The best part of hosting this podcast is that it’s one more way we can empower nonprofits to do more good. This episode is a prime example of the powerful ways we can all grow when we share knowledge about everything from nonprofit strategies to self-care techniques.
Our guest, Justin Narducci, is the CEO of Lifewater International. Prior to leading Lifewater, Justin served as a Vice President of an Africa-based ministry that worked with local churches to meet physical and spiritual needs of street children and slum dwellers. He has an MBA in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management and worked for The Boeing Company in its international business unit.
In this episode, Justin offers his strategy for remaining focused, simplifying reports and working towards accomplishments instead of activity.
Key Takeaways from This Week’s Episode
Most memorable insights from Justin include:
- Most nonprofits struggle with being focused. To make the biggest impact, pick a single focus and say no to everything else.
- Distill complex information into a simple reporting system. Look at early steps in your process to predict what your success and failures will be.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your donors to understand your unique value proposition and your best path forward.
- Start with a theory for the impact you want to make, then build the program. It will help with focus, growth and donor retention.
- Connect your donors to the cause or project you’re working on. Don’t worry about putting your name everywhere, just make the change.
Full Podcast Transcript
Gabe Cooper: Hey, everybody. Today we have Justin Narducci on the podcast. Justin’s the CEO of Lifewater. Lifewater’s reached 2.5 million people with clean, lifesaving water. Justin’s married to his high school sweetheart. He’s a father of three, and his family lives in San Luis Obispo, California.
Hey, Justin. Thanks so much for joining the podcast today.
Justin Narducci: Hey, Gabe. Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
GC: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s just jump right into it here. You ended up at Lifewater a couple of years ago now, I think. Tell me a little bit about how you ended up at Lifewater, what got you interested in clean water, and what you’ve been up to there.
JN: Sure. Actually, I’m from Gilbert, so I’m from your neck of the woods, which is-
GC: That’s right. That’s right.
JN: -where all great water professionals come from. I’m sure you’ve seen that happen over time. Yeah. Long story short, I studied economic development at Thunderbird and really wanted to get into working with our world’s poorest economies and actually felt a conviction to do that.
And, as I studied more and more of those things, I saw that there were a lot of products that were being provided to families that were economically disadvantaged that were to treat preventative diseases, things that don’t necessarily have to be causing them to be sick.
And so I became really interested in grassroots public health movements that address these primary health concerns and did it in a cost effective way. Once you start moving the pieces of that onion off, you begin to see that water, sanitation, hygiene, these really basic things, are at the root of that.
That’s how I originally got interested in community health, public health. Then there’s a long story of how I ended up at Lifewater, but that’s the general background of how I got interested in this type of topic.
The thing that’s interesting about water is water’s just one part of the disease pathway. When you address the root issue of clean water in a village, if the community doesn’t use that water safely or they don’t store it safely or they don’t wash their hands or treat their feces properly, the benefit of the clean or safe water is really mitigated significantly.
What we’ve tried to do is build a whole ecosystem of health-related water and sanitation hygiene. In the broader spectrum of our peers, we call it a WASH program, which is water access, sanitation, hygiene. That’s what we do, is address water-borne disease broadly while improving access to safe water.
Finding A Focus for Your Nonprofit
GC: That’s great. I love that. It’s always fun to hear the narrow focus of an organization that promotes a really clean, clear message, but then being able to back that into more holistic, long-term real results, which is good. One of-
JN: Can I say something about that too?
GC: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
JN: Sorry. I know I shouldn’t be interrupting the host, but one of the things that I think nonprofits really struggle with is being focused and being excellent at what they’re focused in. I know it’s hard because people like us want to address a multitude of issues.
In all the communities where we serve, there’s a lot of issues. Whether it’s early childhood education for kids, girls, or economic empowerment, it’s hard to go, “Okay, we’re going to do this one thing, we’re going to do it really well, and create a specialization in it and say no to everything else.”
I think it’s the Hedgehog Concept that Collins talks about in business books. But there’s a very strong pull towards doing more things. I think what we’ve really tried to do is just be focused and realize we can’t do it all, but the things we can do, we can do extraordinarily well because we are focused. That make sense?
