Category Archives: Updates from Waslala

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By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Co-founder and Executive Director

I recently found a letter that I wrote to Padre Nelson and Padre Cleto after my first trip to Waslala in 2002. Below is an excerpt of the letter:

You told us something during our conversation on the last day of the trip. You told us that you both have made your decision – the decision to live and die with the poor. Then you told us that now we all have to make our own decisions about what we want to do with our lives.This part of my life is full of decisions that will affect the rest of my life. Therefore, right now I want to stay focused on the most important things in life. The experience with you all helped me do this. I think that you both have focused your life on what is truly important. 

As I reflect back on 14 years of learning through the series of partnerships that is WfW, this was my first lesson: You never know where you will find your most important teachers.

2005 – Dancing with Padre Nelson

2005 – Dancing with Padre Nelson

I have learned several other lessons as well, including:

  1. There is no blank slate
  2. It was never our idea
  3. Listen (even when it’s not what you want to hear)
  4. I will always be an outsider
  5. Show up
  6. It’s all about people
  7. Surround yourself with people who push you
  8. Lead together
  9. Don’t hold on too tight (it was never “mine” to hold onto)

These lessons learned are (part of) the Story of Water for Waslala. They are the foundation upon which this organization was built, sustained, and will transition. I share them now as a peak at where we’ve been in order to transparently share where we are going.

The goal has always been crystal clear – ensure access to clean drinking water for everyone living in the municipality of Waslala, Nicaragua. This next chapter, the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance, makes that big, ambitious goal possible.

Over the past year, the acquisition/ transition process helped me clarify the foundational values that make Water for Waslala what it is. Clarifying these values was a crucial step in discerning whether we had found a “fit” in WaterAid and El Porvenir. There are plenty of concrete variables to consider in this type of decision, but as Joshua (WaterAid-Nicaragua’s country director) reminded me during one of our phone conversations,

I think you have a decision to make and it’s not one you will make with SWOT analyses. It is a decision that you have to make with your heart.

As I chuckled to myself knowing I had spent the previous day making some very elaborate SWOT analyses, I also found comfort – in this comment I felt like I heard a bit of Padre Nelson.

Over the course of the next few days, I will be sharing a series of “lessons learned” – the story of Water for Waslala and the beginning of the next chapter – Agua Para Waslala. These lessons represent the values that don’t fit into that SWOT analysis. They are who we are as an organization and why we knew this transition was right.

 CHAPTER 1: STARTING AN ORGANIZATION

The title founder or co-founder often creates ideas about building something from nothing. When Matt and I first traveled to Waslala in 2002, there was an incredible foundation of community organization and coordination that already existed – Waslala was and is a special and unique place and much of that foundation had been built by the Brazilian padres and a foundation of liberation theology in the local Catholic parish, La Parroquia Inmaculada.

LESSON #1 – THERE IS NO BLANK SLATE

In 2005, as part of filming the WfW documentary, I stood behind the camera asking questions and translating responses for the film crew. Padre Nelson described the approach and vision of La Parroquia:

The poor have very much to give. And the riches of the poor at times are better than material wealth. And this is priceless. Look at the hills, the sun is beautiful, the birds, the moon…those who like the moon, hey you guys and girls who are in love, the moon, all of that. This is important – truly this is the beauty of life! You’re not going to come here and leave only with an image of ‘the poor people’. You enjoy yourself! Because the poor have a beautiful smile, the poor sing, the poor dance, it’s joyful here! You can go to the disco and…maybe you even fall in love and get married here in Nicaragua as well!

Underlying Padre Nelson’s jokes is the foundation upon which La Parroquia Inmaculada was built. He alludes to the problematic, yet common depiction of “the poor people” and flips to an asset-based framework that draws attention to common human interactions and relationships that cross borders – the beauty of nature, dancing at the disco, and even falling in love.

Padre Nelson described “the wealth of La Parroquia [as] the solidarity” – working with groups of Italians, Germans, North Americans, among others who “have gotten to know our reality and support in order to help this community recover so one day it can walk on its own feet.” In his quote, there is an underlying reference to history and its continuing effects on the current situation in Waslala. Padre Nelson described La Parroquia’s approach to their work based in liberation theology,

I cannot say mass for a town that is hungry. We cannot say mass to the sick and force ourselves to say it is the will of God. I think that the Church is pushed to go find where it is most needed. And the Church in Latin America has made an option for the poor and the children. And so, here we are not afraid of working with the poor. And the day that we say mass for money or obligation I think we are no longer church.

Based in liberation theology, La Parroquia created a number of pastorales (organizations) employing locals to serve the people of Waslala not only physically, but also spiritually, economically and socially. These organizations included: health, education, production, promotion of the woman, vulnerable children, and, more recently, water. Water for Waslala was initially formed as another pastoral under La Parroquia.

Pastoral de agua 2

LESSON #2 – IT WAS NEVER “OUR” IDEA

During my first trip in 2002, there are a few salient memories that I always come back to. The first was a meeting with several community members in a rural community called El Guabo and the second was sobbing uncontrollably as I headed to the airport at the end of only a two week trip. The first marked the true beginning of WfW and the second demonstrated that it only took me two weeks to fall in love with Waslala.

2002 - Matt and my first trip to Waslala

2002 – Matt (Co-founder) and my first trip to Waslala

During that first trip, Padre Nelson told the group that some community residents had asked to meet us and he told them “como no?” (or “why not?”). When we met the community at their village school, they asked us to support them in building a water system to serve the school. What did they need from us? To help provide the necessary funds to purchase the PVC pipes needed for the water system. They would contribute all of the manual labor needed to build the system. They needed roughly $3,000 to purchase the PVC pipes. Our group had ten members so we decided that we could commit to raising the funds needed (only $300 per person).

Although I had arrived in Waslala curious about education in the developing world, the community members showed us that before we could think about education and school attendance, it was important to make sure that the school children had access to clean drinking water. In other words, first things first.

There are 90 rural communities in Waslala, many of which are facing this same challenge. Many of which were equally committed to organizing themselves to dedicate months of free labor to ensure that their children have access to clean drinking water at school. We had to ask ourselves: why stop after working with one community? Matt spent his senior year in college writing a plan for how to get Water for Waslala off the ground and the Augustinian Volunteers supported him in spending the year following his graduation doing just that.

We did not go to Waslala focused on water nor did we have any ideas of starting an organization. Community members told us about their plans and since we knew that we could accompany them in reaching their own goals, we did.

CHAPTER 2: SUSTAINING AN ORGANIZATION

LESSON #3 – LISTEN (even when it’s not what you want to hear)

In 2006, I was finishing up my two year teaching commitment in North Philadelphia with Teach for America and I was thinking of moving down to Waslala for a longer period of time. I had been working there already for a few years and was generally going once or twice a year for a month at a time. I shared my idea with a friend and colleague, Junior Gasparini, and he responded: “of course, if you want to move down here, you can live with us in the priest house and we can help get you a job in the education organization since your interest is education.”

Then he continued (the pro and con of close friends)… “But, we are pretty much fine here and can do whatever you would do. What I can’t do it get a seat at a board table in the US to share our message. You can.”

Now, this is not the role I wanted to or hoped to play. I am much more comfortable sleeping in a hammock in a rural village with no running water or electricity than I am sitting at any board table. I wanted my contribution to be “en el terreno” (on the ground)…not focused on funding and strategic partnerships in the US. But, here I am 10 years later, having assumed US operations (funding, outreach, and strategic partnerships) and I still work with Junior as my partner who runs the Nicaraguan operations.

2015 – Waslala team (left to right) – Miguel, Virginia, Junior G. Junior M., Wilfredo, Taleno, and me

2015 – Waslala team (left to right) – Miguel, Virginia, Junior G. Junior M., Wilfredo, Taleno, and me

LESSON #4 – I WILL ALWAYS BE AN OUTSIDER

In 2002, I was certainly an outsider when I arrived in Waslala on a two week trip, speaking limited Spanish, meeting every person for the first time and having limited understanding of the history or current context of Nicaragua/ Waslala and the U.S. role in that history.

Now, fourteen years later, I am bilingual, have immersed myself in learning about the history and current context in Nicaragua and Waslala, and have travelled to Waslala more times than I can count. Some of my closest friends live in Waslala – when I arrive for a visit and pop my head into the window of their house, I hear shrieks of “Nora!” as children come running to the door to greet me with a bear hug. I have seen these children grow up.

2011 - Phillies t-shirt for Junior’s daughter, Yaiza

2011 – Phillies t-shirt for Junior’s daughter, Yaiza

I will never truly be an insider or native Waslalan because of my citizenship, race, language and other social identifiers that are linked to power and history in many ways. This is not good or bad….it’s just reality. To me, the important thing is to never lose sight of this and intentionally pursue humility knowing that I am always missing something as I think about a situation or decision for the organization.

 

LESSON #5 – SHOW UP 

In December 2011, an abrupt change happened in La Parroquia and, by extension, in Waslala. The bishop on the Atlantic Coast (responsible for Waslala) began putting pressure on La Parroquia to redirect time and attention on evangelism and communion and away from their work in social programs – education, health care, water, etc. During a period of time, there were many heated discussions, disagreements, and even protests in Waslala. This fundamental disagreement about where La Parroquia should direct its work resulted in the Brazilian priests being called back to Brazil and a Nicaraguan priest from another region installed as the head priest in La Parroquia. This transition resulted in closing or ending the work of most of the ministries created by La Parroquia over the years – education, health, vulnerable children, etc.

This transition not only stopped work on education, health care, etc., but also undermined years of work La Parroquia spent building relationships and trust in rural villages in a post-civil war context. I spent weeks in Waslala shortly after this abrupt parish transition. Through my time there, I had numerous people – from organization representatives to residents – come up to me in the street and ask whether WfW would, in fact, continue working in Waslala. I had never felt the impact of my physical presence in such palpable ways. After the parish transition, many if not most of the international organizations and individuals who had worked with and supported Waslala for years and years, had now pulled out since the ties with the La Parroquia, and therefore Waslala, had been abruptly cut. During my time in Waslala, one community organization representative commented about the importance of physical presence for trust and relationships especially during such an uncertain time,

I don’t think I realized how important it was for people to see you guys here, physically and, yes, there is a parish but it’s a different parish and you’re still here and you’re still spending time in your communities because I think the fear was that everyone would leave . . . all the international partners.

 

LESSON #6 – IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE!

People (myself included) are inspiring, frustrating, confusing, motivating….I could go on and on. My husband, Wil, leads a large (100+ employees), internet marketing, for profit business based in the U.S. I have been leading a small, grassroots, non-profit organization based in rural Nicaragua. When we spend time at dinner discussing our days, we find that our challenges (what keeps us up at night) and our successes (what makes you feel most excited and proud of the organization) are very similar. Everything is really about people!

As I reflect back on 14 years of the WfW journey, it is really all about the people…both on an organizational level and on a personal level. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most solid and inspiring people I know through WfW. This has truly been a collective effort!

First, there is something about Waslala (and maybe WfW) that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go!

In addition to our board of directors, just a few of the many, many examples…

  • Avi Loewenstein – former board member who visited Waslala in 2012 and even tried his hand at digging trench line in the Yaro Central community…years later served as a thought partner and pro-bono legal counsel through the entire acquisition process!
  • Justin Knabb – technically left the WfW board about 4 years ago, but has continued to handle all accounting, finance, taxes, etc. behind the scenes through today!
  • Meag Gruber, our first US team member in Waslala technically has not worked with WfW since about 2009….and still immediately jumps in any time a Nica question pops up or she can support work in Waslala in any way!
  • Iain Hunt technically stopped working for WfW in 2013, but continues to provide significant support in engineering design questions, partnership conversations, as an adviser, etc.
  • Brian Bozzo first travelled to Waslala in 2005 as a Villanova engineering student…not only has he stayed involved, but he convinced one of his best friends, PJ McAward to co-found Knots Apparel with him as a strategic way to contribute to Water for Waslala!

