At WaterAid America, CEO Sarina Prabasi leads a small team with a big footprint

Human Element

By Tina Irgang

Since taking over as CEO of WaterAid America in May 2014, Sarina Prabasi has left her mark on the organization, spearheading two acquisitions of other nonprofits, deepening the impact of existing programs and helping shepherd a crucial piece of legislation through Congress. Prabasi, a native of Nepal who now calls New York home, is also a passionate evangelist for WaterAid’s mission: Making sure all women have access to clean water and sanitation, so they are free to pursue their education and careers.

How did you come to join WaterAid? What interested you about the organization?

Prabasi: I’ve always worked on global and international development issues, and I started my career in that area. I had worked on education and health in particular, and I was at the time working in Ethiopia. I saw a role for WaterAid being advertised, and I just found it intriguing. It was a leadership role for leading the Ethiopia operations, so I applied and was selected for the position.

Sarina Prabasi during her time as a country representative for WaterAid in Ethiopia, 2010.

I remember when I was applying that I felt slightly worried about going from working on multiple issues to working in one area — water and sanitation. Now I realize that water and sanitation interconnect with all the other areas I’ve worked on and care passionately about —  women’s issues, health, education, environment.

I worked as the country representative for Ethiopia for five years, and then as a family we moved to New York. I did some consulting and did some other work, mainly internationally focused, and then this role here at WaterAid America came up as the previous CEO was retiring.

Did you have any differences in vision compared to the previous CEO?

Prabasi: I think it’s kind of an iterative process. The founding CEO was two CEOs ago, and the issues she faced were very much about starting up, finding a board of directors, getting all the registration and growing it from a seed. Then the CEO who followed her, his job was about gaining credibility for the organization, and by the time I came on board two and a half years ago, I felt my job was to grow and scale the mission and focus on having more impact in our area.

So in that, we have grown our presence in Latin America from a small pilot program in Nicaragua. … In the last two and a half years, we’ve also had two examples where we’ve acquired smaller organizations, one related to our work in Nicaragua, one to work in Colombia, which is our newest country. So it’s about deepening the impact in the countries where we are, but also expanding our base here in the U.S.

I think for the U.S., water is such a timely issue now too, and people who maybe previously weren’t able to connect to it in a personal way are able to connect to it because of the very unfortunate things that have happened here and will continue to happen regarding access to safe water. Again, it’s one of those things that connect us. So if you can feel it in some way in your own sphere, then perhaps you feel connected with other people around the world who are struggling with clean water and sanitation.

WaterAid’s mission is to use clean water and sanitation to empower women to pursue their education and careers. Who was the most powerful influence encouraging your own professional development?

Prabasi: It’s really my parents. I think that they’ve had the biggest influence from an early date. I grew up in a very patriarchal society — a very unequal society even. And so in some ways, [it was] the role my dad played in creating the space for me to do what I wanted; the fact that he always really insisted on treating my brother and I the same, and both of our wishes and dreams as valid. My mom too. So I’d say the earliest and to this day most influential people in terms of my career and personal goals are my parents.

Prabasi

Prabasi (center) visits a WaterAid project in Nicaragua, 2015.

You have a leadership team of mostly female CEOs across several countries. What is the rationale behind that leadership structure, and how does it work?

Prabasi: We’re part of a global federation. There’s WaterAid America led by me, WaterAid Canada led by my colleague Nicole [Hurtubise], then WaterAid UK, Sweden, Australia, etc. It’s not by design that we have said all these CEOs must be women, but I think it does say something about the organization that five out of seven CEOs are women, which is unusual in both for-profit and nonprofit settings. I feel very proud that I work for an organization where this is the case.

Often in our work, we talk about women’s leadership. Women are often stewards of the water, they’re decision makers around how water is used, and their time is spent — or wasted — in this very arduous process of collecting water, and walking for miles. But it’s also great that many of our country programs are led by women country representatives and country directors, and many of our offices are led by women CEOs. I think that speaks to the kind of organization we are.

How do you collaborate with the other CEOs?

Prabasi: We have calls regularly, maybe once a month or every six weeks, in addition to one-on-one conversations. Then we meet in person once or twice a year at the WaterAid international board meetings. When the board meetings happen, the CEOs join the board chairs. I’ll travel with my board chair and the other CEOs will travel with theirs. So we have these two points in the year where we have a face-to-face. That is also extremely productive time. It allows us to share our experiences of what is going well or what is not. It allows us to share that maybe we’ve solved something somebody else is struggling with. I feel very comfortable in raising not only the good news, but also things that are worrying and challenging me, and I think we provide a nice sounding board for each other, as well as really practical experience to draw on.

What is your proudest achievement at WaterAid so far?

Prabasi: I think the nonprofit M&A is something that I’m very proud of. The social purpose and the mission we’re trying to accomplish was really guiding that decision, rather than other considerations. And obviously in a nonprofit, it’s not the finances guiding it, it’s not that it was more profitable that way — it was more about increasing the scale and impact of our work, and being able to put that in front of other considerations. So I’m really proud of the way those two processes took place.

WaterAid

A 13-year-old boy washes his hands in front of WaterAid toilets at an elementary school in Papua New Guinea.

I’m also incredibly proud of our small team here. We’re in New York and DC, and it’s a team that is small in number but not in spirit. They’re very dynamic, very entrepreneurial, very creative, and it’s a joy to work with people like that.

Where do you see WaterAid’s future? How would you like to see the organization grow?

Prabasi: To me, the growth is in the impact that we have rather than the size that we are, and so I don’t have a vision for growth in the sense of growth for growth’s sake, where we go from 20 to 40 people or our budgets will triple. Maybe they will, but I think the real test will be how much WaterAid here in the U.S. is contributing to this global goal we have of reaching everyone with clean water and sanitation by 2030. That’s a global goal that many organizations have signed up to.

If we’re able to shift a policy or if we’re able to change somebody else’s approach — and that may be a much bigger organization than us — that is equally a big success. A couple of years ago, WaterAid, with others, but we were really instrumental in passing something called the Water for the World Act. It’s a piece of legislation that was passed with full bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, which is unusual as you know, so this was a big deal. It didn’t increase our budget, it didn’t change how many people we have, but it was a big influence we had on the way that the U.S. government spends money on water and sanitation overseas, and the goals that the USAID has to have and what their water strategy has to say. So it’s just an illustration of the way that some of our evidence-based policy work and advocacy work is really driving us toward our goals.

How does WaterAid’s mission extend into the workplace?

Prabasi: We have very high standards in terms of the results and delivery we expect from our team, but at the same time, we’re a majority female staff, and I’m quite proud of creating a work environment where our female staff of different age groups can really thrive and have the flexibility that they need in order to really do the best that they can. I think that really shows through in the work of our team.

WaterAid

Three young girls pose with a new toilet block outside their school in Uganda.

We do provide a degree of flexibility, and little things — like if staff are expected to attend a number of networking events or receptions, which tend to be in the evening, we’ll cover things like child care. Our work also requires a lot of international travel, and that puts additional demand on your staff, especially if they have young children at home. It’s a parental issue, not only a female issue, but it’s one that we’re very conscious of in terms of providing the space for staff to excel.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.