GC: Yeah. Oh, I love that. I love that Jim Collins Hedgehog Concept, and glad you brought that up. One of the most interesting things, I think, about you is you were a Thunderbird guy and a Boeing guy, and you went from there to the nonprofit space, which it’s an interesting path compared to a lot of folks.
I’d love to hear a little bit about some of the things that you brought from the business world, from just the excellence that you see at a Boeing or a Thunderbird, some of those principles that you’ve been able to leverage at Lifewater.
Use Measurable Metrics for Growth
JN: Great question. The thing that’s interesting about the business world is we look for very clear measurables. At Boeing, I worked at the facility in Mesa, and it was really simple. We have this very complicated product, which is the helicopter, and a very complicated way of producing it with a lot of engineers. And, yet, you would go to these meetings and there would be color-coded charts that showed whether we were on time, off schedule, off budget, and it was basically red, yellow, green.
You have this highly complicated engineering environment and we’re literally looking at stoplight charts. I think that ability to distill the complicated into the simple is really important for a leader, whether it’s nonprofit or an organization like yours, where you’re trying to produce a product that people want.
And so what we tried to do was take the ethos of clarity and transparency, not so much in the obfuscation of truth, but in the actual having a metric and performing to the metric, and simplifying it so that it was easy to tell if we were on target or off target. We do a lot of metric management here, but, ultimately, we look at a lot of different assets of the organization and we simply try to color code whether we are off target, on target, or exceeding target.
Things like, in our world, we look at, obviously, water projects completed, but we’re also looking at earlier indicators of those things, the pieces that lead up to the completion of a project where the community has to participate, and are we off plan or on plan or behind, and then we discuss why we do that.
And the cool thing about that is we’ve distilled that all the way down to the field level. Our field staff, who are in bush Africa, look at these charts with us every quarter and we have a discussion, just like you would at a Boeing, of why are we off plan, why are we on plan, what could we be doing better? And so this continuous improvement or continuous dialog using data and metrics from basically Timbuktu distilled together at headquarters is the same exact principle we did at Boeing, but we’re doing it with water sanitation projects and that kind of stuff.
I think there’s a lot of discussion around managing the metrics and things like that, but, ultimately, if you have a propensity for data and analyzing data, you can do it even with staff that are 8,000 miles away and simplify it in such a way that it’s meaningful for everybody, we can learn from it, we can course correct when necessary, and we don’t have to wait three years for a project to end to go, oh, wow, we really missed the boat on XYZ.
I think, for us, we’ve incorporated real-time data information and management rhythms to look at that data and to simplify it to red, yellow, green coloring and to incorporate our field teams in that analysis and then observing what’s going on in real life to really determine if we’re on course or off course.
We basically stole a lot of the Boeing meeting rhythms and dashboards and incorporated that into our own unique ethos with field staff who have never seen anything like this. This is like a whole new planet and they love it. They love the discussion.
We first go, “Is this really what’s happening in your community or is this data wrong?” That’s the first question. Then, after, it’s like, “Oh, no, that’s really what’s happening. That’s great.” Okay. What could be better, what are we doing really well, and how do we continuously improve and learn from that? At the end of the day, I think it’s about bringing clarity to the service you’re providing and then using the data to analyze that and continue to have conversations about it.
GC: That’s brilliant. Man, I love that. One of the things we find so often is that nonprofits don’t face the same market pressure that a Boeing or a for-profit company does. As a result, they have the tendency to meander and, before too long, they can’t even tell you what finish line they’re running to, much less their progress to that finish line. They can’t even tell you what the goal or metric is, much less if they’re achieving it. I love that the transparency and the simplicity of just what is the goal and a red, yellow, green, let’s all look at that together objectively. It’s so needed at a lot of organizations. So-
JN: I think one of the reasons … Sorry, Gabe, I cut you off.
GC: No, go ahead.
It’s Ok to Be Competitive with Your Strategy
JN: We are actually in a pretty competitive space, for us specifically, I think there’s about 600 water-type organizations in the United States alone, not including Australia or Europe, and then only about half of those would be faith-based or Christian, like us, so we’re competing just every day with 300 people that, in some form or another, do a similar portion of what we do.
