We Are 30 Years Young — Still So Much To Learn

Eleanor Allen
6 min readNov 17, 2021

A year ago, I wrote a blog called I Just Couldn’t Get Out of Bed Anymore — Hitting the COVID Wall. Some days the summer of 2020 seems ages ago; other days it seems like yesterday. While COVID was in full swing last year, so was my personal learning journey on how to be less racist and bring an anti-racist approach to organizational design and management to the organization I run, Water For People. A year later I can honestly say that I, and we, have made noticeable progress.

Water For People has been addressing issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusions (JEDI) over the past several years. For example, our impact model is called Everyone Forever (i.e., lasting quality water and sanitation services for every family, clinic, and school — forever) and it is effective. We also began deliberately incorporating equity and inclusion into our program design a few years ago so that our definition of Everyone was even more comprehensive. However, when I looked in the mirror last year and saw who we were as far as the leaders of this incredible organization, I realized we were not changing fast enough. Our leadership team did not accurately reflect our organization or the people we serve. Like many international nongovernmental organizations (INGO) leadership teams in post-colonial countries, we were mostly white leaders from high income countries with good intentions. However, we are leading an organization that employs and works with majority black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). We could do better. And so we changed. Today our Global Leadership Team is truly global, with leaders from Africa, Latin America, India, and the U.S.. An added bonus is that we eliminated a level of hierarchy in our organizational structure.

As we strive to decolonize ourselves further and influence the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector to change, we recognize it is difficult to try to imagine a future devoid of colonial thinking for an INGO based in the United States. Nevertheless, we can make intentional steps to be more inclusive and equitable and be an example for others. We can modify who we are and what we do to act with greater justice — moral rightness — and become even better at achieving our mission: promoting the development of high-quality drinking water and sanitation services, accessible to all, and sustained by strong communities, businesses, and governments.

This year we are celebrating our 30th anniversary. There was a time when we thought Water For People would be out of business by 2021 as everyone in the world should have reliable and safe water and sanitation services by now. Sadly, we were wrong. Billions of people live without these basic services. We still have work to do.

Rwanda — one of the nine countries where Water For People works

As we embark on our new strategy — called Destination 2030 — we have set aspirational impact goals to help millions more people get quality lasting services. And we have committed to changing ourselves. Here is what we are planning to do for our self-improvement:

Shift power — by moving control over organizational decisions from a centralized body to a more dispersed leadership team empowering our country teams

Redistribute wealth — both human and financial resources — toward the countries where we work

Foster legitimacy, agency, and subsidiarity for all countries — especially for those who have historically been in the role of ‘receiver’ of aid or ‘beneficiaries’ of programs

Strengthen our culture — to be more inclusive and equitable for all employees and communities where we work

We want to transform Water For People into a global organization with authority, power, and leadership dispersed and shared globally rather than centralized in the U.S. We believe this will increase our legitimacy and efficacy in the countries where we work. In parallel, we are also exploring the possibility of starting U.S. and Canadian programs as the needs for improved services are increasingly more evident right here at home. This will, in turn, improve our legitimacy in North America.

To achieve this transformation, we are making significant changes in the way we work, especially in the relationship between the U.S. office and our offices in the nine countries and three regions where we work around the world, and with our Canadian (currently for fundraising only) and Indian affiliate operations. The concept of a Headquarters is going away — both in the physical and hierarchical sense. The functions that support the entire organization — like fundraising and marketing, global finance, global talent management, IT, risk, etc. — is done through a virtual (“work from anywhere” concept) Global Team. Many employees on the Global Team will continue to be based in the U.S. but not all. The roles are increasingly being filled by employees outside the U.S. These changes in our management approach and organizational culture will help shift our decision-making process and structure; we strive to be a flatter and more inclusive organization.

#1 Sharing leadership for the future. Key decisions about the future of Water For People are being made by a leadership team with a greater global perspective and more diverse voices.

#2 Sharing funding decisions. Power, authority, and leadership often are reflected by who controls the money. Decisions on where and how to allocate funds traditionally have been made by the leadership team that was formerly based in the U.S. Now we will not only have regional representation in the room where the decisions are made, we have also been increasing the authority and the ability of our country programs to pursue funding opportunities themselves.

#3 Understanding and addressing the issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). We have just completed an organizational assessment on where we are with regards to JEDI. Currently we are developing a multi-year organizational transformation workplan, led by regional and global Transformation Committees that will focus on closing our JEDI gaps. This will help us become the organization we strive to become — both with our global employee population and our global board. We have more work to do on our organizational policies, practices, culture, and training to be more equitable and inclusive.

#4 One step at a time. Just like forming personal habits that are positive and stick, organizational culture change takes a long time and happens incrementally. We strive for each step to be clear, attractive, easy, and satisfying so that we move in the desired direction — step by step. Examples of small steps we have taken include monthly virtual meetings with all employees hosted by country directors so they can share what is happening in their countries. We also now always having simultaneous translation at global meetings (vs. holding separate meetings or using closed caption translation), so that non-English-speaking employees can participate fully. And we have been posting some positions for formerly based U.S. functions globally instead of just in the U.S. These are small yet intentional steps to be more inclusive.

Our decolonization and JEDI journey started a few years ago yet we really picked up the pace this year. I’m proud of what we’ve done so far. Water For People is an organization that challenges the status quo. We are not complacent and are driven to be the best at what we do. One of our core values is courage and we demonstrate that in many ways — including looking in the mirror and telling ourselves it is time to change. We are 30 years young and constantly adapting to the world we live and work in so we can be relevant and impactful while remaining humble. I believe it is our responsibility, as a U.S. organization, to confront the legacy of racism and colonialism so that repeated patterns of injustice can be broken. It will take more than Water For People’s actions to make measurable and visible change in the WASH sector with respect to decolonization. If this topic resonates with you, I hope you will join us on this journey to challenge the status quo and strive for a better and more sustainable way of working today to create a more equitable tomorrow for your employees and stakeholders.

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Eleanor Allen

Passionate about making the world a better place. Chief Everything Officer (CEO) of Catapult For Change, PBC (www.catapultforchange.com).