Second, we have “grown up” together!

Because WfW represents 14 years of my life, I have also had the incredible opportunity to work with, know, & collaborate with folks in Waslala over a long period of time. Here is a perfect “people” example:

(Denis) Taleno started working with WfW is 2005 and continues to this day…To be clear, he is not an “employee”…he built this organization! Those in the US may not know or have the opportunity to meet and see Taleno’s impact on WfW firsthand, but anyone who has ever traveled to Waslala (many, many Villanova folks, etc.) have seen his impact very clearly!

A glimpse at Taleno and I “growing up” (or maybe growing old) together.

 

TOP - 2006 - Taleno and I put boots back on after walking through the river; BOTTOM - 2016 – hanging on top of a recently completed water tank

TOP – 2006 – Taleno and I put boots back on after walking through the river; BOTTOM – 2016 – hanging on top of a recently completed water tank

Hanging out with Taleno’s son, Jordan (named after WfW Board member Jordan Ermilio) in 2006 (top) & 2016 (bottom)

Hanging out with Taleno’s son, Jordan (named after WfW Board member Jordan Ermilio) in 2006 (top) & 2016 (bottom)

Taleno with his sons, Hervin and Jordan, and wife, Gloria – 2006; Hanging with Taleno and his son, Hervin – 2016

Taleno with his sons, Hervin and Jordan, and wife, Gloria – 2006; Hanging with Taleno and his son, Erwin – 2016

CHAPTER 3: TRANSITIONING AN ORGANIZATION

LESSON #7 – SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO PUSH YOU

At the end of January 2015, my husband, Wil, accompanied me on a trip to Waslala – a final trip together to Waslala before we added our little guy to the mix. Rio (meaning “river” in Spanish because it relates to water) joined the party on March 26, 2015.

2011 - With Wil amid the coffee plants in Waslala

2011 – With Wil amid the coffee plants in Waslala

WfW had been growing; however, we’d struggled to identify a sustainable organizational structure to match fundraising growth with our operational expansion in Waslala. Wil and I were sitting in the hotel in Managua en route to Waslala when he turned to me and asked:

Wil: You all have kept things going for over ten years and reached over 4,000 Waslalans with water. If you stopped now, would you consider it a failure?

Me: Yes.

Wil: Then you need to step up.

Despite knowing that we’d have a new baby on the scene and that balancing both of our professional goals and responsibilities would be challenging, he pushed me to step up as Executive Director of Water for Waslala.

Wil has canceled conferences and moved meetings in order to accommodate my travel to Waslala. He has planned the weeks when I need to be in Waslala in order to leave the house later and get home earlier to make sure someone is home with the little one. He has served as a very patient thought partner as I figure this out as I go (i.e. how do you pursue an acquisition strategy as a nonprofit?).

In many ways, it didn’t MAKE SENSE to step up as Executive Director in April 2015 (with a two week old baby), but looking back I have learned more this year than I have yet to realize …and one of the things I learned is that I married someone who will provide that push when I need it!

Rio reppin' Water for Waslala on the day I assumed the role of Executive Director

April 2015 – Rio reppin’ Water for Waslala on the day I assumed the role of Executive Director

LESSON #8 – LEAD TOGETHER

I have worked with Junior Gasparini (our most recent WfW director) in different capacities since 2004. When our former director extraordinaire, Iain Hunt, left the role to head to Villanova, I called Junior and asked him to take over as director on an interim basis while I worked to fill the role. Junior has several coffee farms in Waslala from which he draws his salary and he supports WfW because of his belief in the work and the mission. I asked him for three months and he agreed…. that was in 2013 (here we are THREE YEARS later)!!

In January 2015, I knew that the year ahead was going to need to be a sprint. Despite a great team and excellent work in Waslala, as an organization, we were in a tough financial spot. Business as usual was not an option. We needed to increase our pace of work in Waslala to meet demand and, thus, we needed to increase our funding dramatically.

I sat with Junior outside Hotel Waslala as the sun set for the day. I knew he was ready to talk about how we could put plans in place to transition him out of the role so he could focus on his coffee farms. I also knew that what was required of WfW over the next year would be impossible if I did not have him as an “all in partner.” I started the conversation…

We’re in a tough spot financially, but I believe we can turn this around. We are doing great work in Waslala and we’ve kept at it for over ten years. But, we’ve grown into an organization with different needs. This is not work that can be done at night and on the weekends to raise funds to support a growing organization. So, I have a proposal for you….I will take a break from teaching classes at Temple this year to focus on what WfW needs.

That got his attention…he turned quickly and looked right at me with an expression of surprise since he knows I love teaching…and waited for me to continue.

But…I can’t do it without you. I need you in as a full partner with me because I know that together, we can get the organization to where it needs to be. Are you in?

He was quiet for a minute as he looked into the distance. I knew he was stressed and tired from several years working two full time jobs. I also knew he believed in this work and the potential as deeply as I did. He turned back to look at me and responded, “well then, let’s do it.” I suddenly felt like I had pressured him into this and tried to offer an “out”…if you need time to think, I’d rather you are sure before you make this decision.” And his response: “No, I don’t change my mind. If you’re in, I’m in.” And…we are now completing twelve years of working together

Junior and me – 2004 and 2016

Junior and me – 2004 and 2016

LESSON #9 – DON’T HOLD ON TOO TIGHT (it was never “mine” to hold onto)

In May 2016, Junior was able to share the news of Water for Waslala’s transition with Padre Nelson in person. Padre Nelson smiled as he responded,

“I helped to plant a seed and someone had to care for that seed for all these years and now that seed has sprouted into a plant that will continue to grow.”

 

nelson3

May 2016 – Junior and Padre Nelson in Chapeco, Brazil

 

And, isn’t that exactly the goal? To build something that is bigger than any one of us.

Personally, letting go is hard. It means having to admit that I don’t have my next trip to Waslala on the calendar. But, holding on means limiting WfW’s growth for my comfort (and maybe ego). I know what happens if I hold on. WfW continues to make slow progress and it would be impossible to reach our mission (at least in my lifetime).

But, that isn’t where our story ends. As I stood in front of more than 100 community members in Waslala last month for the official launch event (Transition event photo album), it really hit me. As part of the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance, WaterAid and El Porvenir have assumed the mission – total coverage in Waslala by 2030. In this next chapter, we FINISH our mission!

Stop to think about that for a minute….finish.our.mission!! When does that even happen?!?

Signing the tripartite agreement - Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), and Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

Signing the tripartite agreement – Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), and Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

The mission of total coverage in Waslala is more work than any individual or organization could accomplish alone and the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance brings together individuals and organizations with experiences, skills, and resources that complement one another. Most importantly, the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance explicitly aims to facilitate coordination among local actors and institutions, municipal government, community water committees, international NGOs, funders, etc. We all know that, together we will reach universal access to water and sanitation in Waslala!

Get ready, chapter 4 is going to be quite a ride!!

Official launch of the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance – June 15, 2016 Cesar Enoc de Castillo Espinoza (El Porvenir, Director of Field Operations), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), David Arnolds (El Porvenir, Board Chair), Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

Official launch of the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance – June 15, 2016
Cesar Enoc de Castillo Espinoza (El Porvenir, Director of Field Operations), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), David Arnolds (El Porvenir, Board Chair), Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

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Escrito por Nora Pillard Reynolds, Directora Ejectutiva

**Mil gracias a Kissy Lazo por ayudar con la traduccion!

Hace poco encontré una carta que le escribe al Padre Nelson y Padre Cleto después de mi primer viaje a Waslala en 2002. Abajo véase parte de la carta:

Ustedes nos dijeron algo durante la conversación el último día del viaje. Nos dijeron que ustedes dos han tomado su decisión – la decisión de vivir y morir con los pobres. Entonces, nos dijeron que ahora nosotros tenemos que tomar nuestras propias decisiones sobre lo que queremos hacer con nuestras vidas. Quiero acordarme de esto mientras hago las decisiones en mi propia vida. Estos hechos influenciaron muchas decisiones para el resto de mi vida. Entonces, ahora mismo quiero mantener mi enfoque en lo más importante de la vida. Esta experiencia con ustedes me ayudo hacerlo. Creo que ustedes han enfocado sus vidas en lo que es verdaderamente importante.

Ahora que reflejo sobre los 14 años de aprendizaje y todas las colaboraciones de WfW, saqué mi primera lección: Nunca se sabe dónde encontrarás tus maestros más importantes.

2005 – Bailando con Padre Nelson

2005 – Bailando con Padre Nelson

También, he aprendido varias otras cosas incluyendo:

  1. Nada empieza de la nada
  2. Nunca fue “nuestra” idea
  3. Escuchar (aunque no sea lo que uno quiera oir)
  4. Siempre soy alguien de afuera
  5. Llegar en persona
  6. Lo más importante son las personas
  7. La importancia de rodearse con personas que te empujan hacer lo mejor
  8. Dirigir juntos
  9. No aferrarse tanto

El aprendizaje es (parte del) la historia de Water for Waslala. Forma la base en la cual iniciamos y sostuvimos la organización y ahora empezamos el proceso de transición. Comparto este aprendizaje ahora para describir de donde vinimos y para mostrar a donde vamos.

El objetivo siempre ha sido claro – que todos los que viven en Waslala tengan acceso a agua potable. Este próximo capítulo, la Alianza Programa Agua Para Waslala, asegura que logramos este objetivo ambicioso!

Durante este año pasado, el proceso de transición me ayudo a aclarar los valores más importantes de Water for Waslala. El proceso de aclarar estos valores fue clave en la decisión de alanzarnos con WaterAid & El Porvenir. Hay varios factores que se debe considerar en una decisión así, a como me dijo Joshua (WaterAid-Nicaragua Director de Nicaragua) durante una conversación,

Creo que usted tiene que hacer una decisión y no es una decisión que se hace con un análisis FODA. Tiene que hacer esta decisión con su corazón.”

Empecé riéndome porque había pasado el día anterior creando varios análisis FODA, pero también me sentía consolada – en esa frase escuche un poco al Padre Nelson.

Esta semana voy a compartir unas reflexiones – la historia de Water for Waslala y el inicio del próximo capítulo de –Agua Para Waslala. El aprendizaje representa los valores que no se encuentran en un análisis de FODA. Son los valores que muestran quienes somos como una organización y las razones por las que sabíamos que esta transición era la decisión correcta.

CHAPTER 1 – INICIANDO UNA ORGANIZACIÓN

El titulo fundador o co-fundador muchas veces crea la idea sobre construir algo del nada. Cuando Matteo y yo viajamos a Waslala en 2002, ya existía una base increíble de organización y coordinación en las comunidades – Waslala era y es un sitio especial y único y mucho de la base fue cultivado por los padres brasileños basado en la teología de la liberación en la Parroquia Inmaculada de Waslala.

APRENDIZAJE #1 – Nada empieza de la nada

En 2005, mientras grabamos un documental de WfW, yo traducía detrás de la camera. Padre Nelson describió la metodología y visión de la Parroquia:

Los pobres tienen mucho para dar. Y la riqueza de los pobres a veces es mejor que la riqueza material. Y esto no tiene precio. Mira las colinas, el sol es precioso, las aves, la luna…a los que les gusta la luna, hay chicos y chicas que están enamorándose, la luna, todo eso. Esto es importante – es la belleza de la vida! No vas a venir aquí y quedar sólo con una imagen de ‘los pobres’. ¡Que disfrutes! Debido a que los pobres tienen una hermosa sonrisa, los pobres cantan, los pobres bailan, es alegre aquí! Puede ir a la discoteca y … tal vez puede enamorarse y casarse aquí en Nicaragua también!