In a sense, it’s healthy. It’s healthy and it’s good to have competition like that and I think, when you get pigeonholed into a specific sector, there is more pressure than it would be if you were just doing some local rescue mission and you were the only one providing that service.
GC: That’s great.
JN: I know the World Vision guys and the Compassion guys, they have a lot of pressure because they’re all trying to do child sponsorship. They are competing, and that’s not a bad thing. I think it makes us all better, as long as we’re not jerks to each other about it.
Leverage Your Donors to Make the Right Changes
GC: That’s right. Oh, that’s great. Okay. I know a lot of this stuff, even the thinking around business in Boeing, has been new to Lifewater. Part of the deal is when you joined Lifewater, I don’t know how to put it in another way, but it was a bit of a turnaround. It was an older organization who was maybe floundering a little bit. I’d love to hear you talk about what the organization was like when you got there and then the things that have changed since you’ve been there for good and bad, honestly, but walk me through what that’s been like.
JN: The last five years of my life. Yeah, I came into this opportunity with eyes wide open, and Lifewater had been around 35 years, so very well-known, well-regarded organization. Just like companies, organizations go through life cycles and sometimes you hit it and sometimes you miss it. And when you miss it, it can mean you go out of business just like any company can go out of business.
So Lifewater had gone through — it was an early adopter of many principles that we do now, and then in the mid to late 2000s, I think just chose a different path and probably missed it. I wasn’t here, I don’t know what those decisions were, none of that stuff really matters. Basically, if you fast-forward to 2012, we were in a position where we had the unique opportunity to re-identify our path forward and they wanted to bring someone in with some new vision and some new energy and some new ideas. At that point, we had phased out of a lot of our programs. We were in waiting mode.
And so I was like, okay. We’re going to come into this eyes wide open and know that we’re basically reinventing the machine here, and so we did. When I came in, there were about 26 staff the year before me and, when I came in, there about six, and we had gone from revenue of two and a half million to, I think, we were just about 1.3, so about half.
JN: The base was gone and, I think, probably even worse, people thought we were out of business. It was like whatever communication had happened, it was like, “Things aren’t good,” and then you don’t hear from us for a while, so you assume that things are really not good.
I knew the first hundred days are really important. You talk about the first hundred days of a presidency or the first hundred days of a new CEO coming, that’s classic management theory. You set the course, you set the vision, set the strategy. And, honestly, I came in the first hundred days and I was like, “Oh, my, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” because all of our programs had ended. We didn’t really have a strong theory of change. We were really sinking.
One of the things that we did that I think was really beneficial, two things, the first one was I went and visited all of the major funders who had invested in Lifewater over some time and basically reacquainted myself.
I knew a lot of them, but a lot of them I didn’t, and reacquainted myself and said, “We’re going to be doing a rebuilding and it’s probably going to be messy for a couple years, so we’d love for you to support that mess as we create that and give us a little bit of runway as we re-identify the path forward.” And what is our unique value proposition? What is the unique thing we could contribute to the space so we’re not just recreating another water organization that is out there making noise. But we knew it was going to take time. It wasn’t like that was going to happen overnight, and we needed to really assess what we had going and what we needed to stop doing and what we needed to restart doing.
Start with the Theory, Then Build the Program
JN: And then the second thing we did was we brought in some new talent. We worked really hard to secure some capacity grants, which is basically VC for nonprofits, and we started rebuilding our programs team first. We brought in this great lady, her name’s Pam.
Pam has a PhD in water resources, has been in Africa for a while, and we just said, “Okay, hold on. Let’s look at what we’re doing and let’s look at what we think should be done in the sector and let’s create what we call our theory of change.” Theory of change is basically how do you believe change happens? And once you identify that, then you build a program structure that supports that theory.
A lot of times, in the nonprofit world, we do a lot of activities. We’re out building toilets, we’re out building water, but we don’t necessarily get to the root of how do we believe communities change, how do we believe that change happens among very poor people in Africa or Asia, because they’re different.
And so we started at the theory part and then we built out our program structures to support that theory. We call it our Vision of a Healthy Village. If you go to our website, it’s animated and you see how the different actors play in the village. But that took us two years to build out, and then we rolled it out. When we rolled it out, we field-tested it the first time just like you would if you were bootstrapping a product.
