Breaking Down $20 for 20 years

by Mo Scarpelli, Multimedia Producer, charity: water

  • Project: Using "$20 provides a person water for 20 years"
  • Location: New York, United States
  • Sector: Water and Sanitation
  • Professional Designation: NGO



If you’ve followed charity: water over the last five years, you have probably heard us say, Tweet or write: $20 can provide clean and safe drinking water to one person for 20 years. But earlier this year, we removed the “20 years” part from that messaging.

As with any retraction, this sparked a discussion with our staff about how we deal with failure. We didn’t necessarily “fail” in providing water for 20 years to the people we serve—not only are we not there yet, but we’re also adamant that we do what it takes to make sure each of our water projects last at least that long.

However, we knew that if we continued to promise that each $20 donation would provide one person access to water for two decades, we’d be using a number we’re not certain about. In effect, we’d be failing the faith of the public and our mission to “reinvent charity”—to restore peoples’ trust in charitable work. And that’s been an ambition of ours from the start.

So as we changed the messaging about 20 years across our site, we immediately took to our blog with an explanation, hoping to spark a dialogue around the word “sustainability” and divulge what goes into the numbers we use to explain our work.

Here’s the breakdown:

where’d charity: water get $20?

It comes down to simple math: $20 is the average cost per person to implement a charity: water project. That includes funds for sanitation, hygiene training and our partners’ existing maintenance models.

The technologies we fund depend on the region, the local culture and the program of our local implementing partner. Construction in some places can be relatively cheap; in others, even getting out to the project site in the first place costs a fortune. Here’s the breakdown of the average costs per country we work in, to give you an idea of just how much the cost of building a project can vary from program to program:

where’d you get 20 years?

Four years ago, the accepted average lifespan of many of our water technologies was 20 years. Since then, charity: water—and the water sector as a whole—has been reevaluating what “sustainability” really means. We’ve always known that $20 per person covers the implementation of the water project on the ground. But we became unclear about the cost to maintain our water projects over time; so we didn’t want to continue to tell our supporters or the general public that $20 can cover the cost of water for one person for 20 years.

A $20 donation to charity: water can still provide one person with the initial access to safe water, since it pays for construction of the project and early engagement with the community it serves. But keeping the project running over the next 20 years could cost more—we aren’t sure yet. This will depend on the technology, which maintenance model works best and how (and when) the community fully takes ownership of their water project.

how will charity: water projects last?

For each charity: water project we fund, from drilled wells to household BioSand filters, we work with our local partner to include some type of maintenance component. Just like the cost of building projects, this also varies; in some countries, we form and support local Water Committees to look after the projects. In others, we fund training for individual families to learn how to maintain their projects or set up a scheme where the village pays an available repair team to help.

We’re also dedicated to innovation in water project sustainability. The water sector as a whole is shifting its focus from the number of projects built to the longevity of these water sources. It’s an exciting time; new opportunities that have come up in just the last few years have potential to drastically increase accountability for water projects and monitor their sustainability.

We’re already piloting or supporting new systems to oversee our projects in the field. Here are a few examples:

Public-Private Partnerships in India

We’ve supported the establishment of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Centers in two urban districts of India, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The program trains local youth and women to repair and maintain hand pumps. This provides jobs, ensures a repair option for locals and best of all—the center is a business, so it sustains itself. The PPP centers serve as demonstration sites, whose best practices can then be replicated by local government, with our partners indirect involvement and support.

Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW) with Water For People

One of our implementing partners, Water For People, has created an innovative visual data system to make monitoring projects more transparent and reliable. They upload data—GPS coordinates, populations served, state of the water project—from the field on mobile devices (usually smart phones). This data is then available online for anyone to assess the status of projects. Since we already prove every charity: water project using GPS and photos, we’re hoping FLOW helps us get more information on our projects and get it faster, too.

Clustering in rural Ethiopia

Monitoring projects in remote areas is very challenging. Our local partners in Ethiopia have adapted by “clustering” many of their charity: water projects to concentrated areas. This makes gathering data easier, as it’s all in one place. It also fosters region-wide accountability; communities learn best practices from others who are taking care of their projects.


so what are the new numbers?

We don’t have them yet—and because we’re starting to invest in a diverse portfolio of water technologies and sanitation models, we actually may never again have a nicely-rounded number to put on every project we fund. We’ll still use averages to give people an idea of how much our projects cost. But we also plan to do more than that as we scale our work—we’re going to share the costs of our water programs along the way, through stories and proof of completed projects in the field.

Earlier this summer, we launched a new feature on our online fundraising platform,, where we tie every dollar donated to the water project it funded in the field. Donors and fundraisers can learn just how much went into each component of a water project along with where it was built and who is using it. We call this Dollars to Projects—we see it as a powerful way to share the costs of our work while connecting donors to the people they’re helping in developing countries.

on failure

charity: water has always tried to be up-front with our supporters about our work. And we’ve found that the more and the sooner we admit “failure,” the more we gain trust with our donors, the more we build credibility with the public and the more we feel empowered to share the hard parts of our work.

In a way, showing the public where we’ve messed up or why we want to suddenly move in a new direction is like taking a deep sigh of relief. We’ve given ourselves the chance to share the hard stuff. We’re sparking important conversations and welcoming scrutiny because we really have nothing to hide. And our supporters become closer to use as let them in on how we’ve made our decisions.

When we ask people to join our mission—by fundraising, donating, volunteering or raising awareness—we invite them into understanding the trials and tribulations of our work, too. So far, we’ve been grateful to find that many are up for the challenge.

Learn more about charity: water

  • Breaking Down $20 for 20 years: our original blog post explaining our change in messaging.
  • Why water? A brief overview on how clean water changes everything.
  • Proving it: How we tie every dollar raised or donated on mycharity: water to a completed project in the field.


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One Comment

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  1. Good practice, it is indeed not that easy!

    However, you can rephrase it a bit if you have more control over the execution of the project, and not just give it to a NGO that has multiple donors, so your funding in fact get’s lost in their comp;ex budget spending.

    We had some similar issues initially in our FairWater projects, but with some good results in the end by applying a regional approach with a “BlueZone”, rather than a community oriented approach, i will try to find the time to write something about that later.

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