Water First International

Safe water saves lives

aka Water 1st   |   Seattle, WA   |  www.water1st.org


Our mission is to enable the world's poorest people to implement and sustain community-managed projects integrating clean water supply, toilets, and hygiene education.

Ruling year info


Executive Director

Marla Smith-Nilson

Main address

1904 3rd Ave Suite 1012

Seattle, WA 98101 USA

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NTEE code info

International Development, Relief Services (Q30)

International Economic Development (Q32)

International Human Rights (Q70)

IRS filing requirement

This organization is required to file an IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ.

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Programs and results

What we aim to solve

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

2.5 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean water and a simple toilet. 5 million people, mostly children under the age of 5, die from water-related illnesses each year. Surviving diarrhea is the greatest single challenge for our world's children. Diarrhea is the leading cause of death of children in countries with high child mortality rates. Over 90% of diarrheal death is caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation and insufficient hygiene. Children weakened by frequent diarrheal illnesses are malnourished and vulnerable to other infections, like pneumonia, leaving them physically and mentally underdeveloped.

Every day, 200 million women and girls carry every drop of water their families use. Women and girls are traditionally responsible for water collection, walking miles to the nearest sources. In addition to chronic back pain and skin sores, the burden of hauling heavy containers of water leaves women with little or no time to earn an income.

Our programs

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

What are the organization's current programs, how do they measure success, and who do the programs serve?

Water, sanitation and hygiene education for poor communities

Water1st works through locally-based partner organizations to support the implementation of projects that include the provision of drinking water, hygiene education, and sanitary latrines. Water1st projects are successful with the strong commitment of the project participants. They are involved in every step of the planning, implementing, and financing of their projects. Communities are also responsible for the long-term operation and maintenance of their projects. Water 1st projects involve simple, proven technologies where spare parts are locally available, and community members provide all the manual labor for water project construction. Communities also make a financial commitment to the project. They pay for all of the operation and maintenance costs of the water system. Households pay an affordable monthly water bill, just like we do here. Funds are then available to purchase materials for maintaining the water system. Through hygiene promotion, community members also commit to learning about ways in which they can change their behaviors to utilize their new water systems and be healthier. Finally, the communities make a commitment to maintaining their new water system. Local technicians or caretakers are elected by the community and trained by our local partner organization to operate and maintain the water system.

Population(s) Served

The Daily Walk for Water

Water1st works in the rural Oromia region of Ethiopia, where approximately 90% of the people lack access to clean water, and only 7% have hygienic toilets. The burden of water collection is particularly high in Ethiopia. With no access to a safe water supply, women and girls collect water multiple times a day from distant sources, and carry it home in heavy containers weighing 40 pounds.

Our Ethiopia partner, Water Action, is working with rural communities to implement comprehensive water, sanitation, hygiene, and watershed protection programs.

Comprehensive and Integrated Systems

In order to have an impact on water supply, sanitation, health, natural resource protection, and the economy, our local partner develops a master plan for each watershed. Water1st is focused on implementing the plan for the Dawo Woreda, a county within the Oromia region. Projects are clustered geographically, resulting in compounded benefits. Communities can learn from one another, and a market emerges for supplies and spare parts.

Water Supply: Capped & Protected Springs, Drilled Wells, Piped Water

Projects use a capped and protected spring or a drilled well as the water source. Water is then pumped via miles of pipe to a storage tank and distributed by gravity to public water points. The water points are strategically located throughout the community to keep collection time under 15 minutes for all community members.

A water tap attendant opens each water point for a period of time in the morning and then again in the evening. Community members pay for the amount of water used, approximately 2 cents per 5 gallons.

Water systems are metered to assure quality control related to tap attendant fee collection and the swift identification of system leaks.

The Investment of Labor

Community members invest their labor in every stage of project construction. They are responsible for all unskilled labor, such as building access roads, excavating miles of pipeline trench by hand, carrying pipe, and building latrines.

Elected Water Boards

Households participating in the project elect a water management board, comprised of equal numbers of men and women. Each board is responsible for the ongoing operation of the water system, including collecting water fees and managing trained technicians who perform regular maintenance.


Sanitation is an important part of the health equation. Individual households are trained to construct their own latrines. The project goal is for 80% of households to have latrines by the time the water project is operating. Latrine design uses only locally-available and non pre-constructed materials in an effort to promote replication.

Hygiene Education

Community members conduct peer-to-peer hygiene education to further improve public-health conditions. Community hygiene promoters are trained to educate households about health and sanitation and the importance of clean water and latrines. Hygiene messages include: using the well water for all domestic purposes, washing hands frequently, and digging solid waste disposal pits in every yard.