You would roll it out, do a soft launch, field-test it, modify it, and now we’re building it at scale in year five. It took us five years to really get to a place where we feel like we have something that’s scalable, which, for me, I was totally impatient about. I wanted it to move faster.
But I think we built it the right way and we were able to find the right people who believed enough in what we were building to fund it during the scary time, which is a challenge in and of itself, because we easily could have run out of money, and you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation today. I think securing some funding for you to do the research and to build something that really does matter is pretty important and, in many ways, it’s a lot like a startup.
You have to have VC, you have to have cash, to get the right talent at the table to bring the vision to life, to test it, to modify it, to relaunch to scale. That’s a very common business cycle and, in nonprofits, oftentimes we don’t have the benefit of getting that cash to do that. I think going after those resources, those few funders at the beginning who really believed in the vision of what we were trying to build here, probably, by God’s grace, allowed us to still be here-
GC: That’s great.
JN: -and doing what we’re doing five years later at a much higher level.
A New Fundraising and Marketing Strategy for Nonprofits
GC: That’s great. It sounds like some incredibly transparent conversations with major donors to recast the vision and to invite folks into the mess, as you said, which I love, and then some capacity building grants.
I’d love for you to talk a little bit about, over the last five years as you guys have righted the ship, what else has changed in your fundraising strategy advancement and marketing? How has that shifted?
The way we see the world here is that a lot has changed in the last 15 years in just fundraising in general, and so you guys are trying to get a ship turned, at the same time, entering a brave new world of fundraising in general. I’d love to hear a little bit about the other unique things you guys are doing in that space.
JN: I’ll give you all our secrets here, Gabe.
GC: That’s perfect.
JN: Well, I think there’s some trends like you talked about. There’s some major trends that are happening and all we’re trying to do is figure out how that trend applies to what we’re doing here. I think one of the major trends that we see out there is what I would call farm-to-table. You live in a utopian neighborhood, where you guys grow your own food-
GC: Yes, I do.
JN: -and hunt and gather.
GC: That’s right.
JN: And there’s a rightful demand for that type of activity. Where’s my food coming from? What are the ingredients in my … I think there’s some transparency in our consumer behavior that is a major trend that also affects fundraising.
For example, I think we used to be, maybe 15 years ago let’s just say, end of 15 years ago, it used to be trust the institution. Trust Lifewater, we’ll do what’s best with your money. Support our campaign. Support us in what we’re doing. I think, now, we take a backseat to the project. I would say, “Okay, look, we have this project in Iantu’s village. Help Iantu and his village complete this water project,” and Lifewater itself is probably in the background, and that’s more of values alignment, trust building. Is this organization trustworthy? But that’s more of a secondary question to the primary, which is does this project align with something that I care about, and I understand the story or plight of that person?
I think that would be farm-to-table trend, and I don’t see that going away. I think HEVA has really helped push that forward, which is, hey, here’s the person you’re helping fund and the institution of HEVA is behind the scenes, even though they do incredible work. They’re behind the scenes playing second fiddle to that lady who’s got a shop, and the lady that has got the shop, you get the update from the lady who’s got the shop. HEVA’S making all that happen in the background, which is an incredible amount of work.
Child sponsorship does the same thing. Child sponsorship is funding incredible community development projects. You don’t know about the community development projects that are happening for that kid, but you connect with a kid, your family prays for that kid, you guys write letters to that kid. That kid is who you connect with and the World Vision or Compassion is more of a values alignment, so do they have the same values that we have?
I think we’re in an era where the institution is not trustworthy anymore, whether it’s government, nonprofit, even the company. People are interested in the product, from a consumption side, or the project, from a nonprofit side. I think the challenge is how do you balance that tension without creating destructive activities in communities that ultimately harm people? Some of that can get pretty out of control, and you can end up doing things that really harm the very people you’re trying to help by turning them into projects and stuff like that.
There’s a tension that has to be managed there, but I know that the insatiable desire for people to choose is not going away, and for them to connect with the person they’re actually helping is not going away either. How you organize your activities as a nonprofit to create those buckets of things that people can participate in is a significant challenge for everyone, I think.
