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How WaterAid is learning to model good leadership during a crisis

24 Sep 2020 By Jenny Roper

The humanitarian organisation is working to build on its strong culture despite the challenges this year has brought

Ask someone to visualise the average charity office, and it will likely be a far cry from the gleaming tower blocks of London’s Canary Wharf. Yet this is exactly where global not-for-profit WaterAid landed a couple months ago – becoming the first major charity to do so.

Far from a sign of misspent funding, the space represents a “substantial” saving on its former Vauxhall office, explains director of people and OD Rachel Westcott. But it still had to have the right vibe for its 350 UK employees and those visiting. “We did all the number crunching around cost, travel times and rents – all of that logical stuff that showed it to be the strongest option when our lease expired – then I just sat in the reception for an hour and thought: can I imagine WaterAiders here? And it felt right,” she says.

This feel is crucial. Despite being comprised of 1,200 employees spread across 35 countries, WaterAid’s culture is distinct. “I’ve talked to a number of trustees who’ve said they haven’t worked with another organisation that lives its values quite like WaterAid,” says Westcott, highlighting the organisation’s fifth place ranking in the large category of this year’s UK Best Workplaces.

Of course, this year has presented the ultimate test. The opening of the new office in mid-September with a small number of socially distanced staff was inevitably a far cry from that originally planned for June. But supporting UK employees to home work has been only a small part of the Covid challenge: “In many countries, staff had never worked from home. So setting them up with the right facilities across Africa and Asia – and providing resources on resilience, stress management and managing from a distance – was a priority.” 

But the biggest impact was for country programme staff helping communities access clean water and good hygiene practices – work that became even more vital in the face of a highly infectious virus. “There are still around 785 million people without access to clean water close to their home; it’s an outrageous crisis,” says Westcott. “Which is particularly relevant now of course in this pandemic. How can you wash your hands regularly if you don’t have water?” So workers on the ground had to quickly divert attention to communicating hygiene messages remotely, such as via local radio. 

“The big shift was: how do we safely enable those employees to go back out to get water into communities while ensuring we don’t take the virus to those communities? We’re not a humanitarian agency so our staff aren’t used to working in high-risk environments. And the lockdowns in some countries ended quite quickly because economically they couldn’t be sustained, even though the pandemic was far from over. So we’ve done lots of work on mandatory procedures and guidance to help local teams do risk assessments and stay safe.”

Less immediately urgent, but still critical, has been adapting WaterAid’s leadership development programme to be delivered fully virtually. The programme has been running for two years and is titled Accelerate to 2030, in line with WaterAid’s overarching, ambitious goal of water sanitation and hygiene for everyone everywhere by 2030 – which aligns with the UN’s commitment to alleviate poverty by then. It sees participants receive individual coaching but also come together for a four-day event (now virtually) to tackle a real, live strategic challenge. “We say the water crisis is a crisis of leadership, so if we’re advocating for good leadership we better do it ourselves,” says Westcott. “Through the programme we’re trying to confront reality and have more courageous conversations, think big and act fast where some of our decision-making processes are slowing us down. Of course the current circumstances are requiring that of us all the time.”

As for many other organisations, events in the US and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests presented another important area needing attention at a busy time. Issues of equality and fairness have always been “at the heart” of what the charity does – particularly being mindful of the dynamic between the global north (typically the fundraisers) and the global south (the fund receivers). One action taken some time ago on this was moving away from a dual-pay system whereby expats enjoyed different salaries and benefits to local workers (WaterAid is still one of the few charities to have done this).

In response to this year’s events, it implemented an intensive listening and education exercise, with a resources centre on its intranet and sessions run by an external facilitator “to help us understand what we need to do to be anti-racist as individuals and an organisation”. “I haven’t had anyone come to me and say it’s all awful at WaterAid, but when some people start sharing their experience you realise there are things you just hadn’t been as aware of as you might be,” says Westcott. So it was important not to rush the listening stage, with the organisation now moving towards a carefully considered action plan.

Action is very much the name of the game though – here and with all activities. Whenever bureaucracy threatens to overwhelm the bigger picture, Westcott thinks of a volunteer community leader she met in Nepal. “He was in his 60s and said to me: ‘WaterAid has explained the importance of good hygiene and it’s changed our lives. You need to tell everybody.’ So when you’re getting a bit stuck in the mud, that helps you say: ‘No, let’s keep our eyes on these communities; what would they be saying to us?’ They’d be saying: ‘Get on with it – this is an urgent crisis.’”

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