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An Event at Columbia That Built a Bridge Between a Global Organization and SPS Students

Last week, Matt Damon and Gary White, cofounders of Water.org and WaterEquity, joined President Minouche Shafik at a Columbia University World Leaders Forum event, “Social Innovation: Sourcing Capital for Global Challenges.” The event was cosponsored by the School of Professional Studies’ M.S. in Nonprofit Management program along with Columbia Business School, Columbia Climate School, Columbia Entrepreneurship and Design, and Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.

“There’s no other institution on the planet that can serve as a convening force like Columbia in New York City, and this event is an example of bringing people together to talk about ideas that will change the world,” said Troy Eggers, dean of Columbia University School of Professional Studies (SPS). “The University’s mission is to create knowledge and learning at the highest level and convey the products of those efforts to the world. That happens every day at SPS.”

Sarah Holloway, interim program director of the M.S. in Nonprofit Management program, introduced the panelists. Damon and White spoke about how they’d noticed that people, mostly women, in poor communities around the globe were spending all day traveling to get safe, drinkable water for their families. With the communities’ input, Damon and White came up with market solutions, like microloans, to help solve this problem.

Together, Water.org and WaterEquity helped provide more than 12.7 million microloans, mobilizing more than $4.6 billion reaching 58 million people with lasting access to safe water or sanitation. Not only are these solutions sustainable, they are positively impacting women’s lives. “The most exciting thing about this entire idea is that 90% of the borrowers are women, and the loans pay back at 98% and above,” said Damon. “By nudging the market towards these women and then getting out of the way, they solve their own problems.”

Matt Damon and President Minouche Shafik

Several M.S. in Nonprofit Management courses have incorporated Damon and White’s book The Worth of Water: Our Story of Chasing Solutions to the World's Greatest Challenge into their curricula. The goal is to highlight human design thinking and how one organization has employed impact investing to provide access to safe water and sanitation to people living in poverty. 

Last spring, the program hosted an on-campus book talk with White. The World Leaders Forum event was a continuation of that discussion and a result of the relationship the M.S. in Nonprofit Management program built with White and Damon and the Water.org and WaterEquity teams. 

“Connecting organizations like Water.org and WaterEquity is at the heart of what we do at SPS in our Nonprofit Management program,” said Holloway. “The organizations get to meet our students with their valuable expertise and experience, and our students are exposed to organizations that are working on projects around the world. Both students and organizations benefit.”

“Thank you for the opportunity to share why the climate crisis is a water crisis. We attended several events over the course of the week and the one at Columbia was a favorite,” said Michael Mayernik, head of Corporate Partnerships at Water.org. “The audience asked informed, intelligent questions. They demonstrated an understanding of the role water plays in every major global challenge and that investments in water are critical to building more resilient communities around the world.”

Learn more about the M.S. in Nonprofit Management program.

Watch the video of the full event here.