Debajo de las bromas, esta la base en lo cual estaba construida La Parroquia Inmaculada. El indica la descripción común y problemática de “los pobres” y cambia a una idea enfocada en los recursos y fortalezas que lleva atención a las interacciones humanas y las relaciones que cruzan fronteras  – la belleza de la naturaleza, bailando en la disco, y también enamorándose.

Padre Nelson describió “la riqueza de La Parroquia en la solidaridad” – trabajando con grupos de Italianos, Alemanes, Norte Americanos, y otros quienes “han conocido nuestra realidad y apoyan para que este pueblo pueda recuperarse y un día caminar con sus propios pies.” En su comentario, hay una referencia a la historia y sus afectos que siguen hasta hoy en la situación corriente de Waslala. Padre Nelson describió la metodología de la Parroquia basado en la teología de liberación,

No puedo dar misa a un pueblo que tiene hambre y no hacer nada para cambiar la situación. No podemos hacer misa para los enfermos y obligar a decir que es la voluntad de Dios. Creo que la Iglesia busca donde es mas necesitada. Y la Iglesia en América Latina ha decidido obtar por los pobres y los niños. Y así, aquí no tenemos miedo de trabajar con los pobres. Y el día que decidamos pensar solo en dinero u obligación creo que no estamos en ninguna iglesia.

Con base en la teología de la liberación, La Parroquia había creado unos pastorelas que emplea a la gente para servir al pueblo de Waslala no sólo físicamente, sino también espiritualmente, económico y social. Estos ministerios incluyen: salud, educación, producción, promoción de la mujer, los niños vulnerables, y, más recientemente, el agua. Agua para Waslala se formó inicialmente como otra pastoral bajo la Parroquia.

Pastoral de agua 2

 

APRENDIZAJE #2 – NUNCA FUE “NUESTRA” IDEA

Durante mi primer viaje en 2002, hay algunos recuerdos salientes que siempre vuelven. El primero fue una reunión con varios miembros de la comunidad rural que se llama El Guabo y el segundo recuerdo fue que yo llore incontrolablemente mientras me dirigía al aeropuerto al final de un viaje de sólo dos semanas. El primero marcó el verdadero comienzo de WfW y el segundo que sólo me tomó dos semanas para enamorarme de Waslala.

2002 - El primer viaje a Waslala

2002 – El primer viaje a Waslala

Durante ese primer viaje, Padre Nelson le dijo al grupo que algunos residentes de la comunidad habían pedido un encuentro y les dijo “Como no?” Cuando nos reunimos con la comunidad en su escuela en un caserío, nos pidieron para apoyarlos en la construcción de un sistema de agua para servir a la escuela. “¿Qué es lo que necesitan de nosotros?” nos preguntamos, para ayudar a proporcionar los fondos necesarios para comprar los tubos de PVC necesarios para el sistema de agua. La comunidad ofreció contribuir toda la mano de obra necesaria para construir el sistema. Ellos necesitaban más o menos $ 3.000 para comprar los tubos de PVC. Nuestro grupo tenía diez miembros por lo que decidimos que podíamos comprometernos a recaudar los fondos necesarios (sólo $ 300 por persona).

A pesar de que había llegado a Waslala interesada en aprender sobre la educación, los miembros de la comunidad nos mostraron que antes de poder pensar en la educación y la asistencia a la escuela, es importante asegurarse de que los niños de las escuelas tengan acceso a agua potable. En otras palabras, lo primero es lo primero. Hay 90 comunidades rurales en Waslala, en un cien numero de sectores, muchos de los cuales se enfrentan a este mismo desafío. La mayoría de estas comunidades están igualmente comprometidas con organizaciones para dedicar meses de labor gratis para asegurarse de que sus hijos tengan acceso a agua potable en la escuela. Tuvimos que preguntarnos: ¿por qué detenerse después de trabajar con una comunidad solamente? Matt pasó su último año en la universidad escribiendo un plan de acción y cómo conseguir que Water for Waslala arrancara y dichosamente la organización Augustinian Volunteers lo apoyaron en el gasto del año después de su graduación hacer precisamente eso.

No fuimos a Waslala centrado en el agua ni tampoco teníamos ninguna idea de iniciar una organización. Los miembros de la comunidad nos hablaron de sus planes y ya que sabíamos que podíamos acompañarles a cumplir sus propios objetivos, lo hicimos.

 

CAPITULO 2: SOSTENIENDO UNA ORGANIZACION

 

APRENDIZAJE #3 – ESCUCHA (AUNQUE NO SEA LO QUE QUIERES OIR)

 

En 2006, estaba terminando mis dos años de maestra en el norte de Filadelfia con Teach for América e yo estaba pensando en mudarme para Waslala por un período de tiempo más largo. Había estado trabajando ahí ya desde hace unos años y por lo general iba una vez o dos veces al año por un mes a la vez. Compartí mi idea con mi amigo y colega, Junior Gasparini, y él respondió: “Por supuesto, si usted quiere trabajar aquí perfecto, se puede vivir con nosotros en la casa del cura y nosotros podemos ayudarle a conseguir un trabajo en la organización de la educación ya que su interés que es la educación”.

Luego Gasparini continuo en decirme (los pros y contras de amigos cercanos que hablan con sinceridad)… “Pero, estamos más o menos bien aquí y se puede hacer lo que usted haría. Lo que no puedo hacer es conseguir un asiento en una mesa  en los EE.UU. para compartir nuestro mensaje y lograr recaudar fondos para hacer más proyectos. Usted puede.”

Ahora, esto no es el papel que quería o esperaba jugar. Yo me siento mucho más cómoda durmiendo en una hamaca en un pueblo rural sin agua corriente ni electricidad que estar sentada en cualquier mesa de la junta. Yo quería que mi contribución fuera “en el terreno” … no enfocada en la financiación y asociaciones estratégicas en los EE.UU.. Sin embargo, aquí estoy 10 años más tarde, después de haber asumido operaciones en Estados Unidos (financiación, divulgación y asociaciones estratégicas) y sigo trabajando con Junior como mi socio que dirige las operaciones de Nicaragua.

2015 – Waslala team (left to right) – Miguel, Virginia, Junior G. Junior M., Wilfredo, Taleno, and me

2015 – Waslala team (de izquierda a derecha) – Miguel, Virginia, Junior G. Junior M., Wilfredo, Taleno, y yo.

 

APRENDIZAJE #4 – SIEMPRE SOY ALGUIEN DE AFUERA

En 2002, yo era sin duda una desconocida cuando llegué a Waslala por un viaje de dos semanas, hablaba poco español, conociendo a todas las personas por primera vez y con poca comprensión de la historia o el contexto actual de Nicaragua / Waslala y el papel de Estados Unidos en su historia.

Ahora, catorce años después, soy bilingüe, me enfoque en aprender acerca de la historia y el contexto actual de Nicaragua y Waslala, y he viajado a Waslala más de las veces que pueda contar. Algunos de mis mejores amigos viven en Waslala – cuando llego para una visita y acerco  mi cabeza en la ventana de su casa, escucho gritos de un niño que viene corriendo a la puerta para saludarme con un abrazo de oso y exclamando”Nora!”. He visto a estos niños crecer.

2011 - Camisa de los Phillies por Yaiza, la hija de Junior

2011 – Camisa de los Phillies por Yaiza, la hija de Junior

Nunca seré nativa de Waslala debido a mi nacionalidad, raza, lengua y otros identificadores sociales que están vinculados al poder y la historia. Esto no es algo ni bueno ni malo… es solamente la realidad. Para mí, lo mas importante es no perder esto de vista y  humildemente saber que siempre me “hara falta” algo cuando pienso en una situación o decisión de la organización sola.

 

APRENDIZAJE #5 – LLEGAR EN PERSONA

En diciembre de 2011, un cambio abrupto ocurrió en La Parroquia y, por extensión, en Waslala. El obispo de la costa atlántica (responsable de Waslala) comenzó a poner presión sobre La Parroquia para redirigir tiempo y atención en la evangelización y comunión y apastarse de su trabajo en programas sociales – educación, salud, agua, etc. Durante un período de tiempo, hubieron muchas discusiones acaloradas, desacuerdos, e incluso protestas en Waslala. Este desacuerdo fundamental acerca de dónde La Parroquia debe dirigir su trabajo dio lugar a que los sacerdotes brasileños fueran llamados de regreso a Brasil y un sacerdote nicaragüense de otra región fue instalado como el sacerdote principal en La Parroquia. Esta transición se tradujo en el cierre o termino del trabajo de la mayoría de los pastorales creadas por La Parroquia a lo largo de los años – la educación, la salud, los niños vulnerables, etc.

Esta transición no sólo paro el progreso de trabajo en la educación, la salud, etc., pero también quebrantó años de trabajo donde La Parroquia había construido relaciones y la confianza de los pueblos rurales después de la guerra civil. Pasé semanas en Waslala poco después de esta transición parroquial. A través de mi tiempo allí, que tenía numerosas personas – de representantes de la organización y los residentes que se me acercaron en la calle para preguntar si WfW iba, de hecho, seguir su trabajo en Waslala. Nunca había sentido el impacto de mi presencia física de una manera tan palpable. Después de la transición de la parroquia, muchos, si no la mayoría de las organizaciones internacionales y las personas que habían trabajado con Waslala y apoyado durante años y años, se habían retirado ya que los lazos con La Parroquia, y por lo tanto Waslala, habían sido bruscamente cortados. Durante mi tiempo en Waslala, un representante de la organización comunitaria, comentó acerca de la importancia de la presencia física para la confianza y las relaciones, especialmente en un momento tan incierto,

No creo que me di cuenta de lo importante que era para que la gente vea que ustedes aquí están  físicamente presentes y, sí, hay una parroquia pero es una parroquia diferente y usted todavía está aquí y todavía están pasando el tiempo en sus comunidades porque creo que el miedo que tenia la comunidad es que era que todo el mundo se iría. . . todos los socios internacionales.

 

APRENDIZAJE #6 – LO IMPORTANTE ES LAS PERSONAS

La gente es inspiradora, frustrante, confusa, motivadora… y la lista podría seguir y seguir. Mi marido, Wil, lleva una gran empresa (más de 100 empleados), la comercialización del Internet, un negocio de lucro con sede en los EE.UU. Y yo por lo contrario, he estado dirigiendo una pequeña organización, sin fines de lucro con sede en Nicaragua en un contexto rural. Cuando pasamos tiempo juntos cenando juntos y hablando de nuestros días, nos encontramos con nuestros desafíos (lo que no nos deja dormir en la noche) y nuestros éxitos (nos hace sentir más felices y orgullosos de la organización) son muy similares. Todo es realmente acerca de la gente!

Al reflexionar de nuevo en 14 años de WfW el viaje, todo se trata de la importancia de  la gente … tanto a nivel organizativo como a nivel personal. He tenido la oportunidad de trabajar con algunos de las personas más sólidas e inspiradoras que conozco a través WfW. Esto ha sido verdaderamente un esfuerzo colectivo!

En primer lugar, hay algo en Waslala (y tal vez WfW) que te giña y no te deja ir!

