Changing the way we change the world

Coffee talk: Jonathan Wiles of Living Water International

By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

[Full transparency: this conversation was over the telephone and the resulting blog was finished over email, but I was drinking coffee the whole time.] Jonathan Wiles is Vice President for Program Excellence at Living Water International. By training, he is an organizational strategist, communicator, and program developer. Jonathan has been involved in the WASH sector for more than a decade, during which he has been a researcher/practitioner in programs across three continents. Find him on Twitter @thirstforchange

Susan: You launched your new strategic plan in February 2011 – what were the key reasons for that plan, and how did it come together?

A group exercise underway at Living Water’s planning summit for the Americas Region, in Guatemala (Jonathan Wiles, LWI, 2010)

Jonathan: Living Water International was born in the early 90’s, when water development—this was before anyone was talking about “WASH”—was all about installing hardware. We all thought that a little village-level maintenance training was enough to ensure sustainability, and that some basic instruction in hygiene was enough to improve community health. Over 20 years, we had learned that these are really just the first steps toward lasting impact. We were starting to go deeper in a lot of our programs, but in 2010, we decided to hit the “reset” switch on our whole organizational strategy.

So during 2010, we launched into a year-long process of conducting participatory summits in all the regions where we work—Central America, Africa, India, and Haiti—along with the US. I got to lead the team that facilitated these events and it was an inspiring thing to see. At each summit, we brought together the players—community members, partners, national and international staff—and carried out an “appreciative inquiry” into the most lasting, transformative projects those people had seen with their own eyes. We pulled together some common themes and added in a healthy dash of vision for the future, based on things we were learning through sector research and other disciplines. 300+ participants at five summits drafted 43 statements, which we integrated at the end of the year into the first draft of our global strategic plan for 2011-2015.

Susan: What were the big changes from your previous strategy?

Jonathan: The big changes weren’t really a surprise, but they were exciting because they emerged out of our own experience of what we knew was possible.  We determined to shift from ad hoc project work toward long-term geographically focused “WASH Program Areas” that would emphasize access, not just systems. Our approach to hygiene and sanitation would not just communicate knowledge, but would help communities identify, plan, and implement lasting behavior change. We now define sustainability in terms of accounting for demand and long-term financial models, with community management that has ongoing support from government, the private sector, and—for a while—us. As a Christian organization, we also believe that many of the systemic issues like injustice and inequality are rooted in broken relationships, and we’re committed to working through local churches and others to heal and restore relationships that could otherwise undermine the lasting change we want to see.

Susan: How have you begun to implement the new strategy?

Jonathan: Well, there have been significant structural shifts—we’ve turned our organization on its head, in a way, and are building some real capacity at national and regional levels so that our strategy in each program is led from the “bottom up.”

We’ve also created new organizational standards that establish some basic minimum commitments to quality across all our programs, and we have launched “pilot” programs in a few places to test new approaches before rolling them out across our global operations. Uganda, for instance, is the first place we launched a WASH Program Area, focusing a “full access” approach in one particular county and a minimum of three years of engagement in each community. In Rwanda, we’re trying some new approaches to sustainable operation and maintenance, and in Nicaragua, we’re testing an approach that involves cultivating a private-sector service provider to supply long-term support.

Susan: How is your staff responding to the new strategy?

Jonathan: There’s a lot of excitement across the organization. Last year was a bit overwhelming [laughs]. Even with everyone on board, introducing new standards and launching several new pilots cause some stress. The training and capacity building we did really stretched us. This year, we’re emerging from that process, and beginning to move faster and with more confidence. At last year’s regional meetings, there were a lot of “deer in the headlights” looks. This year, people are leaning into the conversations. It’s inspiring to watch.

Susan: Have you had to bring in staff with different skills?

Living Water facilitates financial management training with a Community-Based Organization in Uganda (Mark Retzloff, LWI, 2012)

Jonathan: Absolutely. At our national and regional offices, we’re bringing on the technical and management leaders we’re going to need to give the strategy hands and feet. One of the organizational developments that came about at the global level because of the strategic plan was the creation of my team—the Program Excellence Group. We pull together disciplines like engineering, public health, and economics to hammer out program strategies, assemble the tools to make them possible, and make sure we’re continuing to learn organizationally so that our future programs are even more effective.

…we want to define a desired ‘end state’ in which community management is in place, and external support is available in the form of technical support, management support, a supply chain for spare parts, and ongoing cost-sharing.

Susan: What will you do about those communities you’ve served in the past?

Jonathan: Frankly, we’re still figuring that out. In some cases, we’ll be continuing to work in the same areas as our past program activity, extending our commitment to those communities through a “full access” approach and engagement over a longer period of time. As we go forward, rather than defining a specific period of time that we will work with each community, we want to define a desired “end state” in which community management is in place, and external support is available in the form of technical support, management support, a supply chain for spare parts, and ongoing cost-sharing. As those elements come online, our involvement will scale back. We’re still trying to figure out exactly what this looks like in most of our programs, and how many previously served communities have sufficient demand for this kind of engagement. Ask me for more on that next year.

Susan: How are your donors responding to the new strategy?

Jonathan: For the most part, the response has been enthusiastic. Some of our donors have been champions for this kind of direction from early on. Others are learning about components of the strategy for the first time, and have quickly latched on with a “Wow, this is great!” At the very least, those who don’t understand it all are intrigued and watching for more to unfold.

We’re really making a concerted effort to talk about our strategic priorities in our communications and marketing materials—this spring we spend a lot of energy telling the story of our pilot program in Uganda. We want to bring our donors along with us as we learn and grow, which means we have to build funding models the focus on programs rather than just “projects” in a way that’s still interesting, compelling, and reportable.

Susan: What ways are you finding to encourage learning?

Jonathan: We’re consolidating the things we’re learning from our pilots into program guidelines so that they’re visible and useful across the whole organization. My team in particular is leaning heavily on some of the big sector research projects because we want to be in sync with our friends and peers in the sector; we’re having a lot of conversations about WASHCost, WASHTech, and Triple-S, and how they apply to our programs. We’re also really focused on telling stories about what is working. When people see concrete examples of success, it becomes achievable for them:“If they can do it, we can do it.”

Susan: What’s the next big thing on the radar?

Jonathan: This year we’ve put an incredible amount of time into developing multi-year national strategies in each country we work in—defining needs, gaps, opportunities, geographic priorities, and timelines. These are going to be our roadmap for what’s next—the “roll out” phase of our strategy that will involve new WASH Program Areas in places like Liberia, El Salvador, Haiti, and Kenya. We’re just getting started.

To learn more about Living Water International’s evolving approach, click here.