WaterAid Australia founders share origin story

3 min read
WaterAid Australia Chief Executive Rosie Wheen with founders Grant Hill and Tony Kelly
Image: WaterAid

It’s unlikely you’ll ever hear Coles thanking Woolworths or Coke crediting their success to Pepsi, but the not-for-profit sector is a bit different when it comes to organisations working in the same space. For WaterAid Australia and other not-for-profit organisations working in international development, you’re far more likely to hear about partners and allies than competitors, especially when it comes to developing solutions to reduce inequality.

This is nothing new for WaterAid Australia, whose strategy of partnering and collaborating with like-minded organisations is deeply embedded in the organisation’s DNA. In a wide-ranging interview with current Chief Executive Rosie Wheen, WaterAid Australia’s founders Grant Hill and Tony Kelly credit organisations within both the water industry and the international aid and development sector for helping to get WaterAid started in Australia.

Grant, whose career has seen him work at TEAR Australia, World Vision and Oxfam, was the driving force behind WaterAid Australia’s inception by bringing multiple non-government organisations (NGOs) together. “WaterAid began out of an existing campaign organised by roughly 30-40 Australian development organisations that came together around 2002-03 to highlight the issues of dirty water and a lack of toilets causing disease and death in countries all over the world,” Grant recalls.

Tony, who became WaterAid Australia’s inaugural Chairman, was similarly instrumental in the early days of WaterAid, building support for Grant’s campaign among the water industry. “People in the water industry have a strong social conscience and a green tinge, and also intuitively understand the value of clean drinking water and sanitation,” Tony says. “It just rang true and Grant got a great response right from the very get go.”

Grant and Tony’s work uniting two sectors behind a shared vision earned them high praise, with then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressing his support for the organisation’s unique model. “It was the first NGO in Australia that had the backing of an entire industry, that being the water industry. He (Downer) loved the model and I think he saw it as a possible precedent for other NGOs,” Tony explains.

Grant and Tony also acknowledge WaterAid UK for taking a risk on Australia, making it a member of what then became a global organisation. “WaterAid UK at the time… thought of themselves pretty much as a British charity (but) we very much from the start thought this was a very strong brand with enormous international potential,” Tony says.

It was perhaps a premonition; in the last decade, the global WaterAid federation has opened member offices all over the world, including Sweden, Canada, Japan and India. If it wasn’t for the ambition of advocacy from Hill and Kelly, it’s possible this never would have happened.

Watch the video above for more of Grant Hill and Tony Kelly’s reflections from WaterAid’s early days, or visit this link to watch the abridged version.