Además de nuestra junta directiva, sólo algunos de los muchos, muchos ejemplos …

  • Avi Loewenstein – ex miembro de la junta que visitó Waslala en 2012 e incluso uso sus manos en la excavación de la zanja en la línea de conducción de la comunidad de Yaro Central… años más tarde se transformo en nuestro colaborador y consejo legal durante el proceso de transición.
  • Justin Knabb – técnicamente dejó la junta WfW hace aproximadamente 4 años, pero no ha dejado de manejar toda la contabilidad, finanzas, impuestos, etc. detrás de las escenas hasta hoy!
  • Meag Gruber, nuestro primer miembro del equipo de Estados Unidos en Waslala, técnicamente, no ha trabajado con WfW desde alrededor del 2009… Y todavía reacciona inmediatamente en cualquier momento para apoyar el trabajo en Waslala de la manera que se le solicite!
  • Iain Hunt técnicamente dejó de trabajar para WfW en 2013, pero sigue dando un importante apoyo en cuestiones de diseño de ingeniería, conversaciones de asociación, como asesor, etc.
  • Brian Bozzo viajó por primera vez a Waslala en 2005 como estudiante de ingeniería de Villanova … No sólo ha quedado involucrado, pero convenció a uno de sus mejores amigos, PJ McAward para fundar juntos Knots Apparel como una forma estratégica para contribuir a Agua para Waslala!

En segundo lugar, hemos “crecido” juntos!

WfW representa 14 años de mi vida, también he tenido la increíble oportunidad de trabajar, conocer, y colaborar con la gente en Waslala durante un largo período de tiempo. Sólo un ejemplo …

(Denis) Taleno comenzó a trabajar con WfW a partir del 2005 y continúa hasta hoy día … Para que quede claro, no es un “empleado” … él construyó esta organización! Los que están en los EE.UU. no han tenido la oportunidad de conocer y ver el impacto de Taleno en WfW de primera mano, pero cualquiera que haya viajado a Waslala (muchas, muchas personas en Villanova, etc.) han visto el impacto de su trabajo muy claramente!

Un vistazo a Taleno y yo “crecer” (o tal vez envejecer) juntos.

(arriba) 2006 - Taleno y yo poniéndonos las botas después de una caminata en el rio; (debajo) 2016 – encima de un tanque de agua potable recién terminado

(arriba) 2006 – Taleno y yo poniéndonos las botas después de una caminata en el rio; (debajo) 2016 – encima de un tanque de agua potable recién terminado

Con el hijo de Taleno, Jordan (que fue nombrado despues de Jordan Ermilio quien es un miembro de la junta directive de WfW en el 2006 (arriba) & 2016 (debajo)

Con el hijo de Taleno, Jordan (que fue nombrado despues de Jordan Ermilio quien es un miembro de la junta directive de WfW en el 2006 (arriba) & 2016 (debajo)

Taleno y sus hijos, Hervin y Jordan, y esposa, Gloria – 2006; Con Taleno y su hijo, Hervin – 2016

Taleno y sus hijos, Hervin y Jordan, y esposa, Gloria – 2006; Con Taleno y su hijo, Hervin – 2016

 

CAPITULO 3: ENTRANDO EN TRANSICION

APRENDIZAJE #7 – LA IMPORTANCIA DE RODEARSE DE PERSONAS QUE TE EMPUJAN HACER LO MEJOR

A finales de enero de 2015, mi marido, Wil, me acompañó en un viaje a Waslala. Un último viaje juntos a Waslala antes de añadir nuestro pequeño chico a la mezcla. Río (que significa río en español porque se relaciona con el agua) quien se unió a nuestra fiesta el 26 de marzo de 2015.

2011 - Con Wil en una finca de cafe en Waslala

2011 – Con Wil en una finca de cafe en Waslala

WfW había estado creciendo. Sin embargo, habíamos tenido problemas para identificar una estructura solida, sostenible para que coincida con el crecimiento de la recaudación de fondos con nuestra expansión en Waslala. Wil y yo estábamos sentados en el hotel en Managua y en el camino a Waslala cuando se volvió hacia mí y me preguntó:

Wil: Todos ustedes han mantenido las cosas que llevan de trabajo por más de diez años y llegó a más de 4.000 Waslaleños con agua. Si se detuvieran ahora, habría que considerarlo un fracaso?

Yo: Sí.

Wil: Entonces hay que hacer esto.

A pesar de saber que íbamos a tener un nuevo bebé y que el equilibrio tanto de nuestros objetivos y responsabilidades profesionales sería un desafío, Wil me empujó a intensificar mi trabajo y asumir el cargo de Directora Ejecutiva del Water for Waslala.

Wil ha cancelado las conferencias y ha movido reuniones con el fin de dar cabida a mi viaje a Waslala. Él ha planeado las semanas cuando necesito estar en Waslala con el fin de salir de la casa más tarde y llegar a casa antes para asegurarse de que alguien está en casa con el bebe. Se ha sido como socio muy paciente en como reflexionar y resolver (es decir, cómo se hace para presentar una estrategia de adquisición como una organización no lucrativa?).

En muchos sentidos, no tenía sentido asumir un trabajo nuevo de directora ejecutiva en Abril de 2015, pero mirando hacia atrás he aprendido más este año que todavía tengo que darme cuenta… y una de las cosas que aprendí es que me casé con alguien que esta dispuesto a empujarme cuando lo necesito! Un verdadero compañero!

Rio tiene su propia camisa de WfW que llevo el dia que yo asumi el cargo de Director Ejecutiva

Rio tiene su propia camisa de WfW que llevo el dia que yo asumi el cargo de Director Ejecutiva

APRENDIZAJE #8 – DIRIGIR JUNTOS

He trabajado con Junior Gasparini (nuestro más reciente director WfW) en diferentes oportunidades desde 2004. Cuando nuestro ex director extraordinario, Iain Hunt, dejó el trabajo para estudiar en la universidad de Villanova, yo llame a Junior y  le pedí que asumiera el cargo de director temporariamente mientras yo trabajaba en buscar una persona para el cargo permanente. Junior tiene unas fincas de café en Waslala del cual extrae su salario y que apoya WfW a causa de su creencia en el trabajo y la misión. Le pregunté por tres meses y estuvo de acuerdo …. Eso fue en 2013 (aquí seguimos tres años después!!!)

En enero de 2015, sabía que el próximo año íbamos a tener que asumir los proyectos como una carrera de velocidad. A pesar de un gran equipo y un excelente trabajo en Waslala, como organización, estábamos en una situación financiera difícil. Continuar de la misma manera, no era una opción. Necesitábamos aumentar nuestro ritmo de trabajo en Waslala para satisfacer la demanda y, para hacerlo, necesitamos aumentar nuestros fondos de una manera exponencial.

Me senté con Junior en Waslala a fuera del hotel Waslala. Yo sabía que estaba listo para hablar de los planes  que podríamos poner en marcha para él sobre la transición fuera de la organización para que el pudiera concentrarse en su finca de café. También sabía que lo que se requería de WfW durante el próximo año sería imposible no tenerlo como mi socio. Empecé la conversación …

Estamos en una situación difícil económicamente, pero creo que podemos cambiar esto. Estamos haciendo un gran trabajo en Waslala y nos hemos mantenido durante más de diez años. Sin embargo, hemos crecido en una organización con diferentes necesidades. Esto no es un trabajo que se puede hacer de la noche a la mañana y los fines de semana para recaudar fondos para apoyar a una organización en crecimiento. Por lo tanto, tengo una propuesta para ti… Yo tomare un descanso de las clases de enseñanza en la universidad por este año para centrarme en lo que necesita WfW.

Eso llamó su atención … se volvió rápidamente y me miró con una expresión de sorpresa, ya que él sabe que me encanta enseñar … y esperó a que yo continuara.

Pero … no puedo hacerlo sin ti. Te necesito  como socio en tiempo integral porque sé que juntos, podemos conseguir la organización a donde tiene que estar. ¿Está usted dispuesto?

Se quedó en silencio durante unos minutos mientras miraba en la distancia. Yo sabía que estaba estresado y cansado de varios años trabajando en dos empleos por tiempo completo. También sabía que él confiaba en este trabajo y su potencial tan profundamente como yo. Se volvió a mirar a mí y respondió: “bueno, entonces, vamos a hacerlo.” De repente me sentí como si lo hubiera obligado a esto y probado para ver se tenía alguna excusa… si necesita tiempo para pensar, prefiero que estés seguro antes de tomar esta decisión. Y su respuesta: “no, yo no cambio mi mente. “Si usted va a hacerlo, yo también.” Y… ahora estamos completando doce años de trabajar juntos …

Junior y yo– 2004 y 2016

Junior y yo– 2004 y 2016

 

APRENDIZAJE #9 – NO AFERRARSE DEMASIADO (nunca fue “mio” para aferrarme)

En Abril 2016, Junior tuvo la oportunidad hablar con Padre Nelson en persona para compartir la noticia de la transicion de Water for Waslala y el empiezo del nuevo capitulo, Agua Para Waslala. Padre Nelson sonrio y le respondió,

“Ayudamos a sembrar una semilla y alguien tenia que cuidarlos por estos años y ahora ha crecido y va a continuar creciendo.”

 

 

nelson3

April 2016 – Junior y Padre Nelson en Chapeco, Brazil

 

Y, esto siempre es la meta, verdad? Cultivar algo que convierte en algo mas grande que cualquier de nosotros.

Personalmente, dejando el trabajo formal con la organización es un poco emocional. Significa que no tengo marcado en mi calendario mi próximo viaje a Waslala. Pero, si me aferro demasiado significa limitar el crecimiento de Water for Waslala para mi seguridad (y tal vez mi ego). Yo se lo que pasara si me sigo aferrando demasiado. Water for Waslala seguiría pero en un ritmo lento que no llegaría crecer para poder trabajar con las comunidades donde hay demanda y nunca lograría el objetivo de cobertura total en Waslala (por lo menos no mientras yo estoy viva).

Pero, el cuento de Water for Waslala no termina aquí. La semana pasada, participe en el evento de lanzamiento en Waslala con más de 100 miembros de la comunidad y me di cuenta que en Agua Para Waslala, WaterAid y El Porvenir han asumido la misión – cobertura universal en Waslala antes de 2030. En el próximo capítulo, nosotros LOGRAMOS la mision!

Pausa por un minuto….y reflexionarse en esto….lograr la misión!

Firmando el acuerdo entre las tres organizaciones - Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Director Ejecutivo), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Directora Ejecutiva), and Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Director)

Firmando el acuerdo entre las tres organizaciones – Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Director Ejecutivo), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Directora Ejecutiva), and Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Director)

La meta de cobertura universal en Waslala es mas que cualquiera organización o persona pueda lograr solo y en la Alianza Agua Para Walala lleva personas y organizaciones con experiencias, habilidades, y recursos complementarios. Mas importante, la Alianza propone facilitar la coordinación de actores y instituciones locales, el gobierno municipal, los CAPS, ONGs, y donantes, etc. Todos sabemos que juntos podemos lograr el acceso universal a agua, saneamiento, y higiene en Waslala!

Lanzamiento del Programa Agua Para Waslala – June 15, 2016 Cesar Enoc de Castillo Espinoza (El Porvenir, Director of Field Operations), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), David Arnolds (El Porvenir, Board Chair), Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

Lanzamiento del Programa Agua Para Waslala – June 15, 2016
Cesar Enoc de Castillo Espinoza (El Porvenir, Director of Field Operations), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), David Arnolds (El Porvenir, Board Chair), Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

Listos? Porque este próximo capitulo va a ser impresionante!!

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By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Co-founder & Executive Director

This is part 4 of a 4 part series

<<< Click here to return to part 3 <<<

<<< Click here to return to part 2 <<<

<<< Click here to return to part 1 <<<

LESSON #7 – SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO PUSH YOU

At the end of January 2015, my husband, Wil, accompanied me on a trip to Waslala – a final trip together to Waslala before we added our little guy to the mix. Rio (meaning “river” in Spanish because it relates to water) joined the party on March 26, 2015.

