. In 2009-2010, U.S. foundation funding for WASH issues totaled $144 million, up from $11 million in 2003-2004. At the same time, WASH funding, having grown from 0.2 percent in 2003 to 1.7 percent in 2010, remains a very modest portion of international giving by U.S. foundations overall.

The research brief also highlights the top funders of WASH initiatives. Among private foundations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continues to be the largest funder of WASH programs, with the foundation's grantmaking comprising half of all WASH funding in 2009-2010. Among corporate foundations, the PepsiCo Foundation leads the way, awarding grants of more than $12 million in 2009-2010.

Philanthropic investments to address safe water, adequate sanitation, and hygiene education are poised to increase in the coming years, with several foundations, including the Margaret Cargill Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund, beginning to develop strategic initiatives focused on WASH issues.

Indeed, although the number of people lacking access to safe water and adequate sanitation is far too high, we are beginning to see evidence that the collective efforts of foundations, governments, and NGOs are making a difference. In fact, just last week UNICEF and WHO announced that the Millennium Development Goal for water had been met, the first of the MDG targets to be achieved.

For more data on foundation support for WASH issues, see the full research brief here. And feel free to use the comments section below to share how your organization is observing World Water Day.

-- Seema Shah

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