Always Prioritize Transparency
GC: Man, I love that, and I think it creates value in a couple of different areas. One is that we’re in a world where, you’re right, people don’t trust institutions and so getting the institution out of the way and connecting the donor directly to the thing that’s actually happening and the value is just necessary in the world where we live in.
But I also think that that ultimately creates this really nice level of accountability with the nonprofit itself, where the impact isn’t obfuscated in a way where … just throwing money down a bucket, I don’t know what’s happening. It’s that level of transparency, I think, is really healthy all around. That’s great. I love that.
JN: It’s hard work. It’s hard work, and a plug for your software, but it requires a lot of software because, in our world, if you think about where we serve, if you just look at Lifewater and we’re talking about rural, remote villages. To connect someone to someone in a rural, remote village with any level of regularity or value, we already have a field-based system and that field-based system that uses GPS coordinates, we have a hard time just getting those guys internet so that that information gets to your headquarters. Then, honestly, my next meeting is how we’re going to get the internet to southeastern Ethiopia.
GC: This is awesome.
JN: We’re using satellite. It isn’t working. You have to get that information into headquarters, and then you have to create that information and connect it with a CRM that actually connects to the donor and gives the donor the information that they would like to have. I don’t think it’s too much for them to ask for that, but how do you manage that information?
And sometimes I feel like I’m a CTO, because I’m like how do we get this field data to connect with CRM data, and to really think about systems in ways that could scale when you’re getting this information from— it’s not like it’s down the street. It’s not like I can go take a picture on my iPhone and get that guy’s profile.
There’s some pretty significant levels of complexity to the data management stuff, which is why having a great CRM is a nonstarter for me. I think it’s like the table stakes of the nonprofit world. If you don’t have a great CRM, I don’t know how you’re going to build a tribe of people that want to help you do what you do.
How Can Technology Improve Your Nonprofit Strategies
GC: Yeah. I’m not going to argue with you there.
JN: Yeah, I had a feeling.
GC: Yeah. I’ve told this story before, but it’s a story my dad always tells, is my dad and mom were working in an orphanage and school in Tanzania. They’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and literally 15 miles from anything. Driving along this road, there’s a Maasai standing there with a spear in one hand, no joke, and a Android phone in the other hand.
And so it was just indicative of the world we live in, as I think this is really the first time in history where we really have the ability to start measuring this impact in real time. Now, it’s the wild west. Nobody’s quite figured it out yet, but the infrastructure almost exists now where we can start actually really measuring impact in real time in meaningful ways, and so it’s an exciting time to live.
JN: Oh, I totally agree. I think what’s been brilliant in the majority of the world or the developing world or whatever we want to call it is they just skip the landlines now. We’re just going straight to cellular, we’re going straight to wireless.
GC: That’s right.
JN: We’re not going to deal with cords. We’re just going to have a cellphone infrastructure. I think, low bandwidth things on cellphone infrastructure have come tremendously far. It’s the high bandwidth stuff that we’re struggling with in rural areas, where you need data, the movement up and down. But we use a platform called Akvo, A-K-V-O, and it’s Android-based (sorry, Apple people) but Android-based, and it allows us to work offline, so we can capture forms in data from the field offline and then, when we get to a place that has decent service on top of a hill somewhere-
GC: That’s great.
JN: -we can upload it and it still captures that. There’s some design thinking that really incorporates the unique needs of rural practitioners, even though they don’t always have the bandwidth to send it right away.
Making Your Nonprofit Agile
Okay. Hey, let’s finish things out now in the last couple of minutes here. I’m going to get massively practical about a few different things, and so more of a quickfire, but I’m going to start with one thing that I know you’re doing there internally, and then go through a few different personal things as well.
The first thing is your 15-5 reports as a way to manage staff. Tell me a little bit about how you guys are leveraging that internally, because I think it’ll be really practical for a lot of our listeners.
JN: Yeah. I actually got this idea from Warby Parker. They do this 15-5 report, and I guess it’s a thing now, but, basically, it should take staff 15 minutes at the end of a Friday to identify what they’ve accomplished that week and what they’re planning to accomplish next week and any help that they need to do those things.