Watershed Management

Where needed, projects incorporate watershed management activities that promote groundwater recharge and prevent soil erosion.

Population(s) Served

In an increasingly urbanizing world, perhaps Water1st’s most significant discovery has been Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK)—our smart, compassionate, and highly-motivated partner in Bangladesh. DSK has pioneered an extremely effective means of providing water, toilets, and hygiene education in the urban slum environment.

We began funding DSK in two slums areas in Dhaka in 2006. Since then, they have demonstrated the ability to scale up and spread out. With increased Water1st funding, DSK now implements hundreds of projects a year in Bangladesh’s three largest cities of Dhaka, Chittagong, and Khulna.

One of DSK’s brilliant moves has been incorporating micro-lending into its operations. Water systems and toilets are not given away. Users must repay the full construction cost to DSK over 1-2 years. Repayment rates have exceeded 96%. These repaid loans are then used to fund more projects. Currently, 49% of our annual budget for Bangladesh comes from repaid loans.

In 11 years, our partner in Bangladesh has completed 1,986 water projects with Water1st funding. Each project serves a small group of slum residents.

Population(s) Served

Water1st is proud to support COCEPRADIL, our outstanding local partner in Honduras, serving communities in Lempira, one of the poorest, most isolated regions of the country. COCEPRADIL is a cooperative composed of communities that have previously completed water and sanitation projects. The cooperative exists to assist communities with long-term system maintenance and to construct new systems for communities in need. The model is astonishingly effective. We believe the COCEPRADIL headquarters should be a learning center for development organizations around the world.

COCEPRADIL’s projects provide the highest level of service possible. Each household receives a water connection and a water-seal toilet. The communities invest an enormous amount of labor to complete the project. The investment always pays off. Households flourish and hygiene conditions improve dramatically when an ample supply of water is piped directly to the home. In a world full of uncertain outcomes, this is a sure bet.

- Receiving the first independent evidence-based evaluation from the Water for Life Rating System and scoring "Highly Recommended for Future Funding.”
-Mandating that all new projects incorporate household water meters.
-Establishing a loan program to help communities replace old infrastructure and add meters.
-Adapting their program to server larger rural town contexts.
-Expanding into new municipalities in northern Lempira.
-Collaboration with local government to provide back-up support to community Water Committees.

Population(s) Served

From 2005-2011, Water1st supported the implementation of 32 projects serving 13,650 people.  Water1st has provided grants to a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in West Bengal, India in order to support the implementation of projects that include provision of convenient, safe water, hygiene education, and sanitary toilets.

In Water First's India program, which serves subsistence fishing communities in rural West Bengal, beneficiaries pay 40 percent of the capital costs of their water supply and sanitation projects through a four-year revolving loan fund. 

In 2011, Water 1st decided not to fund the construction of new projects through our partner in the Sundarbans. However, our loan program continues and new water points and toilets are being constructed using revolving loan funds. We believe the existing projects are well-built and will be maintained in the future. We will continue to monitor the status of those existing projects and evaluate our options for the future. Our decision to end active funding of our India program was primarily based upon our conclusion that the India program was at capacity and was not likely to evolve further through our participation.

Population(s) Served

Water1st is fortunate to be in a position to extend our reach to Mozambique, where 80% of the population lacks access to water and toilets. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 180th out of 188 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.

After rigorously vetting potential partner organizations over the past two years, we have chosen to invest in Grupo de Saneamento de Bilibiza (GSB). GSB is a smart, compassionate, motivated, and resourceful organization working to help rural communities in the Quissanga District in northern Mozambique. Partner selection is paramount to our success. Not all implementing groups are equal. In addition to technical skills, GSB has the desire and ability to organize and mobilize people. GSB is also genuinely curious to know the actual outcomes of their work. When something doesn’t meet their expectations, they make an adjustment. This commitment to constant program improvement is a key characteristic we look for in our partner evaluation process.

Our partnership will provide GSB with sufficient financial support to develop a holistic water and sanitation approach tailored to their environment. Our goal is to realize success during this preliminary partnership, leading to establishing full partner status with GSB.

Poor sanitation conditions, lack of toilets, open defecation, and lack of water sources has resulted in unhygienic environments, fueling the spread of water and sanitation-related diseases, and contributing to high child and maternal mortality rates. Less than 1% of the Quissanga district population has access to piped water and 77% do not have sanitary toilets or latrines. Water sources range from poorly-sealed shallow wells to ponds and rivers, with women and girls fetching water more than 8 kilometers from their homes.

