World Water Day Q&A with Makena Cunningham of charity: water

Authentic Jobs is proud to support the mission of charity: water. If you’ve ever landed on our 404 page, you might have discovered our longstanding partnership. Today, March 22, we’re joining charity: water in celebrating World Water Day.

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Makena Cunningham of charity: water took time to chat with us about charity: water’s mission, work, and just how important clean water is.

1. Tell us about charity: water! What’s your mission, why were you founded, where are you, who are you?

charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. We send 100% of public donations directly to fund water projects in the field, and work with local organizations with years of experience to build sustainable, community-owned water projects around the world. We track every dollar raised and prove projects with photos and GPS once they’re complete.

charity: water was founded by Scott Harrison in 2006, with the idea that no person should drink dirty water. And since then, a community of over 1 million has joined us to fund nearly 23,000 water projects in 24 countries. Those projects will bring over 7 million people clean water.

2. How did you personally end up working at charity: water? What did you do before, and what was it about charity: water that made you want to join them?

I studied biological anthropology, and before that, I worked with political campaigns on the city and state level. Now, I realize that sounds a bit all over the place, but there was always a thread that held through those odd interests: a fascination with changing the way that people think about a topic or approach a problem within it. In anthropology, it was our collective past; and in politics, our current system.

I had heard about charity: water years before because of its mission, but never took a deeper look. Then, I had something big happen in my personal life that resulted in your classic “I can’t do this job anymore!” moment. I wanted to do something every day that I could feel and see the impact I was making. That night, I spent about 5 or 6 hours watching every charity: water video I could get my hands on and applied to join.

Ultimately, that meant leaving a couple of grad school osteology classes, joining the charity: water team as an intern, and discovering a passion for working with our partners that turned into a career that I love.

3. What does your normal work day look like?

I work with our amazing brand partners, so I spend about half of my day in communication with them! And topics of discussion can span from strategizing to executing campaigns built to inspire those companies’ communities while bringing people clean water. The other half of my day is spent with our internal teams, coordinating the details behind making all those ideas happen.

At the moment, we’re also in the beginning stages of planning a new giving product that we’re hoping to launch for brand partners in the fall. I spend just about every spare moment thinking about what that will look like digitally and physically, how partners will engage with it, and what impact it’ll ultimately have around the world.

4. So as an organization with a global mission, how do you stay connected? What tools do you use to turn good will and donations into clean water solutions for communities? If you’ll pardon the pun, what’s that pipeline like?

charity: water has always been hyper-transparent, and quite a few things go into making that happen! I’ll spare everyone the laundry list, but I do have two favorite tools: our online fundraising platform, and storytelling. The platform, mycharity: water, ties Dollars to Projects. That means that once the project you helped is complete, we show you exactly which project you funded. And that’s true for a six-year-old raising a few hundred dollars selling paintings as well as a world-famous band member who’s asking for donations instead of birthday presents.

Now, that’s a lot of data. But we also want to make the impact of our work real. And that means taking to social media, videos, and our blog to inspire people with stories about our beneficiaries, our partners, and our incredible supporters. This month, we’re highlighting incredible women from Adi Etot, Ethiopia in our own 30 Under 30, having campaigners take over our Snapchat, and even taking over brand partners’ social media.

5. It’s World Water Day! Tell us about what World Water Day means to you and your organization.

World Water Day is an event first created by the United Nations to bring attention to the chronic lack of sanitary drinking water that affects 663 million people today. charity: water usually celebrates that day by launching a campaign or story to raise awareness of the water crisis and show what we’re doing to solve it. In the past, that’s varied from a Waterwalk in Times Square to sending dozens of Jerry Cans around the world for a massive Instameet, to launching a new brand partnership!

6. You’ve also launched a brand new campaign for World Water Day. Tell us about its creation. What do you hope to achieve with it?

This is one of my favorite charity: water campaigns to date. Last October, the charity: water team spent two weeks in a community in Tigray, Ethiopia, collecting more than four hundred individual stories about the need for clean water. We heard from each person how clean water might improve their health, wealth, or chances of becoming a doctor, driver, or engineer.

On World Water Day, we’ve launched a beautiful, interactive microsite where you can see what it looks like for someone just like you to live without clean water. You’ll answer a few questions, then the page will reload and you’ll be staring back at the video portrait of the person most like you in Adi Etot. You can read their story, see what their life is like, and ultimately, give clean water to help someone like you.

7. What do you wish people knew about providing water to the communities you serve?

Water changes everything, especially for women and kids. We say it all the time, but I still feel like I can’t say it enough! In most of the places we work, it’s their job to collect water for their families. Not only does unsafe water make you sick, but the walk for it can also take hours from each day. It often means time under a hot sun or crossing treacherous terrain, and time that they can’t spend in school. But once there’s clean water closer to home, kids can go to school. Women can start a garden to grow more food, or a business to have more income. And everyone’s healthier.

8. What are some of your biggest challenges on the ground?

One of our most common solutions, a hand pump, will get pumped five million times a year. And they’re not exactly precision-engineered. So a big challenge is answering the question: “what happens when a well breaks?”

We’ve always worked with our local partners within their existing maintenance models, but with nearly 23,000 projects underway or completed, you can imagine that sending mechanics around to check on projects isn’t scalable.

With a grant from, help from PCH Lime Lab, a few years of trial and error, we developed a remote sensor that wraps around the center of a hand pump, and measures and transmits the water flow. That flow data is then fed into an algorithm that generates alerts if the flow is outside of an expected range. That way, we know when a project breaks and mechanics need to be dispatched to fix it.

Now, over three thousand sensors are transmitting water flow data from Ethiopia, and we’re starting a pilot program to bring the same technology to different solutions, like piped systems in Nepal. And with that type of information, we can become more efficient, keep water flowing, and find new ways to share that technology with our community and the water sector.

9. What was your biggest achievement of 2016? And what are you hoping to achieve in 2017?

2016 was our tenth anniversary! It’s a huge milestone and it was so fun to celebrate with our community of supporters and partners. In 2017, I’m excited for us to find ways to create new connections: both within that community, and to the work that they make possible.

10. What was the last thing you read that made you change your mind?

I just finished “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates” by Frans de Waal. It made me think a little differently about the source of empathy and morality.

11. Shameless self-promotion time: What makes charity: water great? With so many wonderful causes and organizations in the world, what makes you stand out? And, importantly, how can people give to you? And is there a mode of giving that is super impactful (i.e. subscription, one-time donation, etc?)

Our mission is to bring clean water to people in developing countries, but our vision as an organization is to reinvent charity. We want to inspire you, and create a community of people and organizations that are passionate about generosity.

One way we do that is through transparency — an unshakable 100% model, proving every project we build, and finding new ways to show you the impact through sensor data. Another is through telling stories, whether it’s doubling Tencia’s income from her bread-making business in Mozambique or the lemonade stand that had a local band play on the sidewalk to raise money for clean water.

And what could be better than getting that good news year-round? charity: water recently launched The Spring, a subscription to bring clean water to people in need. I’m a member, and you can join me here.