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Youth Perspectives in Philanthropy: Reflective Philanthropy on PlayPumps International

September 2, 2010

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In our previous post, we looked back at a recent socially innovative water project, PlayPumps International, to discuss what lessons can be learned from new ideas and projects that don’t turn out as expected. In our latest installment of the Youth Perspectives in Philanthropy series, we will hear from two teen funders who were involved in granting money to PlayPumps in 2008 as part of the JYPI Program, a teen philanthropy program of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning in Rockville, MD.

Eric Miller

In May, I wrote a blog about what philanthropy means to me and why I fell in love with an organization called PlayPumps. Unfortunately, PlayPumps has been criticized for not maintaining their water pumps and not keeping their promises. While I am very disappointed with their recent failures, this experience has given me the opportunity to reexamine why I chose to support this program in the first place.

I believe there are two types of philanthropy programs, new and ongoing. New programs are the fresh and original ideas, and while unproven with possible risk of failure, funding them feels exciting and progressive. Ongoing projects may seem boring and unoriginal, yet they are the tried and true methods with results and statistics to back up their existence. These two types of programs create a challenge for the philanthropist who must decide between the creative new program, or the reliable ongoing program. This is where philanthropy is set apart from charity; this is where extensive research must be done to access risk and make an unbiased decision on whether an investment in this program will be a success.

In the case of PlayPumps, its program was a new spin on an old problem. Children playing on a merry-go-round seemed like an innovative way to pump fresh water. Unfortunately for PlayPumps, their new business model attempted to do too much too soon, and in the end had a detrimental effect on the final product.

What I believe everyone in the philanthropy community should learn from this situation is that as a philanthropist you must do your research and try your best to avoid being swept off your feet by an organization because you have fallen in love with their project. Every risk and every reward must be analyzed, in order for philanthropists to be responsible and educated supporters.

Carly Rushford

When growing up, you often hear the phrase, “you can do anything you put your mind to.” Your parents try to inspire you to “dream big” or “reach for the stars.” Is it possible, though, to dream too big? In 2006, the Case Foundation worked with Trevor Fields (a South African involved in advertising) to create PlayPumps International, an organization that would bring fresh water to rural African villages. By 2008 they had installed 1,000 PlayPumps in five different countries, with the goal of 4,000 by 2010. Problems arose, however, when pumps stopped working, tanks failed to hold water, and village women longed for their simple hand pump to be re-installed. Mozambique citizens tried to contact PlayPumps, and never heard a word back.

For all four years of high school, I participated in the JYPI Program and was actually a member of the group that awarded PlayPumps a grant in 2008. Working alongside other teens, we pooled our money, researched and learned about nonprofits, requested grant proposals, and eventually decided as a group how and where to send our funds. One of the main criteria we always examined was the number of people served. How many lives could we potentially change? Everyone likes to feel good; people like to think they are making a difference. Most organizations grow in size and popularity, as the number of people served expands. PlayPumps International is a quintessential example of when “good goes wrong.” Jean Case (CEO of the Case Foundation) and Trevor Fields both had the best intentions, yet they got so caught up in numbers, they failed to recognize the problems right in front of them. When watching the Frontline video it felt like the sole goal was to reach 4,000 pumps and that once installed in a village, it would be treated like another notch on the belt.

It becomes an issue of quantity over quality. Did PlayPumps International have the ability to fix these problems? Probably. I had the opportunity to travel to Ghana and Malawi, where I witnessed first-hand, children skipping school to walk miles to fetch water for their family, and babies dying from dehydration or other illnesses that simply do not exist in the United States. Was this a case of a nonprofit dreaming too big? Maybe. Jean Case’s statement, however, was filled with honesty and attempted to provide closure on the situation and I commend her for that. However, creating a project is not enough; follow-up is necessary, and taking the time to develop ideas and technology can make a difference in the long run. Additionally, in the future, maybe organizations should not get so hung up on numbers and high impact, but instead remember that changing someone’s life for six months is significantly different than changing someone’s life forever.

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