2011 - With Wil amid the coffee plants in Waslala

2011 – With Wil amid the coffee plants in Waslala

WfW had been growing; however, we’d struggled to identify a sustainable organizational structure to match fundraising growth with our operational expansion in Waslala. Wil and I were sitting in the hotel in Managua en route to Waslala when he turned to me and asked:

Wil: You all have kept things going for over ten years and reached over 4,000 Waslalans with water. If you stopped now, would you consider it a failure?

Me: Yes.

Wil: Then you need to step up.

Despite knowing that we’d have a new baby on the scene and that balancing both of our professional goals and responsibilities would be challenging, he pushed me to step up as Executive Director of Water for Waslala.

Wil has canceled conferences and moved meetings in order to accommodate my travel to Waslala. He has planned the weeks when I need to be in Waslala in order to leave the house later and get home earlier to make sure someone is home with the little one. He has served as a very patient thought partner as I figure this out as I go (i.e. how do you pursue an acquisition strategy as a nonprofit?).

In many ways, it didn’t MAKE SENSE to step up as Executive Director in April 2015 (with a two week old baby), but looking back I have learned more this year than I have yet to realize …and one of the things I learned is that I married someone who will provide that push when I need it!

Rio reppin' Water for Waslala on the day I assumed the role of Executive Director

April 2015 – Rio reppin’ Water for Waslala on the day I assumed the role of Executive Director

LESSON #8 – LEAD TOGETHER

I have worked with Junior Gasparini (our most recent WfW director) in different capacities since 2004. When our former director extraordinaire, Iain Hunt, left the role to head to Villanova, I called Junior and asked him to take over as director on an interim basis while I worked to fill the role. Junior has several coffee farms in Waslala from which he draws his salary and he supports WfW because of his belief in the work and the mission. I asked him for three months and he agreed…. that was in 2013 (here we are THREE YEARS later)!!

In January 2015, I knew that the year ahead was going to need to be a sprint. Despite a great team and excellent work in Waslala, as an organization, we were in a tough financial spot. Business as usual was not an option. We needed to increase our pace of work in Waslala to meet demand and, thus, we needed to increase our funding dramatically.

I sat with Junior outside Hotel Waslala as the sun set for the day. I knew he was ready to talk about how we could put plans in place to transition him out of the role so he could focus on his coffee farms. I also knew that what was required of WfW over the next year would be impossible if I did not have him as an “all in partner.” I started the conversation…

We’re in a tough spot financially, but I believe we can turn this around. We are doing great work in Waslala and we’ve kept at it for over ten years. But, we’ve grown into an organization with different needs. This is not work that can be done at night and on the weekends to raise funds to support a growing organization. So, I have a proposal for you….I will take a break from teaching classes at Temple this year to focus on what WfW needs.

That got his attention…he turned quickly and looked right at me with an expression of surprise since he knows I love teaching…and waited for me to continue.

But…I can’t do it without you. I need you in as a full partner with me because I know that together, we can get the organization to where it needs to be. Are you in?

He was quiet for a minute as he looked into the distance. I knew he was stressed and tired from several years working two full time jobs. I also knew he believed in this work and the potential as deeply as I did. He turned back to look at me and responded, “well then, let’s do it.” I suddenly felt like I had pressured him into this and tried to offer an “out”…if you need time to think, I’d rather you are sure before you make this decision.” And his response: “No, I don’t change my mind. If you’re in, I’m in.” And…we are now completing twelve years of working together

Junior and me – 2004 and 2016

Junior and me – 2004 and 2016

LESSON #9 – DON’T HOLD ON TOO TIGHT (it was never “mine” to hold onto)

In May 2016, Junior was able to share the news of Water for Waslala’s transition with Padre Nelson in person. Padre Nelson smiled as he responded,

“I helped to plant a seed and someone had to care for that seed for all these years and now that seed has sprouted into a plant that will continue to grow.”

 

 

nelson3

May 2016 – Junior and Padre Nelson in Chapeco, Brazil

 

And, isn’t that exactly the goal? To build something that is bigger than any one of us.

Personally, letting go is hard. It means having to admit that I don’t have my next trip to Waslala on the calendar. But, holding on means limiting WfW’s growth for my comfort (and maybe ego). I know what happens if I hold on. WfW continues to make slow progress and it would be impossible to reach our mission (at least in my lifetime).

But, that isn’t where our story ends. As I stood in front of more than 100 community members in Waslala last month for the official launch event (Transition event photo album), it really hit me. As part of the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance, WaterAid and El Porvenir have assumed the mission – total coverage in Waslala by 2030. In this next chapter, we FINISH our mission!

Stop to think about that for a minute….finish.our.mission!! When does that even happen?!?

Signing the tripartite agreement - Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), and Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

Signing the tripartite agreement – Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), and Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

The mission of total coverage in Waslala is more work than any individual or organization could accomplish alone and the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance brings together individuals and organizations with experiences, skills, and resources that complement one another. Most importantly, the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance explicitly aims to facilitate coordination among local actors and institutions, municipal government, community water committees, international NGOs, funders, etc. We all know that, together we will reach universal access to water and sanitation in Waslala!

Get ready, chapter 4 is going to be quite a ride!!

Official launch of the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance – June 15, 2016 Cesar Enoc de Castillo Espinoza (El Porvenir, Director of Field Operations), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), David Arnolds (El Porvenir, Board Chair), Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

Official launch of the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance – June 15, 2016
Cesar Enoc de Castillo Espinoza (El Porvenir, Director of Field Operations), Nora Pillard Reynolds (Water for Waslala, Executive Director), Rob Bell (El Porvenir, Executive Director), David Arnolds (El Porvenir, Board Chair), Joshua Briemberg (WaterAid-Nicaragua Country Director)

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By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Co-founder & Executive Director

       This is part 3 of a 4 part series

<<< Click here to return to part 2 <<<

<<< Click here to return to part 1 <<<

LESSON #3 – LISTEN (even when it’s not what you want to hear)

In 2006, I was finishing up my two year teaching commitment in North Philadelphia with Teach for America and I was thinking of moving down to Waslala for a longer period of time. I had been working there already for a few years and was generally going once or twice a year for a month at a time. I shared my idea with a friend and colleague, Junior Gasparini, and he responded: “of course, if you want to move down here, you can live with us in the priest house and we can help get you a job in the education organization since your interest is education.”

Then he continued (the pro and con of close friends)… “But, we are pretty much fine here and can do whatever you would do. What I can’t do it get a seat at a board table in the US to share our message. You can.”

Now, this is not the role I wanted to or hoped to play. I am much more comfortable sleeping in a hammock in a rural village with no running water or electricity than I am sitting at any board table. I wanted my contribution to be “en el terreno” (on the ground)…not focused on funding and strategic partnerships in the US. But, here I am 10 years later, having assumed US operations (funding, outreach, and strategic partnerships) and I still work with Junior as my partner who runs the Nicaraguan operations.

2015 – Waslala team (left to right) – Miguel, Virginia, Junior G. Junior M., Wilfredo, Taleno, and me

2015 – Waslala team (left to right) – Miguel, Virginia, Junior G. Junior M., Wilfredo, Taleno, and me

LESSON #4 – I WILL ALWAYS BE AN OUTSIDER

In 2002, I was certainly an outsider when I arrived in Waslala on a two week trip, speaking limited Spanish, meeting every person for the first time and having limited understanding of the history or current context of Nicaragua/ Waslala and the U.S. role in that history.

Now, fourteen years later, I am bilingual, have immersed myself in learning about the history and current context in Nicaragua and Waslala, and have travelled to Waslala more times than I can count. Some of my closest friends live in Waslala – when I arrive for a visit and pop my head into the window of their house, I hear shrieks of “Nora!” as children come running to the door to greet me with a bear hug. I have seen these children grow up.

2011 - Phillies t-shirt for Junior’s daughter, Yaiza

2011 – Phillies t-shirt for Junior’s daughter, Yaiza

I will never truly be an insider or native Waslalan because of my citizenship, race, language and other social identifiers that are linked to power and history in many ways. This is not good or bad….it’s just reality. To me, the important thing is to never lose sight of this and intentionally pursue humility knowing that I am always missing something as I think about a situation or decision for the organization.

 

LESSON #5 – SHOW UP 

In December 2011, an abrupt change happened in La Parroquia and, by extension, in Waslala. The bishop on the Atlantic Coast (responsible for Waslala) began putting pressure on La Parroquia to redirect time and attention on evangelism and communion and away from their work in social programs – education, health care, water, etc. During a period of time, there were many heated discussions, disagreements, and even protests in Waslala. This fundamental disagreement about where La Parroquia should direct its work resulted in the Brazilian priests being called back to Brazil and a Nicaraguan priest from another region installed as the head priest in La Parroquia. This transition resulted in closing or ending the work of most of the ministries created by La Parroquia over the years – education, health, vulnerable children, etc.

This transition not only stopped work on education, health care, etc., but also undermined years of work La Parroquia spent building relationships and trust in rural villages in a post-civil war context. I spent weeks in Waslala shortly after this abrupt parish transition. Through my time there, I had numerous people – from organization representatives to residents – come up to me in the street and ask whether WfW would, in fact, continue working in Waslala. I had never felt the impact of my physical presence in such palpable ways. After the parish transition, many if not most of the international organizations and individuals who had worked with and supported Waslala for years and years, had now pulled out since the ties with the La Parroquia, and therefore Waslala, had been abruptly cut. During my time in Waslala, one community organization representative commented about the importance of physical presence for trust and relationships especially during such an uncertain time,

I don’t think I realized how important it was for people to see you guys here, physically and, yes, there is a parish but it’s a different parish and you’re still here and you’re still spending time in your communities because I think the fear was that everyone would leave . . . all the international partners.

 

LESSON #6 – IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE!

People (myself included) are inspiring, frustrating, confusing, motivating….I could go on and on. My husband, Wil, leads a large (100+ employees), internet marketing, for profit business based in the U.S. I have been leading a small, grassroots, non-profit organization based in rural Nicaragua. When we spend time at dinner discussing our days, we find that our challenges (what keeps us up at night) and our successes (what makes you feel most excited and proud of the organization) are very similar. Everything is really about people!

As I reflect back on 14 years of the WfW journey, it is really all about the people…both on an organizational level and on a personal level. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most solid and inspiring people I know through WfW. This has truly been a collective effort!

First, there is something about Waslala (and maybe WfW) that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go!

In addition to our board of directors, just a few of the many, many examples…

  • Avi Loewenstein – former board member who visited Waslala in 2012 and even tried his hand at digging trench line in the Yaro Central community…years later served as a thought partner and pro-bono legal counsel through the entire acquisition process!
  • Justin Knabb – technically left the WfW board about 4 years ago, but has continued to handle all accounting, finance, taxes, etc. behind the scenes through today!
  • Meag Gruber, our first US team member in Waslala technically has not worked with WfW since about 2009….and still immediately jumps in any time a Nica question pops up or she can support work in Waslala in any way!
  • Iain Hunt technically stopped working for WfW in 2013, but continues to provide significant support in engineering design questions, partnership conversations, as an adviser, etc.
  • Brian Bozzo first travelled to Waslala in 2005 as a Villanova engineering student…not only has he stayed involved, but he convinced one of his best friends, PJ McAward to co-found Knots Apparel with him as a strategic way to contribute to Water for Waslala!

Second, we have “grown up” together!

Because WfW represents 14 years of my life, I have also had the incredible opportunity to work with, know, & collaborate with folks in Waslala over a long period of time. Here is a perfect “people” example:

(Denis) Taleno started working with WfW is 2005 and continues to this day…To be clear, he is not an “employee”…he built this organization! Those in the US may not know or have the opportunity to meet and see Taleno’s impact on WfW firsthand, but anyone who has ever traveled to Waslala (many, many Villanova folks, etc.) have seen his impact very clearly!

