Christian nonprofit builds water systems around the world -- and an effective organization at home
These school children in Honduras are among the 3.5 million people in 55 countries who now have safe water thanks to Water Mission. Photos courtesy of Water Mission
Water Mission had the engineering expertise to become a leader in installing water systems in developing countries around the globe. But just as important, the nonprofit realized, was an active focus on its core values and workplace culture.
Last July, a young mother named Sela danced and sang alongside her five children and hundreds of neighbors as part of a community celebration in the remote north Indonesian village of Lae Hundulan. And with good reason.
After a lifetime of trekking to the nearest river four times a day to haul back dirty water, she could now, at the turn of a spigot, access water that did not make her children sick. Water that flowed fresh and clean, just steps from her home.
Not far away, in the hilltop village of Huta Ginjang, Ms. Siregar was equally elated. For the first time in her 78 years, Siregar, who has arthritis, no longer had to hike down the steep mountainside to her village’s only water source.
Thanks to Water Mission, a nonprofit Christian engineering ministry that creates safe water solutions in developing countries and disaster areas, a solar-powered system now pumps water from the spring at the foot of the mountain up to the village. After being treated, the water is stored in tanks and then distributed by pipes to 20 convenient access points, including one near Siregar’s home.
Siregar and Sela were just two of the people that Kevin Herr met when he traveled to North Sumatra last summer with a group of church leaders to visit various Water Mission projects. As he recounted that trip in a recent interview, Herr, the director of church partnerships for Water Mission, said the projects have an impact that can be difficult to comprehend.
“These projects are absolutely transformational to people’s lives,” he said. “You could see it in the pride and joy in Sela’s eyes.”
Based in Charleston, South Carolina, Water Mission -- a nonprofit rich with engineering expertise -- has built more than 2,000 safe water, sanitation and hygiene projects in more than 55 countries around the globe since it was founded in 2001. Even so, the organization’s work is about more than providing clean water and helping improve sanitation, hygiene and health, Herr said.
Long before Water Mission digs a well or installs one of its water treatment systems, the organization’s regional team lays the groundwork by creating relationships and trust and investing in community leadership development, he said. In the process, team members embrace every opportunity to share messages about God’s love.
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“Our approach is holistic, and the transformation is as much a factor of community relationship building and Christian outreach with the local leaders and churches as it is turning on a new water tap,” he said. “We’ve learned that communities need to have buy-in and feel ownership for a water project to achieve long-term success.”
Grassroots to global impact
That’s one of many lessons the nonprofit has learned in 17 years of creating safe water solutions around the world. But as Water Mission has coped with extraordinary growth in recent years, some of the hardest lessons have been internal and organizational. As Water Mission discovered, internal relationship building and ministry are critical to the success of a Christian organization. Building water systems around the world requires not only engineering expertise but also an effective organization at home.
Founded in 2001 by Molly and George Greene III, Water Mission began as a grassroots response to the devastation that Hurricane Mitch inflicted upon Honduras in 1998. The Greenes, who ran a successful environmental engineering firm in Charleston, were asked to help address urgent water sanitation needs in the hard-hit country. Finding no feasible, ready-made solutions for purifying the contaminated water supply, George and his team of engineers set out to design and build a prototype water treatment system that was rugged, reliable, and easy to operate and transport.
On the ground in Honduras, the resulting system not only worked; it showed promise for meeting an urgent need that extended far beyond the battered country. Soon, the Greenes’ patented Living Water Treatment System was being used in response to other natural disasters and in villages and refugee camps around the world.
Three years after developing the first Living Water Treatment System, the Greenes sold their engineering business and launched Water Missions International -- shortened in 2015 to Water Mission -- as a 501(c)(3). Their decision was inspired in part by the couple’s work with the Halftime Institute, a Christian organization that helps successful leaders chart a new path of deeper significance in the second half of life.
“Having achieved excellence in the business world’s eyes, George and Molly wanted to do work that would have more eternal significance,” Herr said.
Today, the Living Water Treatment System remains Water Mission’s signature filtration and disinfection system, capable of purifying more than 10,000 gallons of water per day -- enough drinking water for up to 5,000 people. To date, it has provided clean water to more than 3.5 million people around the world.
“Going from the for-profit world to the nonprofit has been a big learning curve,” said George Greene IV, Water Mission’s president and chief operating officer. When his parents began as full-time volunteers with the fledgling organization, they underwrote the entire operation themselves and managed a small staff of three, most of whom were family.
But it didn’t take long for them to realize that this model was unsustainable; the demand for water projects was growing, and more and more individuals, churches and corporations were becoming interested in Water Mission’s work. While that brought more funding and support, the sudden growth put a strain on the organization’s capacity, necessitating a rapid expansion in management and staffing.
Today, Greene IV works alongside his parents (George III is CEO, Molly is board chair and chief stewardship officer; neither draws a salary) overseeing operations that include projects in more than 55 countries, with a budget of $22 million. A full-time program staff of 58 works in the Charleston headquarters (up from just 15 staff members in 2010), and another 250 field staff work in 10 countries with regional partners around the world.
Staying true while scaling up
“First and foremost, we’re a Christian ministry that happens to have engineering at its core, so we really can’t take credit for this incredible growth,” said Greene IV. “God has opened the door; it’s our job to stay faithful.”
But staying faithful and focused was difficult in the face of such rapid expansion, he said.
To help cope with the change, Water Mission took a hard look at itself when it decided to participate in a Best Christian Workplaces survey in 2014. The results suggested that many of the organization’s growing pains and shortfalls stemmed from problems in internal communication and workplace culture, Herr said.