Approximately 90% of the Quissanga population practice subsistence agriculture. Markets for agricultural products are limited, making it difficult for families to generate income. In response to this challenge, GSB has formed farmers’ co-ops to increase productivity and shift cultivation to more marketable products. Even with assistance from GSB, farmers are still earning less than $1,000 per year.

In 2017, GSB expects to reduce the transmission of waterborne infectious diseases through the provision of water, sanitation, and hygiene-education services to the rural town of 19 de Outubro, population 1,600. This project will include piped water to households and the adoption of flush toilets, levels of service that are necessary to achieve the project’s goals. Alongside these interventions, GSB will embark on a public-health promotion campaign to encourage hygienic practices made possible by access to clean water and toilets.

Population(s) Served

Where we work


World Citizen Award 2015

World Affairs Council

Our results

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

How does this organization measure their results? It's a hard question but an important one.

Number of clients served

This metric is no longer tracked.
Totals By Year
Population(s) Served

Adults, Children and youth, Economically disadvantaged people, Victims of disaster

Related Program

Water, sanitation and hygiene education for poor communities

Type of Metric

Output - describing our activities and reach

Direction of Success


Context Notes

Water1st International has provided clean water to over 243,000 people since 2005. The variation in people served per year varies based on the schedule of large-scale water projects.

Goals & Strategy

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Learn about the organization's key goals, strategies, capabilities, and progress.

Charting impact

Four powerful questions that require reflection about what really matters - results.

Water1st aims to enable the world's poorest people to implement and sustain community-managed projects integrating clean water supply, toilets, and hygiene education. In doing so, illness is reduced, children (especially girls) are able to attend school, women are able to earn an income, and families are able to break out of the cycle of extreme poverty.

Our strategy for achieving our goals is based on five guiding principles:

1. Rather than jump from country to country to fund projects, we work with local, in-country non-governmental agencies who have a proven track record of implementing sustainable water projects and fund them consistently. Stable funding to our partners enables them to retain qualified and experienced staff so they can develop trusting relationships with local communities and leaders and engage in long-term strategic planning. This approach also allows us to efficiently saturate a region with water and sanitation projects.

2. We fund comprehensive, cost-effective projects — piped water systems, sanitary toilets, and hygiene-education projects. Our projects serve the whole community: homes, schools, health clinics, and community centers. Our partners prepare communities to operate and maintain their projects so they can sustain the health and productivity dividends that only a water and sanitation project can provide. One of the reasons we have selected our partners is that they have very good judgment about the specific technologies that users can operate, repair, and replace. Often that means investing in projects that have higher up-front capital costs but are much cheaper to operate over time. It also means that our partners often pass up on fancy new gadgets that haven't been proven in the field or haven't developed supply chains for service and replacement parts.

3. We follow up. We routinely visit our projects to evaluate our work, to hold our partners accountable, and to share and exchange knowledge. We make sure each project is providing the intended benefits and generating the best possible outcomes. You can be confident that your donation is spent wisely and is making a real difference in the lives of the people we serve.

4.There is also a philosophical value that we hold up — we start from a true place of respect for the people we assist. We believe poor people are their own best resource in escaping poverty and we support solutions based on their priorities. We listen, involve community members in every step of the process, and fund solutions that are most effective in the long run. Every poor community is rich in the most valuable resources – human intelligence and strength of spirit. We are successful because we invest in those resources and provide the poorest people in the world with an opportunity to accomplish something they see as critical to their own well-being.

5. On the fundraising side, we made a conscious decision to focus on grassroots funding. Too many organizations find themselves pursuing solutions that appeal to what donors want to do, versus solutions that actually address the needs and conditions of the beneficiaries. The stable funding provided by grassroots support maximizes the effectiveness of our international work. We think there is something powerful about our coming together to serve the needs of the world's poorest people.

As Water1st has grown, we've expanded our US-based staff to meet our outcome goals.

We depend primarily on grassroots fundraising because it's consistency allows us to reliably support our partners year after year.

Additionally, our success in fundraising over the last few years enabled us to search for a new local partner. We found an excellent one in Grupo de Saneamento de Bilibiza (GSB). We are in the process of identifying a new local partner now.

Since our founding, we have built over 3,209 projects serving over 243,244 people in Honduras, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India, and Mozambique.

How we listen

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Seeking feedback from people served makes programs more responsive and effective. Here’s how this organization is listening.

done We demonstrated a willingness to learn more by reviewing resources about feedback practice.
done We shared information about our current feedback practices.
  • Who are the people you serve with your mission?