A glimpse at Taleno and I “growing up” (or maybe growing old) together.

 

TOP - 2006 - Taleno and I put boots back on after walking through the river; BOTTOM - 2016 – hanging on top of a recently completed water tank

TOP – 2006 – Taleno and I put boots back on after walking through the river; BOTTOM – 2016 – hanging on top of a recently completed water tank

Hanging out with Taleno’s son, Jordan (named after WfW Board member Jordan Ermilio) in 2006 (top) & 2016 (bottom)

Hanging out with Taleno’s son, Jordan (named after WfW Board member Jordan Ermilio) in 2006 (top) & 2016 (bottom)

Taleno with his sons, Hervin and Jordan, and wife, Gloria – 2006; Hanging with Taleno and his son, Hervin – 2016

Taleno with his sons, Hervin and Jordan, and wife, Gloria – 2006; Hanging with Taleno and his son, Erwin – 2016

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By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Co-founder & Executive Director

<<<This is part 2 of a four part series, click here to read part 1. <<<

The title founder or co-founder often creates ideas about building something from nothing. When Matt and I first traveled to Waslala in 2002, there was an incredible foundation of community organization and coordination that already existed – Waslala was and is a special and unique place and much of that foundation had been built by the Brazilian padres and a foundation of liberation theology in the local Catholic parish, La Parroquia Inmaculada.

LESSON #1 – THERE IS NO BLANK SLATE

In 2005, as part of filming the WfW documentary, I stood behind the camera asking questions and translating responses for the film crew. Padre Nelson described the approach and vision of La Parroquia:

The poor have very much to give. And the riches of the poor at times are better than material wealth. And this is priceless. Look at the hills, the sun is beautiful, the birds, the moon…those who like the moon, hey you guys and girls who are in love, the moon, all of that. This is important – truly this is the beauty of life! You’re not going to come here and leave only with an image of ‘the poor people’. You enjoy yourself! Because the poor have a beautiful smile, the poor sing, the poor dance, it’s joyful here! You can go to the disco and…maybe you even fall in love and get married here in Nicaragua as well!

Underlying Padre Nelson’s jokes is the foundation upon which La Parroquia Inmaculada was built. He alludes to the problematic, yet common depiction of “the poor people” and flips to an asset-based framework that draws attention to common human interactions and relationships that cross borders – the beauty of nature, dancing at the disco, and even falling in love.

Padre Nelson described “the wealth of La Parroquia [as] the solidarity” – working with groups of Italians, Germans, North Americans, among others who “have gotten to know our reality and support in order to help this community recover so one day it can walk on its own feet.” In his quote, there is an underlying reference to history and its continuing effects on the current situation in Waslala. Padre Nelson described La Parroquia’s approach to their work based in liberation theology,

I cannot say mass for a town that is hungry. We cannot say mass to the sick and force ourselves to say it is the will of God. I think that the Church is pushed to go find where it is most needed. And the Church in Latin America has made an option for the poor and the children. And so, here we are not afraid of working with the poor. And the day that we say mass for money or obligation I think we are no longer church.

Based in liberation theology, La Parroquia created a number of pastorales (organizations) employing locals to serve the people of Waslala not only physically, but also spiritually, economically and socially. These organizations included: health, education, production, promotion of the woman, vulnerable children, and, more recently, water. Water for Waslala was initially formed as another pastoral under La Parroquia.

Pastoral de agua 2

LESSON #2 – IT WAS NEVER “OUR” IDEA

During my first trip in 2002, there are a few salient memories that I always come back to. The first was a meeting with several community members in a rural community called El Guabo and the second was sobbing uncontrollably as I headed to the airport at the end of only a two week trip. The first marked the true beginning of WfW and the second demonstrated that it only took me two weeks to fall in love with Waslala.

2002 - Matt and my first trip to Waslala

2002 – Matt (Co-founder) and my first trip to Waslala

During that first trip, Padre Nelson told the group that some community residents had asked to meet us and he told them “como no?” (or “why not?”). When we met the community at their village school, they asked us to support them in building a water system to serve the school. What did they need from us? To help provide the necessary funds to purchase the PVC pipes needed for the water system. They would contribute all of the manual labor needed to build the system. They needed roughly $3,000 to purchase the PVC pipes. Our group had ten members so we decided that we could commit to raising the funds needed (only $300 per person).

Although I had arrived in Waslala curious about education in the developing world, the community members showed us that before we could think about education and school attendance, it was important to make sure that the school children had access to clean drinking water. In other words, first things first.

There are 90 rural communities in Waslala, many of which are facing this same challenge. Many of which were equally committed to organizing themselves to dedicate months of free labor to ensure that their children have access to clean drinking water at school. We had to ask ourselves: why stop after working with one community? Matt spent his senior year in college writing a plan for how to get Water for Waslala off the ground and the Augustinian Volunteers supported him in spending the year following his graduation doing just that.

We did not go to Waslala focused on water nor did we have any ideas of starting an organization. Community members told us about their plans and since we knew that we could accompany them in reaching their own goals, we did.

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By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Co-founder and Executive Director

I recently found a letter that I wrote to Padre Nelson and Padre Cleto after my first trip to Waslala in 2002. Below is an excerpt of the letter:

You told us something during our conversation on the last day of the trip. You told us that you both have made your decision – the decision to live and die with the poor. Then you told us that now we all have to make our own decisions about what we want to do with our lives.This part of my life is full of decisions that will affect the rest of my life. Therefore, right now I want to stay focused on the most important things in life. The experience with you all helped me do this. I think that you both have focused your life on what is truly important. 

As I reflect back on 14 years of learning through the series of partnerships that is WfW, this was my first lesson: You never know where you will find your most important teachers.

2005 – Dancing with Padre Nelson

2005 – Dancing with Padre Nelson

I have learned several other lessons as well, including:

  1. There is no blank slate
  2. It was never our idea
  3. Listen (even when it’s not what you want to hear)
  4. I will always be an outsider
  5. Show up
  6. It’s all about people
  7. Surround yourself with people who push you
  8. Lead together
  9. Don’t hold on too tight (it was never “mine” to hold onto)

These lessons learned are (part of) the Story of Water for Waslala. They are the foundation upon which this organization was built, sustained, and will transition. I share them now as a peak at where we’ve been in order to transparently share where we are going.

The goal has always been crystal clear – ensure access to clean drinking water for everyone living in the municipality of Waslala, Nicaragua. This next chapter, the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance, makes that big, ambitious goal possible.

Over the past year, the acquisition/ transition process helped me clarify the foundational values that make Water for Waslala what it is. Clarifying these values was a crucial step in discerning whether we had found a “fit” in WaterAid and El Porvenir. There are plenty of concrete variables to consider in this type of decision, but as Joshua (WaterAid-Nicaragua’s country director) reminded me during one of our phone conversations,

I think you have a decision to make and it’s not one you will make with SWOT analyses. It is a decision that you have to make with your heart.

As I chuckled to myself knowing I had spent the previous day making some very elaborate SWOT analyses, I also found comfort – in this comment I felt like I heard a bit of Padre Nelson.

Over the course of the next few days, I will be sharing a series of “lessons learned” – the story of Water for Waslala and the beginning of the next chapter – Agua Para Waslala. These lessons represent the values that don’t fit into that SWOT analysis. They are who we are as an organization and why we knew this transition was right.

 

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I’ve been dragging my feet on writing this last blog post for quite some time, mainly because it is the last thing I will ever do as part of Water for Waslala. After the last word is written, the journey ends for me, which makes me feel both excited and sad.

Water for Waslala has been a major part of my life for 14 years now. This is the only thing in my life that I’ve ever been a part of for that long – even my relationship with my wife is a mere 10 years old. I think it’s hard to let anything go that’s been with you that long, even when you know it’s the right thing to do.

Before I say my final goodbye, I want to summarize what I learned from the Water for Waslala experience, and share some advice for the next generation of non-profiteers.

  1. Listen first, act second

Our first trip to Waslala did not have an explicit “task” that we set out to do, such as volunteer at an orphanage or help build a school. Instead, we focused on breaking bread with as many Waslalans as possible and hearing their story – what life was like for them, and what could make it better. It was only through this inductive approach that we realized that the need for clean drinking water was a recurring theme in these conversations. We decided to help one community with their water problems, and our commitment grew from there.

My most important advice for those wanting to “make a difference” in this world: don’t assume that you know what other people need, or what the best way to help them would be. Find a place you want to change for the better and meet the people who live there. Let them tell you what they need, and then act by leveraging your knowledge, skills and network to help them make it happen.

  1. Focus is everything in the beginning

It’s always tempting to want to solve all of the problems for a population in need. We often felt in the beginning that focusing only on water was insufficient if we wanted to truly eliminate poverty in Waslala. The issue was so much broader than just water.

In retrospect, focusing on only one specific issue was the right decision for us. Even doing one thing well takes a tremendous amount of focus, persistence, and organizational maturity; for example, it took us almost a decade to perfect our water system approach. If we had tried to also focus on sanitation and other adjacent issues all from the beginning, we would have failed; it would have been too much to take on while we will still finding our sea legs.

Advice: focus on one specific intervention at first, and get that model right before doing anything else. You can always broaden your scope of intervention over time once you perfect each specific solution.

  1. Failing fast and quickly is more important than succeeding in the beginning

Some of our first water projects ended up being a failure. We visited some of those original projects years later and found them in disrepair and no longer in use. This was a big blow to our confidence at first, but eventually we realized that failing fast and often was a necessary step on the way to long-term success. We eventually adopted the “lean startup” mindset of trying new ideas early, seeing what worked, and iterating on our approach with future projects until we got things right.

I strongly believe this is the right mindset for non-profits – focus on failing fast and often, learning from your mistakes, and adopting a continuous improvement mindset. It’s also critical to be transparent with your donors about your failures and not sugarcoating them. Development work is hard, and nobody benefits from pretending it isn’t.

  1. The people you’re trying to help need to be in the driver’s seat

One of Water for Waslala’s key guiding principles has always been that the Waslalan beneficiaries must themselves drive their own development projects. Our role was to advise and coach the Waslalan people on project management, engineering, and leadership development, not to do the work for them. We believe this approach has been one of the reasons that many of our projects are still working today – they were led by the beneficiaries themselves who set their own vision and brought it to fruition.

  1. A small group of people really can effect change

Recently we analyzed our donor base and found something striking: 75% of all of the funds we’ve raised over the last 5 years have come from just 100 donors. Those 100 people, combined with our ~10 Board members and ~10 Waslalan employees over the years, have helped over 6,000 people so far, and created an organization that is poised to help 10x that amount gain access to safe drinking water for a lifetime.

It only takes a small village to make a big impact in this world…this is perhaps the most exciting lesson learned from the WfW experience.

  1. Meaning in life comes from giving

Before I started WfW, my life aspirations were focused around making a lot of money and living comfortably “away” from the concerns of the world. This all changed after my first trip to Nicaragua, when I realized that the people of Nicaragua were just as smart, talented, friendly and generous as we were in the US. I realized that the only reason that I had so much, and they had nothing, was because I was born in the US, and they were born in Nicaragua. I wasn’t better than they were at all, and they deserved all of the blessings in life I had; yet they had very little and I had quite a lot. This realization created a feeling of responsibility within myself to find ways to give back to those in need in this world.

Over the last 14 years leading WfW, I’ve learned even more deeply that finding opportunities to tangibly improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves is the most important and meaningful thing we can do on this earth. For me, WfW was my first and probably my biggest opportunity to do so, but I hope it is not my last.

