The Importance of Reflective Philanthropy: Lessons for donors interested in innovation

As part of our Youth Perspectives in Philanthropy series, JYPI201 teen funder Eric Miller discussed his passion for an organization called PlayPumps International which sought to overcome the ubiquitous fresh-water shortage problem faced by many African communities. The solution involved pumping water from currently inaccessible underground reservoirs, the highlight being that the pump would be powered by a roundabout, so that when children played with it, clean water would be pumped into a water storage tank. As Eric noted, “I fell in love with PlayPumps because the idea was so basic, so simple, and so helpful.” It was a simple “fun” technological solution to an important problem—lack of clean water.

When FRONTLINE/World correspondent Amy Costello reported a story about the PlayPump® in November 2005, complete with pictures of children thronging the pumps and using them, it captured the imagination of the international media, and donors alike. At the Clinton Global Initiative conference in September 2006,  a $16.4 million campaign was launched to roll out PlayPumps as quickly as possible in Southern African countries. The device received various awards, and celebrities like Jay-Z pitched in to market it and raise awareness and funds.

In 2009, Amy Costello began investigating negative reports from UNICEF and Mozambique about the PlayPump, and found that even though the majority (>80%) of the pumps were working, problems plagued the PlayPump. Many of them had broken down and there were no local parts or expertise to repair them. Often, they were installed at sites unsuitable sites for this technology. Even the image of children joyously using the roundabout was replaced by that of a thin, old woman struggling to turn the roundabout while a child or two stood watching, and being rewarded by a thin trickle of water at the tap.

The rollout was eventually halted, some of the original hand-pumps were replaced, and all remaining inventory of PlayPumps was handed over to Water for People to be used selectively, along with their other solutions to the water problems, in large schools where the pumps worked best. The Case Foundation also posted a reflective blog entry entitled The painful acknowledgement of coming up short.

“…the very nature of innovation requires that we try new things and take risks. Sometimes they will work, other times they won’t—but in all cases, we should learn from our experiences and strive to do even better in the future. Of course we would have liked PlayPumps to have achieved the reach and impact to date that we originally envisioned—it’s much more fun to talk about successes than disappointments. The bottom line is that hundreds of African communities now have greater access to clean water and the revised efforts working with Water for People will further improve its availability. Together with other sector efforts and replication of the concept, we do believe African communities will be better served and the interventions more sustainable because of the important course corrections we’ve put in place…”– Jean Case

So what lessons can donors draw from this experience?

  • Include communities (end-users) in the decision making process: There should be a needs assessment which allows the communities—the end users—understand what utility the technology will bring to the local communities, when compared to the status quo, or the existing solution to the problem. In the case of PlayPumps, the more traditional alternative to drawing water, the hand-pump, existed in many of the sites chosen for the new technology. In such cases, the PlayPump didn't add much more value than being an alternative pumping option and providing storage facilities, making it difficult to justify the $14,000 (4 times the cost of a regular pump) investment required per pump. When the new PlayPump technology was installed, it replaced the original pumps, which made pumping water difficult in the absence of children. In some villages in Mozambique, water is gathered by elderly women who cannot turn the PlayPump, and prefer to use the hand pump, which is easier to operate. Thus, somewhere along the way, the PlayPumps approach lost sight of the requirements of the communities, and began to resemble the top-down approach that the international aid and philanthropic community has been trying to move away from.
  • No magic bullets: No technological “magic bullet” fits every situation—sometimes the best technology is the simplest and is easily fixed with local parts (e.g. locally made hand pumps). Solutions always come with caveats—technology will work in some settings but not others. It’s best to start out slow in a roll-out of new technology so it can be improved and adapted to local conditions. This might include consumer feedback and focus groups on how to improve, as well as what is working and what is not with the technology before it gets scaled up. The focus with the PlayPumps seemed too much on quantity rolled out rather than getting it right.
  • Think about sustainability and maintenance: It is important to set up a local supply chain to ensure that adequate and sustainable maintenance of the technology is possible. This system should be defined and developed before the technology is implemented, and the costs should be incorporated into the total projected costs for the technology. It is also helpful, though not always possible, to involve the local community in the technology implementation so that the expertise for maintaining the technology is passed along. This also creates a sense of ownership and empowerment. Donors can help by setting aside money specifically for technology repair, which is more helpful to the communities in the long run. In the PlayPumps scenario, it was ironic that new pumps continued to be installed, while the existing broken-down pumps lay in a state of disrepair because there was no money for their maintenance. In many villages, the idea of selling advertisements on the side of the water towers did not work, or raise enough revenue for this cause.
  • Monitor and address feedback: Set up a system to monitor the new technology to see if problems are developing and to address them promptly. Such a system could have been an early warning that the rollout needed adjustment before more pumps were installed.

It is not often that donors openly talk about failures and lessons learned and we applaud the candid and humble acknowledgment by Jean Case of the Case Foundation in her blog post mentioned above. The voice of “reflective philanthropy” can help donors in valuing the importance of innovation, risk-taking, and learning in order for donations to achieve the greatest impact.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Youth Perspectives in Philanthropy, as we will hear from two teen funders of the JYPI group that awarded PlayPumps a grant in 2008.

Thanks to Sagar Shah, a former CHIP researcher and Wharton graduate, and Carol McLaughlin, research director, for their contributions to this post.