    About 1 in 3 people doesn't have access to safe water. Over half of the world's population doesn't have access to a hygienic toilet. We work with people living in low-income communities worldwide who lack access to safe water and toilet to build piped water systems and toilets at every home, school, health clinic, and community gathering place—to prevent the spread of disease and improve quality of life.

  • How is your organization collecting feedback from the people you serve?

    Focus groups or interviews (by phone or in person), Community meetings/Town halls, Constituent (client or resident, etc.) advisory committees, meter readings and paid water fees are objective measures of value of our service,

  • How is your organization using feedback from the people you serve?

    To identify and remedy poor client service experiences, To identify bright spots and enhance positive service experiences, To make fundamental changes to our programs and/or operations, To inform the development of new programs/projects, To identify where we are less inclusive or equitable across demographic groups, To strengthen relationships with the people we serve, To understand people's needs and how we can help them achieve their goals,

  • What significant change resulted from feedback?

    Based on interviews with our clients and water sales/meter readings from shared public water points versus household water points in rural communities, we decided as an organization that we would focus on the provision of the highest service level - household water service. We found that households collecting water from shared distribution points used significantly less water - 25% or less – compared to families with a faucet in their homes. Families with a faucet in their homes were much more satisfied with their water systems and using safe water exclusively for domestic purposes such as drinking, cooking, bathing, and hand-washing. Less than 5% of projects in sub-Saharan Africa are piped water systems. Feedback from our clients was instrumental in leading us to make this change.

  • With whom is the organization sharing feedback?

    The people we serve, Our staff, Our board, Our funders, Our community partners, Other organizations working in the sector,

  • How has asking for feedback from the people you serve changed your relationship?

    Our entire model is built around listening to the needs of the people we serve and funding on the ground partners who are responsive to those needs. We believe that asking for feedback and using that feedback that has strengthened our relationships with our clients and our locally-based partner organizations. Feedback is also the reason for the very high longevity rate of our projects. We are building projects that our clients have told us they need and value. The projects we fund are designed to be independently owned and operated by the people who use them. Our clients know from day one that they are in the driver's seat with their projects. The rules and resources that allow that project to function over time are in their control entirely.

  • Which of the following feedback practices does your organization routinely carry out?

    We collect feedback from the people we serve at least annually, We take steps to get feedback from marginalized or under-represented people, We aim to collect feedback from as many people we serve as possible, We take steps to ensure people feel comfortable being honest with us, We look for patterns in feedback based on demographics (e.g., race, age, gender, etc.), We look for patterns in feedback based on people’s interactions with us (e.g., site, frequency of service, etc.), We engage the people who provide feedback in looking for ways we can improve in response, We act on the feedback we receive, We tell the people who gave us feedback how we acted on their feedback, We ask the people who gave us feedback how well they think we responded,

  • What challenges does the organization face when collecting feedback?

    We don't have any major challenges to collecting feedback,


Water First International

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The people, governance practices, and partners that make the organization tick.


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Connect with nonprofit leaders


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Water First International

Board of directors
as of 10/19/2021
SOURCE: Self-reported by organization
Board chair

Kristine Baty

No Affiliation

Term: 2021 - 2022

Marla Smith-Nilson

Water 1st Executive Director

Heather Leach

Private Wealth Advisor, Ameriprise Financial

Cecilia Whatley

Industrial Engineer

Terry Gibbons

Josh Epperson

Consultant, Navalent Consulting

Lara Kammereck

Project Manager, Carollo Engineers

Dick Moxon

Retired International Business Professor

Lynn Carr

Marketing Consultant

Julia Clarke


Tim Kirley

Financial Services

Diane Langstraat

Finance Consultant

Board leadership practices

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

GuideStar worked with BoardSource, the national leader in nonprofit board leadership and governance, to create this section.

  • Board orientation and education
    Does the board conduct a formal orientation for new board members and require all board members to sign a written agreement regarding their roles, responsibilities, and expectations? Yes
  • Ethics and transparency
    Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year? Yes
  • Board composition
    Does the board ensure an inclusive board member recruitment process that results in diversity of thought and leadership? Yes
  • Board performance
    Has the board conducted a formal, written self-assessment of its performance within the past three years? No

Organizational demographics

SOURCE: Self-reported; last updated 10/19/2021

Who works and leads organizations that serve our diverse communities? GuideStar partnered on this section with CHANGE Philanthropy and Equity in the Center.


The organization's leader identifies as:

Race & ethnicity
Gender identity
Female, Not transgender (cisgender)
Sexual orientation
Heterosexual or Straight
Disability status
Person without a disability

Race & ethnicity

No data

Gender identity

No data


No data

Sexual orientation

No data


No data