Proving It: A Tool for Accountability, Learning, and Rigor

Editors Note: This guest post chronicles one organization’s commitment to transparency and accountability through the development of an exciting new platform. Eric Stowe, founder and executive director of a child’s right, shares the story of Proving It and the lessons learned along the way.

Proving It

In recent years a voice has become increasingly audible within the WASH sector — a voice calling for honesty about failure, transparency in reporting, and sustainability of solutions. It didn’t emerge because failure swiftly became popular, but because failure appropriately became relevant.

When water interventions fail, they fail people. While we can and do discuss failure rates, we’re really not talking about “rates” at all; we’re talking about children and adults whom we have failed, collectively.

In the work of A Child’s Right — cleaning contaminated water to make it safe for drinking, for kids — we take failure as seriously as we take success. Our gold standard is this: we will not serve a glass of water to any child that we wouldn’t serve to our own children. If it isn’t water we would like to drink, then it isn’t water we should be serving to others. For this reason, we simply must have the technical tools — and the organizational culture — to support identification of failure and effective responses.

We therefore aspire to vigilance in monitoring, maintenance, and success. To these ends, we set about devising a means to monitor progress at every site where we work. We envisioned a day when every project we undertook could be tracked online — starting with a GPS point on a map, continuing with recurring verification that safe water is flowing, and culminating in the display of all monitoring and maintenance activity, as well as of updated photos and field notes. In short, we came to view “the big day” when water first flowed clean as the beginning of our work — not the end of it.

We realized our vision in October 2011, when we rolled out the first iteration of this new online platform called Proving It. (To learn more about Proving It, read the overview here.) It allows donors, and the public, to see systematically updated water quality test results, service records, comments from beneficiary communities, and more. In one place, interested parties can now track well over five hundred sites, a number that is growing steadily. With operations projected in sixteen countries, on two continents, within eight years, such tracking is both an urgent priority and a distinct challenge. We are proud of where Proving It stands, currently, but it is only a start. We are actively ideating on 2.0, and beyond.

Proving It was first developed for internal management purposes — to allow us to monitor, evaluate, and measure our own performance. Midstream in development, we asked ourselves: “What would happen if we made our internal database fully viewable to the public?” which then led us to consider: “What if donors learned of problems or failures at the same time we did?”

These questions stayed with us, and forged our commitment to rigorous honesty. If a project fails, the donor now learns at the same time we do. And if a water system goes down, it stops issuing water that a “beneficiary” could unknowingly drink. We have found this to fundamentally reframe conversations with donors — and even our shared view of philanthropy itself. Now that donors can track their gift over time (i.e., minimum ten years) and learn of the challenges we face in real time, they can participate in the act of insisting that water solutions are only solutions if they continue to work over time.

It is our vision that Proving It will be created in open source, and ultimately be white-labeled for use by anyone in the sector who shares a rigorous commitment to transparency. We are currently working on plans to make it so. Ultimately, we see Proving It as bearing promise for both the WASH sector and for many charitable aims.

It sounds a little funny, but we don’t want to fail at failure. We’d like to get failure right. To us this means being open to learning, as well as being rigorous in our honesty, transparency, and mutual accountability. To that effect, we welcome feedback, as well as long-range partners who would like to have conversations about Proving It and its potential for the sector.