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One Entrepreneurs’ Quest

Social entrepreneur and humanitarian Rajesh Shah says it can be done. He has built a participatory decision-making “collaborative philanthropy” platform, proven in use for over seven years, to oversee thousands of grassroots water and sanitation projects worldwide efficiently, effectively, and transparently.

Rajesh collaborating with a group in Salone. Photographer Liz Cantu

The Peer Water Exchange (PWX) is a combination of technology, process and a human network designed to fund, solicit, select, manage, and evaluate grassroots water projects worldwide. It distributes the work across the network to eliminate bottlenecks and enable people to do the work that they are best at, while eliminating bureaucracy and paperwork. Most importantly, PWX reduces competitive behavior and increases cooperation and knowledge sharing.

PWX is the first social entrepreneurship non-profit initiative that requires changes across the entire value chain of philanthropy: from the foundation/donor to the grassroots implementer. PWX is a Web 2.0 application, conceived and created before “Web 2.0” was the buzz.

PWX is an Indian non-profit organization operating globally; a project of California-based Blue Planet Network.

I asked Rajesh (RS) five questions to understand more about his ‘secret sauce’: Q1: How big is PWX, and how many projects do you manage?

RS: PWX currently has 92 members, and is run by just two part-time people; however we have just recruited an experienced field person in order to train our Partners who implement the projects in the field. We plan to grow and add in house auditing & accounting in the near term. And, we have an amazing team of supporting volunteers!

We have funded and manage close to 700 projects, and are managing hundreds more because other organization are giving us data of projects funded through their channels to plug into our infrastructure.

For example, The International Lifeline Fund (ILF) has given us all their project data from the over 200 wells they have dug in Uganda. We offer our tools to groups like these to manage their projects; to share and learn. Most groups close to the ground are not competitive (they don’t want water at the expense of others), so they are eager to cooperate and collaborate.

Many ILF projects are funded by Charity Water, which results in broadening and sharing our knowledge base to include other funder’s data and projects. Charity Water founded by Scott Harrison, is a compelling success story.

Q2: How can such a small team select, oversee and follow up on so many projects? How have you designed scalability into the platform?

RS: I doubt any team, however large, could solicit, select, manage, support, and evaluate the tens of thousands of small community-based projects of diverse types which are needed to solve the global water and sanitation crisis.

So, our thinking is the reverse. We require all the applicants to manage the process for each other and themselves. The diverse field experiences across the world are put to use to review each others proposals, help refine them, help to make them stronger, with a greater probability of success.

Using this vast network for evaluation and impact assessment also produces greater results at much lower costs. Peer review leads to better collaboration, quicker learning and sharing, and much more objective reporting.

Safe sanitation is an integral ingredient in solving the water crises globally. Rajesh inspects a self constructed toilet in Salone. [Photographer Liz Cantu]

We facilitate this collaborative global network with our technology platform (infrastructure), which drives the connections, collaboration and transparencies; offering a new operational management paradigm to scale the un-scalable.

Q3: Why do donors / contributors find this type of small yet scalable organization so compelling?

RS: The overhead in selecting small often remote projects is high, and monitoring them for impact is even higher. Having peer-reviewed (peer-certified!) projects to fund reduces overhead, ensures that maximum funds reach the field, and increases impact. Its a win-win for all!

Solve the water crisis and you are well on your way to solving the world food crisis. Rajesh in Sierra Leone September 2011. Photographer Gail/Bank-On-Rain

Q4: Why & how is PWX changing the value chain of philanthropy by being social?

RS: Funders work in silos, and have no idea who else is working near their funding sites. They have to be satisfied with a single image (a close-up of a child drinking water with water drops in slow motion). They have no idea of the total impact in terms of population and time.

PWX is making funders work together and keep their projects alive past the ribbon-cutting ceremony and the blurb on their annual report. They get long-term impact reports on their projects via the network (or the lack thereof).

