Water Collective’s Sophia Sunwoo and Josh Braunstein help to bring clean water to a school in EkanjohBajoh
Sophia Sunwoo, 27, and Josh Braunstein, 29, are consumed by water—or rather, the world’s lack of the potable resource: The global access crisis leaves nearly one billion people worldwide without a clean source. So, in 2011, the pair founded the nonprofit Water Collective, which has helped secure clean water for more than 25,000 people.
Before they met, Braunstein had been working as a tech consultant and volunteering in the field in sub-Saharan Africa. He learned firsthand that, in many cases, the world’s water shortages can be solved with simple repairs to existing wells or through first-world technology. Meanwhile, Sunwoo was skilled in business—she’d owned a clothing operation and worked as an art consultant. With a passion for philanthropy, she realized access to clean water was of crucial importance to the developing world.
As these young philanthropists prepare to observe World Water Day in DC this spring, we reveal what drives them and how Washingtonians can help.
Children look on as fresh water flows in their Cameroon village
How did you meet? Sophia Sunwoo: A coworker knew about our mutual interest in the global water crisis, so we met through her. Within five minutes of meeting we started talking about the crisis, which is a funny topic to discuss when you first meet someone at a bar. Josh told me about wanting to start a water nonprofit [and that he] had been working in water since he was 15. Josh Braunstein: On my first trip to Africa, I was working on a water preservation project [and] living in an orphanage in Kenya. We were receiving treated, bottled water while the orphans were trekking to get their own. One day I went along with two of the girls, and we walked for 45 minutes before we came to this hole in the ground that turned out to be a broken well with a constant stream of brown water running from a pipe. It was disgusting. It broke my heart, and I realized that this ridiculous problem had to stop. SS: When failure happens with wells, the communities don’t have any recourse to fix it. One reason is that people need to be educated to keep the wells running. The second is to ask where the money comes from. My background included working with Fortune 500s. I did my dissertation on how business strategies could be used to further social progress. I saw opportunity there because there are a lot of for-profit best practices like basic training and cooperation between organizations that nonprofits can utilize.
Josh Braunstein turns on the first clean water tap in the village of EkanjohBajoh
Why are your upcoming activities in DC significant?
SS: World Water Day [on March 22] is a wonderful platform to combat the perception that aid to water-challenged parts of the world consists only of money. It’s an important way for organizations to get the public involved and mobilized—and for organizations to talk to each other to see the work that we are all doing so that we can push toward this collective cause of solving the water crisis.y of
How did you get the nonprofit going?
SS: At first we focused on cooperating with organizations that already existed. [Then] we started building Water Collective to stand on its own, to be based on a partnership with rural communities. We are extremely involved. With Water Collective we are creating deliverables based on what’s needed instead of with a one-size-fits-all approach. A lot of our early projects were funded purely though friends and family.
Sophia Sunwoo grins after creating a fresh-water tap for the citizens of Ebasse in Cameroon
What is it like to work in sub-Saharan Africa? JB: One of the biggest issues that we’ve come across is trust. Since so many [projects] break down, the communities don’t necessarily trust that you are going to deliver something that will work. SS: I believe in empowerment over just giving aid. In one of our partner communities, the chief was inspired by the idea of his people having clean water—because they hadn’t had that in generations. To provide incentive, he gave women of the village extra farmland in exchange for participation in the water management program. It’s been rewarding for me to see these communities take our mission to heart and continue to build on the foundation that we’ve created with them. JB: It is amazing to see the first time that tap is turned on and the water is running.
How can Washington residents help? JB: We have a great community called The Collective on our website. It is an annual involvement in a specific project that connects donors with the communities that they are helping. SS: We are happy and willing to talk to anyone, so we want to get out and meet more people to spread the word. JB: We believe in what we do. Our main goal is to inspire people to get behind our mission and help us fight.