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By Rob Gradoville, Board member 

Water for Waslala has worked to ensure access to clean water for the rural population of Waslala, Nicaragua since 2005.

Wateraid America has acquired Water for Waslala and, with that announcement, roughly seven figures in funding has been all-but guaranteed for the people of Waslala over the next five years. From its beginnings as the naïve idea of a group of optimistic college kids collecting $50 checks to save Nicaragua, it would appear that WfW has gotten incredibly lucky. And that’s exactly right. As they say, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” But it takes more than just being ready for any opportunity to really knock it out of the park like WfW did. I saw a recipe for success way before I joined the team, and I have no doubt it is the reason this Cinderella story came true. As my time with WfW comes to a close, I wanted to share a little bit of what I saw when I took a stab at acting like a board member back in 2012, and what I am sure WaterAid saw recently when we first reached out to them.

First, I want share a little about people, a little about growth, and a little about innovation (or–trying new stuff to learn). Those three ingredients combined were what really set the stage for success. And then I want to share a few things we did with those ingredients–because as the Edison quote goes, “what it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Part 1: Inspiration (a.k.a. The ingredients)

People. The WfW team and leadership were special. The founders were friends from college, one an analytical, incisive management consultant, and the other a thoughtful and sincere PhD student. Both were smart, both were passionate, and both shared the conviction that they could leave the world better than they found it. That complimentary right-brain left-brain thing was evident, and it worked well. Many of the WfW staff in Nicaragua had been around since the initial days over a decade previous, effectively built the team from nothing, and openly admitted to doing their jobs because of their love for the work, not the money. In Waslala even the biggest and most resource-flush nonprofits had come and gone. But through the ups and downs this tiny rag-tag group of do-gooders stayed. And people took note—there was real commitment, even friendship. When it came to credibility, passion, and mutual respect for and from Waslalans, WfW had all three in spades.

WfW team on the top of a recently constructed water tank in Waslala - 2013

WfW team on the top of a recently constructed water tank in Waslala – 2013

Growth. There was a hunger for growth. The year before I joined, the WfW team had completed a strategic planning session that showed them they really needed to kick things into high gear. After reviewing their progress over the first 10 years, they were somewhat underwhelmed to realize that all of their efforts had impacted the lives of just 2,000 people. That was just a drop in the bucket of the nearly 50,000 people of Waslala living without clean water. After doing a few basic calculations (tip of the hat to the analytical management consultant) they realized that at their current pace it could take the rest of their lives to achieve the mission of Water for Waslala – clean water for everyone.

 

Strategic planning session in Waslala – 2012 (Iain Hunt, Matt Nespoli, & Nora Pillard Reynolds)

Strategic planning session in Waslala – 2012 (Iain Hunt, Matt Nespoli, & Nora Pillard Reynolds)

 

Robs post - planning in Waslala 2

Strategic planning session in Waslala – 2012 (Iain Hunt, Matt Nespoli, & Nora Pillard Reynolds)

The staff in Nicaragua were having families and getting older, the board and founders were in their mid-thirties and thinking about families and career shifts of their own, and there was a sense of anxiousness. So much of what had been accomplished thus far was done with volunteer labor and underpaid staff. They all knew what they had to do: grow, increase their pace of work, and finish the job, or pitter out and end up in the NGO graveyard; to be seen as just another naïve attempt to save the world. They set themselves a target of 100% water coverage by the year 2030 and worked backwards to determine how they could do that. They planned to double the size of the implementation team, more than double their budget, and diversify their board to purposefully fill in gaps. The team was clear that there wasn’t really any other way to avoid failure. They needed to grow.

Water for Waslala Board Meeting – April 2013

Water for Waslala Board Meeting – April 2013

Innovation. The team was open-minded and looking for help. After a decade of work you might expect the WfW team would have felt they had narrowed in on the best way to do their work. You could also reasonably expect that their plans for growth would double down on the assumption that they had to keep doing what they were doing, just at a faster pace. That is, after all, a common response from experts in any sector. And after a decade of work, you could arguably describe WfW as a team of experts in provision of rural water & sanitation solutions.

Thinking outside the box isn’t so easy when you feel like you have explored every nook and cranny of that box. When you know the box so well that you don’t even see its walls anymore. But the team made a few things clear right away: they didn’t consider themselves experts; they wanted to try new things; they wanted to innovate. But they needed some help, and so they started exploring.

I noticed they were struggling to think big enough, different enough. They were thinking of things that were mostly marginal improvements to the already high-quality work they did. There was also a bit of “analysis paralysis” going on – they researched, tested, and analyzed new ways to reach the people of Waslala, but were afraid to actually give their ideas a shot. What if they failed and it ruined everything? They needed a fresh perspective and to be challenged to think bigger and broader. Most importantly, they knew they needed help and actively recruited it from additional staff as well as board members who would join over the next three-and-a-half years.

After reflecting on those incredible qualities, it’s really no wonder that the WfW team got so “lucky.”  But one thing I’ve learned both at my day-job at IDEO.org and through my time with the WfW team: Put together a great team and encourage the right mindsets, and luck will become the norm.

Part 2: Perspiration (a.k.a. how you bake the cake)

 

Waslala is a remote Nicaraguan village that demands grit from those that inhabit the area. Picture above are WfW staff, Denis Taleno and Junior Gasparini, commuting to work.

Waslala is a remote Nicaraguan municipality that demands grit from those that inhabit the area. Picture above are WfW staff, Denis Taleno and Junior Gasparini, commuting to work.

So how did we capitalize on those incredible ingredients? Here are a few things we did that seemed to work.

Step 1: We used our great team to build up the dream team

WfW grew their staff from four to eight including their first executive director. They had to if they wanted to go out and get the large dollars that would accelerate progress. But instead of letting those at the top make hiring decisions, the process was reversed. Recommendations came in, leadership screened them, and then passed the options onto the field staff that would then give the final thumbs up or thumbs down. This helped everyone on the team to feel like the organization was growing in the right way with the right people.

WfW staff in Nicaragua, 2015 (left to right) – Miguel, Virigina, Junior G., Junior M., Wilfredo, and Taleno

WfW staff in Nicaragua, 2015 (left to right) – Miguel, Virgina, Junior G., Junior M., Wilfredo, and Taleno

Step 2: We held our own, and spoke with confidence

Once WfW had a bigger team of all-stars ready to work, they needed to land some big donors so they could get to work. One of the first big donors to come knocking was a Rotary club. We were really excited, but we quickly came across a problem: the club communicated their policy of not supporting as many field staff as we required to do our work.

The issue was that WfW was in a big growth phase and required some overhead to support that growth and to start the work off on the right foot. When the club told us that our overhead was too high, we did our own research of peer organizations, found that we actually were pretty much on par, and pushed back. We told them that given our size, our growth stage, and our goals for achieving 100% water coverage in Waslala by 2030, we couldn’t afford to accept grants that were as “efficient” as the one they were offering. We told them it was not a time for efficiency for us – it was a time for growth and innovation. That was a scary thing to do for a nonprofit with new staff salaries to pay, where every dollar would make a difference. But we knew that if we got in the habit of undercutting our team then we would be in trouble eventually.

We held out our own with logic and confident self-awareness, and the Rotary club came around. They ultimately were impressed with our response, and agreed to fund us exactly as we had requested. We landed the single largest grant in the history of the organization. Little did we know that a partnership with WaterAid two years later would make that grant pale in comparison.

Step 3: We did our research, followed our gut, and just tried something new. (And we learned a lot in the process.)

WfW wanted to try new things, and they already had about a year of research under their belt, but they were afraid of the repercussions if they were to fail. Their basic hunch was that they could increase their pace of impact if they could get people to repay some or all of the money it took to get them clean water—effectively “paying it forward” to the next home in need.

Recycling funds from community to community would mean less fundraising, and it was the basic premise upon which WaterCredit was built at Water.org, where I worked at the time. Within my first few months on the WfW board I suggested they get some boots on the ground to learn more about this concept, so we hired a microfinance consultant, Carlos.

We told Carlos that we had a hunch that water filters could be used to reach more rural Waslalans that would never have access to piped systems, and that we wanted to know if people would be willing to buy filters on credit. After about two months, Carlos came back with some interesting findings: most Waslalans would be willing to pay for water filters on credit, and some of them would even be interested in buying them outright.

There was a latent and unmet demand for water filters in Waslala, so this lending model might just work. Over the next few months we developed a partnership with a local financial cooperative, Caja Rural Mano a Mano, and set a goal of distributing 700 water filters on credit over the following nine months. We hired another staff member to run the operations, held our breath, and launched the pilot.

Team members load water filters purchased on credit to transport to communities

Team members load water filters purchased on credit to transport to communities

Part 3: The Results

Although not without its challenges, the water filters pilot ended up a huge success, placing almost 800 filters in the hands of rural Waslalans and garnering a 98% repayment rate. You can read more about the results here. Each of those filters now serves an entire household, nearly 4,000 Waslalans in total. By just giving the pilot project a shot, we learned a lot about coordination between NGOs and financial cooperatives, about the scalability of using microfinance for small purchases, and about the willingness of the poor to pay for improvements to their families’ lives.

For a nonprofit whose business model revolved around funneling resources from the US to Nicaragua, this was a fairly unexpected insight. WfW even sold a good number of filters directly, and plans to continue to offer filter for sale in Waslala. By just getting on with the work, instead of trying to refine the absolutely perfect model before launching, the team learned a ton and garnered the interest and attention of additional microfinance funders who want to expand the work in coming years.

This one little experiment reached more people in one year than WfW had reached in all its previous years of work. And that should come as no surprise. The organization itself was started on a hunch with a very basic plan back in 2005. There is something really valuable in just starting and correcting as you go, and this is just another example.

Final Thoughts

I couldn’t be happier or more humbled to have gone along for the ride with Water for Waslala, and to see them taken in by a leader in their field like WaterAid. I also am eternally grateful for everything that Water for Waslala taught me. In addition to inspiring me and reminding me that incredible things are being accomplished by people all around me, my time with WfW helped me to understand a couple other key concepts – the ingredients of a stellar team, and a few things to help teams grow and innovate. Setting yourself up for success and actually taking advantage of opportunity are two different but complimentary skills. Without one the other is sort-of irrelevant. But if you can do both, you might just get lucky. In fact, put together a great team and encourage the right mindsets, and “luck” might just become the norm.

 

 

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Written by: Nora Pillard Reynolds, Executive Director

November 2014 – February 2016

Background

When we received the $20,000 grant for a Project focused on household filters (ceramic), we had a hunch that there was a better, more sustainable, and more game-changing way to get filters out there than to simply donate them. We began exploring the concept of asking beneficiaries to pay for a portion of the cost of the filters on a payment plan. Quickly we learned the complexity of this type of approach. Upon suggestion from members the WfW BOD we first commissioned a consultant to study demand for filters and demand for credit in Waslala ($1,425 USD + transport and other costs). The consultant completed the study and presented recommendations to the team and WfW board members in September 2014.

In mid-November 2014, WfW hired a loan officer and initiated a pilot project to partner with a local cooperative, Caja Mano a Mano, for the purpose of providing loans on credit to the Waslalan population. The Project aimed to place 700 filters during a period of 9 months through individual and group loans. There was also a specific focus on ensuring that the project reached Waslalans in the rural mountain communities.

Pilot Planning Approach

This goal and timeframe were set partially because BOD member experience working with WASH lending at Water.org suggested this to be a realistic yet challenging pace of lending. The thought was that if we could prove this concept was viable at a pace of nearly 80 filters/month in the first year of operation, then the endeavor would be comparable to the top 25% of the more than 50 lending partners of Water.org, worldwide. This proof of concept would show potential for scale, would be attractive to additional donors and partners, and would significantly accelerate WfW progress towards total water coverage in Waslala by 2030.