“We got a pretty poor score -- a 3.6 out of 5,” he said. “It was a wake-up call.”
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Team members, for example, were dissatisfied with internal communication about how senior-level decisions were made, and they believed that the workplace culture was not as supportive of spiritual growth as it could be.
“As a faith-based organization, we take this seriously,” Greene IV said. “It was like having a bucket of cold water poured over our head. Our work is intended to impact as many lives as possible, and that includes our employees as much as those to whom we bring safe water.”
To address the issues, Water Mission partnered with Chick-fil-A and its affiliated Lifeshape nonprofit to learn best practices for nurturing staff discipleship. The entire staff also participated in a three-day workshop conducted by Lead Like Jesus, a Christian leadership development organization.
Those efforts have allowed Water Mission “to really double down on who we are as a Christian ministry, and to go deep with how we best integrate our values and principles into things like our HR processes,” said Greene IV.
Where and how are your organization’s core values and principles incorporated into day-to-day operations?
“Before these workshops, our management team knew we had internal issues, but we just didn’t deal with them,” he said.
Performance management processes have now been made more transparent and have shifted from a single annual review to ongoing open conversations.
“It’s much more of a coaching model than a top-down review,” Herr said.
Each staff member also gives anonymous reviews to senior management, which Greene III shares with the staff along with the results of periodic follow-up Best Christian Workplace surveys. Recent surveys have shown dramatic improvement since the initial survey -- “one of the highest jumps in the nation,” Herr said.
To further enhance communication and nurture a more supportive workplace culture, Water Mission has initiated a daily “morning huddle” -- a 30-minute staffwide devotional gathering followed by small group meetings in which employees share work-related “victories” and prayer requests.
“This is a significant time commitment on a daily basis,” Greene IV said. “But it helps us as we’ve grown to stay focused on our personal interactions and to be intentional about our culture.”
Core values: love, integrity and excellence
To sharpen its focus even more, Water Mission condensed its list of guiding values, trimming it from eight Bible-based values to three: love, integrity and excellence.
That may seem like a simple change, but it helps keep everyone on the same page, Greene III said: “In a fast-growing organization, it’s critical that core values are clearly articulated and easily communicated.”
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Water Mission understands the importance of leading with its strengths. From the beginning, excellence in engineering innovation has differentiated the organization from other nonprofits and NGOs addressing global water issues. Even now, more than a third of Water Mission’s staff are professional engineers.
“Our founders were engineers who decided to go into full-time ministry, not vice versa,” said Jeanna Walls, Water Mission’s marketing and communications manager. “Our nerdy background, technical expertise and constant measuring and evaluating of outcomes has made our success possible, opening doors and opportunities.”
That expertise is reflected in Water Mission’s commitment to innovation and developing the most advanced water treatment systems possible. From the beginning, Water Mission has continually tweaked and improved its Living Water Treatment System to serve more people and minimize operational and replacement costs.
Solar-powered pumps, which the organization began using in 2008, reduce lifetime operating costs by 40 percent compared with traditional drilled wells fitted with hand pumps. More than 1,100 solar-powered systems are now up and running, with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. And thanks to a collaboration with IBM, water systems can now be monitored remotely, reducing system downtimes to an average of only four days.
On the operations side, Water Mission has focused over the last five or six years on establishing highly standardized processes for project implementation, operation and monitoring. Having uniform systems and procedures is crucial when undertaking complex engineering projects in far-flung locations, with possible language barriers and onsite partners with varying skill levels.
As Water Mission has grown, evolved and adapted, so too has its vision. Until last year, the organization’s vision statement, adopted in 2011, was “to be a Christian Engineering Ministry that is recognized as a global leader in transformational safe water solutions by 2017.”
The goal was to be a “best-in-class” organization, one that would be positioned to assist and guide other organizations to work together to achieve sustainable scale, Greene III said.
If partnerships with other organizations are any indication, that goal has been met. Leading global relief organizations such as UNICEF and Samaritan’s Purse, as well as governmental agencies such as FEMA, routinely partner with Water Mission.
In light of Water Mission’s success in becoming a global leader in cutting-edge water engineering technologies, the board and senior leadership in 2017 updated the vision statement, which is now simply “that all people have safe water and an opportunity to experience God’s love.”
How has your organization’s vision changed and adapted over the years?
Water Mission’s technical and organizational success has enabled it to put more energy and focus on the outreach part of its mission. Evangelism has always been central to Water Mission’s ministry, but now, like its water systems, its outreach is becoming more sophisticated.
Using new digital technology and platforms, Water Mission shares the Christian message with water project users via a content-sharing system for mobile devices. Installed at water project sites, the system offers a variety of religious content and educational videos on sanitation and hygiene.
More to do
Despite Water Mission’s success, billions of people across the globe are still in need of clean, safe water. Some 2.1 billion -- more than a third of the world’s population -- lack access to safe water, and 4.4 billion lack access to sanitation, with devastating consequences in disease, mortality, and educational and economic impact.
Guided by a clear vision and mission, Water Mission continues to respond to crises such as the recent earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia, as well as ongoing water needs for growing refugee settlements in Uganda, Burundi and elsewhere.
“This is intense work,” Herr said. “There’s an urgent human need. It’s incredibly demanding and rewarding at the same time.”
But by investing in leadership training, fine-tuning communication and transparency issues, addressing shortfalls in workplace culture, and putting efficiency processes in place, the global nonprofit is poised to keep safe water flowing for millions more in need.