New internet technologies are enabling connections, collaborations, and transparency, which in turn encourage a new operational management paradigm to scale the un-scalable by being social.

We want to reinforce the passion of small groups, and yet create thousands more. Instead of scaling them up individually and creating management and bureaucracy (which kills the passion and original intent), we have designed this way of helping small groups. We can divide up large funding into small amounts with minimal overhead; thus helping small groups share their work and learn from each other.

Importantly, we are also working on the other side of the digital divide. The beneficiaries are most often not to the internet nor are a majority of our partner’s field staff. So we have to be more and find other ways of including them.

The most important part of collaboration is listening. Rajesh in Sierra Leone September 2011. Photographer Gail/Bank-On-Rain

Q5: What’s next for PWX as you navigate the future?

RS: We are indeed getting lured into other sectors! However, we want to focus on and fully transform the water sector first, and this means getting many more funders on board with us.

Historically the water sector has an enormous failure rate. It’s scary for all stakeholders to move toward collaboration and transparency. We have to remind them of why we are working the sector, and that the institutionalized operations are major reasons why we have so far been unable to reverse the global crises.

Thank you Rajesh for sharing your thoughts on Collaborative Philanthropy

I have first-hand experience with the ‘social’ of PWX. As many of you know, I am co-founder of a small, agile, not for profit, Bank-On-Rain, focused on grassroots solutions for solving the water crisis in developing areas. We are one of the 92 collaborating members of Peer Water Exchange (PWX).

Mike (Bank-On-Rain), Idriss (Safer Future Youth Fund), Rajesh (PWX) with Sesa & Sanka (also Safer Future) collaborating in Sierra Leone September 2011. Photographer Gail/Bank-On-Rain

Co-founder Mike Williamson and I went through the peer acceptance process, and the funding process for a rain-water catchment installation for a school in Sierra Leone; and we have participated in peer-reviews for both new members in PWX and funding of water projects. I am quickly learning to ask the right questions to discover what we need to know from and about our peers, especially those from the developing countries; only asking the right questions which will insure greater success. So peer review is not precisely the right word, as I don’t review ~ pass/fail ~ but try to understand, to learn, and share. Peers inform each other and share new approaches and projects.

The transparent and collaborative monitoring & follow up on the PWX website of our Bank-On-Rain project is routinely available on all projects. In Fact our project was visited recently by April, founder Pedals for Africa, who is a member of PWX, and who was near the school checking on one of their projects. It was rewarding to receive a first-hand update on the continuing operation of the Bank-On-Rain Rainwater collection and storage system for the 300 students and staff at the Barina Agricultural School in Sierra Leone; and to do this without cost, effort and time.

The most important learning experience I’ve had from participating in a non-profit peer crowd-sourcing platform is that people on the ground are passionate and genuinely concerned. They don’t want to be competitive, but the current philanthropic system forces them to work as individuals rather than with a collaborative mindset.

PWX is truly “A Social Philanthropy” which brings out the best in all stakeholders. It connects and supports isolated funders and implementers from around the world, and collaboratively, transparently, and efficiently increases the impacts of our efforts to address global humanitarian and ecological crises. It’s rewarding to see individuals making such a difference!

Please feel free to leave any comments or ask any questions below for Rajesh; he has promised to check back here from time to time!

CASUDI Founder, Director Bank On Rain.

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Rajesh Shah was educated in India (Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay) and in the US (BS, Lafayette College, MS & MBA from University of California). In his career he has worked as an Engineer (Bell Labs) and as a management consultant to several companies and non-profits, on using internet and e-commerce technologies to change culture, operating models, market strategies – trying to drive society towards sustainability. At PWX, he is implementing a new (now proven) approach to solve the scale problem (and in the case of Blue Planet Network) in managing thousands of grassroots water projects. PWX is an Indian non-profit organization operating globally and a project of Blue Planet Network, a non-profit based in California.

Originally published by CASUDI on her Designing Success blog on May 22, 2012

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