The WfW team discussed how to minimize diversion of loan funds for purchases other than water filters. As lending would be a new approach for the team, a decision was made to deliver filters directly to customers thus ensuring the initial loan capital was already sunk into the filter asset. Each customer would agree to make payments in the coming months until the cost of the filter and interest were fully paid off. The loan product designed for this purpose was to have a 6-month duration, carry an interest of 30%, and would allow for prepayments. This flexibility in payments would produce valuable learnings for the team, demonstrating what portion of the population preferred to pay over time, and what portion would prefer to pay more quickly or even outright.

Results

This pilot project placed 778 filters (surpassing the original goal of 700). With an average family size of five in Waslala, we estimate that this pilot reached ~3,890 Waslalans with improved quality of drinking water.

Click here for additional graphs and tables – Filters and micro-finance

Lending groups

150 lending groups were formed with an average of five families per group. 52 lending groups are located in town and 98 groups are from the rural mountain communities, demonstrating that lending can indeed reach the most rural populations – 78% of loans went to rural populations in this case. The lending groups represent 13 neighborhoods in town and 39 different rural communities.

Repayments

With additional funding from WfW, the total amount allocated in loans was ~$26,500 and the total recuperated was ~$26,930 including interest. Of this, $1,620 was interest that was divided between the Caja Rural Mano a Mano and the Associación de Desarrollo Integral y Sostenible (the two partners in this pilot), which was used to cover a portion of staffing costs. The rate of loss of loan capital was 1.84%. See attached chart for additional details.

Because the majority of the loans were to lending groups (versus individuals), the number of trips by the loan officer to collect payments was decreased. This is an important factor for consideration when planning subsequent projects in terms of staff capacity. The table below displays the number of trips by the loan officer over the course of the 15 month pilot project.

Factors for success

  1. Existing relationships/ trust of ADIS in rural communities (loan selection and accountability for repayment).
  2. Adaptability of ADIS- During the pilot, ADIS quickly observed that travel to town to pick up filters was a challenge for rural community residents. Even though the pilot project did not include budget to cover transport of filters to rural communities, the promotor organized community groups (~35 families) to access credit/ purchase filters at the same time and together “rent” the pickup truck from ADIS to transport the filters. The cost of transport was less than one way on the bus to travel to town. Although this is not common procedure for ADIS, they were willing to mobilize their truck in order to facilitate the pilot project and ensure access for the more disperse, rural communities.
  3. Flexibility of the Caja- Part of the goal of this pilot was to better understand how to reach Waslalans in the rural mountain communities. The Caja’s flexibility before pilot initiation and during the course of the pilot was fundamental for ensuring access for the rural population. Examples of this flexibility include the following:
    1. No membership fee: The Caja Rural Mano a Mano charges a membership fee to Waslalans before they can access credit because the majority of their lending is for larger quantities. However, for this pilot project they were willing to suspend this membership fee and allow Waslalans to access credit for filters without becoming a member of the Caja.
    2. Alternate procedure to submit documentation: The general procedures of the Caja require Waslalans to visit the Caja in person with their documents to access credit; however, the Caja collaborated with ADIS to organize groups of Waslalans in rural communities and have a Caja promotor visit the community to initiate the loan so rural community members did not need to travel to town (and pay expenses that would exceed the loan amount) to access credit.
  4. Staffing support from the Caja- The Caja often provided one of their own promotores to support loan repayments for the pilot project. During the pilot, the Caja was motivated by: (1) social commitment and belief that this pilot enables them to have a positive social impact, (2) desire to learn through the pilot how to better reach rural Waslalans with access to credit, and (3) have proof of concept related to WaSH lending in Waslala to leverage for partnerships with other sources/ organization of foreign capital. In the future, it is not realistic to expect that Caja to provide their own staff without covering salary costs.
  5. Separation of WfW from Caja in public eyes – WfW and the Caja clearly laid out roles & responsibilities at the outset of the pilot. Part of the intended benefit of the partnership with the Caja was to ensure high rates of repayment from all borrowers. Given the public perception of the Caja as a viable business and WfW as a charitable organization that regularly provided “help” we made sure to separate the two in terms of responsibilities. This separation ensured the clients knew that a defaulted payment would not be a default in payment to WfW, but to the Caja, and would likely result in denial of any future loan requests.

Challenges

  1. Staffing – Because of turnover, we had two different loan officers and then no loan officer at the end of the pilot project. Each time there was loan officer resignation, there is a significant decrease in the number of loans and this resulted in challenges in securing repayments as well.
  2. Low price point ($34) – Because of the low price point, the interest earned was minimal for ADIS and the Caja and would not cover the operational expenses associated with this project (i.e. loan officer salary).

Comparing two models: Traditional charity vs. micro-lending

If we had utilized the $20,000 USD grant to provide donated household filters to Waslalan families, we would have reached ~519 families (or ~2,595 Waslalans) in 6 months and ended with no funds to initiate another project. This strategy would boast a faster pace (~100 filters/ month), but result in the approximate cost per filter of $32.70.

Instead, using micro-lending to implement this pilot project, we reached 778 families (~3,890 Waslalans) in 15 months and currently have $13,000 USD back in the revolving fund to embark on a next pilot project. Although this strategy resulted in a slower pace (~64 filters/ month), the average price per filter in the project was ~$17/filter. It is important to note that for the pilot project, WfW used ~$2,000 towards the consulting study and needed to provide additional funds (~$6,500) in the middle of the pilot until the repayments could begin to cover staff and transport costs.

Click here for additional graphs and tables – Filters and micro-finance

In addition to the figures displayed in the table above, utilizing the micro-lending approach to this project led to two additional topics for consideration:

  1. New avenues for micro-lending in Waslala (other WaSH products and/or other sources of capital): Utilizing this pilot project as a proof of concept and learning through the process of administering the project has opened up the potential for other actors to use micro-lending with other water and sanitation products by providing interest free capital to the Caja Rural Mano a Mano or other local financial institutions.
  2. Sustainability: Generally speaking, traditional charity shows high rates of failure and community contribution (% of costs residents cover) is correlated with success. In this pilot project, community members covered the cost of the filter. Subsequent evaluations should consider whether filters purchased with credit demonstrate improved sustainability than donated filters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Matt Nespoli, Co-founder and Board Chair

[Note – If you haven’t already, check out the Announcing the “Agua Para Waslala” Program Alliance post for more information.]

How do you sum up 14 years in a single blog post? Answer: I can’t, so I’m writing three posts.

In this first post, I’ll answer some of the common questions I’ve received from folks on the acquisition. Post #2 will share my top 5 favorite WfW memories over the last 14 years, and the last post will focus on what I’ve learned personally from Water for Waslala, and what advice I’d like to share with my fellow non-profiteers.

Here are my answers to some questions you may be thinking right now:

Why did you decide to proceed with an acquisition?     

It was really all about what was best for the Waslalan people. In a nutshell, it became very clear to us over the last few years that Water for Waslala was never going to grow to a size and scale that would match the need in Waslala.

There are 40,000+ Waslalans that do not have clean drinking water today. Clean drinking water is not some “nice to have” resource; it is an urgent need that requires urgent action.

Our team has always maintained that feeling of urgency (which, on a separate note, is a source of great pride for me). However, at the end of the day, our US team comprised ~6 unpaid volunteers who were balancing WfW with other full-time jobs and personal responsibilities. Water for Waslala needed the attention of a full-time team of fundraisers and leaders, but what we had in reality was a very small fraction of that manpower.

Contrast that picture with what the people of Waslala will have under the leadership of WaterAid and El Porvenir: several full-time US fundraising staff, a full-time leadership team covering strategy, and a well-established Nicaragua execution team that far surpasses our current operation in Waslala. In other words, more money available for clean drinking water projects, and more resources available in Nicaragua to help Waslalans get pipes in the ground and clean water flowing into their homes.

Both WaterAid and El Porvenir have committed to seeing through the mission of Water for Waslala and finishing the job by 2030, and they have also committed in writing to growing our budget to several times its current size over the next four years. For them, Water for Waslala offers an opportunity to grow and make an even bigger dent in the UN 2030 development goal of achieving universal access to clean water and sanitation.

For these reasons, it really was a no-brainer to move forward with the acquisition.

Why now?

Over the last five years, we’ve tried and failed several times to grow Water for Waslala organically, which ultimately led to the realization that a strategic acquirer was the right path for us.

In 2012, we decided to hire our first paid US employee, an Executive Director who would primarily focus on growing our fundraising. We spent months hiring and training an Executive Director that year, but they weren’t able to move the needle on our fundraising. We tried again with another Executive Director in 2014, but that ended in a similar outcome.

Why were we unable to grow our fundraising impact with a dedicated Executive Director? There were two ways to interpret what happened:

1) We hired the wrong people, or

2) It was structurally impossible for WfW to successfully grow on its own.

We ultimately realized that the right answer was #2. Both Executive Directors we hired were experienced and able fundraisers, so it didn’t seem like a talent issue. The bigger issue was twofold:

  • It is really hard for a fundraiser to succeed in an organization that offers no office space, other employees, or fundraising resources. It would be as if you dropped someone off alone on an island and asked them to hunt without giving them any tools. It’s a nearly impossible task.
  • More fundamentally, we were trying to fit an overhead structure on top of a mission that was too narrow to accommodate it. Water for Waslala has a very specific mission – one cause, one municipality – which makes the organization very difficult to scale. One reason is that, in essence, we were only ever going to attract donations from folks that cared about both Waslala and the issue of clean water, which is a very small population of people. The other is that even our annual fundraising goal itself – $200-300K per year – was too low to support a paid WfW staff; even if we did raise the money we needed, too much would have to be used to pay US salaries vs. helping Waslalans.

Once we realized that we could never achieve our mission by ourselves, it became obvious that the right solution was to grow inorganically by seeking an acquirer.

What does it mean to be “acquired” as a non-profit?

In many ways, a non-profit acquisition is similar to a for-profit acquisition. The acquiring organization takes ownership of the acquiree’s assets and liabilities, and assumes day-to-day operations. The main difference is that in the non-profit space, there is no acquisition price, since there are no profits that accrue to the acquirer.

In this case, Water for Waslala’s US assets (i.e. the money in our bank accounts) and liabilities (i.e. our nominal US operating expenses) will be acquired by WaterAid, and our in-country operations (i.e. our office space, employee expenses, warehouse of water system materials) will be acquired by El Porvenir. In exchange, both organizations have committed to completing Water for Waslala by 2030, and increasing our annual operating budget over the next four years.

Finally, to be clear, no one on our Board or in Waslala received any compensation from this acquisition.

How did you find an acquirer?

At the beginning of 2015, our Board of Directors put together a list of water and sanitation-focused organizations that were already operating in Nicaragua. We contacted each organization and asked if they would be interested in growing in Nicaragua, and WaterAid and El Porvenir were the two organizations that responded most enthusiastically.

What was the acquisition process like?

After a few months of exploratory conversations via phone and email, the heads of WaterAid and El Porvenir joined Nora and Rob from WfW’s Board of Directors in Waslala in the summer of 2015 for an in-depth field visit. WaterAid and El Porvenir met our in-country team, visited several completed and in-progress water projects, and spoke with our Board about our strategic vision and plan for 2030.

Both WaterAid and El Porvenir liked what they saw in Waslala, and pitched their respective Board of Directors on the Water for Waslala acquisition opportunity in the fall. Both Boards approved the acquisition by December 2015, and since then we have been busy finalizing all of the required legal documents to complete the acquisition.

 

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We're Proud to Announce that Water For Waslala Has Been Acquired By WaterAid - Read The Full Announcement

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