So bullet points, 15 minutes, and then it should take their supervisor no more than 5 minutes to read. We do these throughout our organization, all the way down to the field guys. They prepare a 15-5 report. I read them every week and comment if necessary, but it basically keeps us all accountable to each other, making sure we’re prioritizing the right things for the future week, and that we got the things done that we were going to try to get done the week before.
We just do them on Word and, for those that I have one-on-one meetings, we follow up with them on Monday on the one-on-one meeting. But I also really think it’s helpful for staff to pause at the end of the week to make sure that they’re focused on accomplishment and not activity and to make sure that they’re prioritizing the next week before they forget everything when they go out on the weekend.
We instituted this about three years ago and it’s been really good for us. It’s very cross-cultural. People are like, “What are we doing?” But some of the things we do as a nonprofit are very nonprofit-ish, so this is one of those things where, “What, weekly accountability? I don’t know.” We’ve gotten everybody to get on board with it and it’s like, oh, 15-5, everybody knows it, new habit, and it’s good. It’s a good practice. I would highly encourage other people to do it.
GC: No, I love that. We do agile software development here, so we use sprints, which are the same thing. We create accountability by having everybody have very discrete deliverables and then reporting on those deliverables on a very regular basis, and so it creates the same sort of cadence that you’re talking about.
But we actually do that across all of our teams, customer success, sales and marketing, all of our teams are using agile-based practices, and it’s so helpful in clarifying. Everybody knows what they’re working on, what order they’re working on, and how they’re progressing against those things, which is, it’s great. I don’t know if there’s a better way to manage, to be honest with you.
JN: Well, it makes sense, because I think our world is agile development world. It’s fast moving and we have to deliver product quickly.
GC: That’s right. Talk to me a little bit about self-care and you keeping your sanity. I know that you were just in Africa and Cambodia the last couple of weeks with three kids and trying to run an organization.
How do you stay sane? What are the practices you have in your life to maintain at least some semblance of balance?
JN: Probably my weakest thing. I have a great wife, so I think Erin and I look at this like a team-effort thing, and she just went back to work full-time, so it’s pretty crazy. I’m not going to lie to you. I think, when you say some semblance, I think that’s right.
Some of the things I like to do are journal and mow the grass. I try to do really basic things to decompress that seem mundane and like I’m a crazy person. I try to journal, I try to mow the grass, and I try to take our dog for a walk. That’s it, and nothing too exciting in my life.
I probably need to do a better job with self-care, although I’ve been running this race for a long time and still committed to do it. I think I have a healthy home life, which probably helps the whole thing work pretty well. Go to kids soccer games, nothing extraordinary.
GC: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny you say that. People ask me that same question, so I feel horrible asking it to other people because I feel the same way. It’s like, hey, balance assumes that you’re dividing up 100% to some equal chunks, and what it actually feels more like is it’s 100% work and then 100% being a dad. You’re literally not dividing up 100%, you’re giving 100% to multiple things, which just feels completely insane some days, but incredibly rewarding nonetheless.
JN: Yeah, it’s a challenge in and of itself. I think one of the things that we like to do that you probably do is I like to take one of kids out once a month for breakfast. We catch up. But this stuff is not earth-shattering, but I think it’s just the basic things to just keep everything moving forward.
GC: That’s great. Okay, a couple more super, super quick ones here. A book that you’ve read recently that’s had a big impact on you?
JN: Emotionally Healthy Leadership by Peter Scazzero.
GC: Peter Scazzero, you said?
GC: I don’t know that one. I’ll have to check it out. It sounds great.
JN: Emotionally Healthy Leadership, yeah. I would recommend it.
GC: That’s great. Podcast, do you have a favorite?
JN: Yeah, I have a couple. I listen to the New York Times podcast every morning, so get news that way. And then, when I’m traveling, I usually listen to our local church rebroadcasted thing because I don’t get to go to church regularly, so I re-listen to those podcasts just to make sure I’m connected nonetheless.
GC: Oh, great. That’s perfect. I think that’s probably good. This has been so enlightening, hearing your story. It’s so fun to hear about how you’re using business practices at Lifewater to turn the ship.
So many of the principles that you’re talking about are near and dear to my heart, just around tracking impact, creating high levels of transparency, putting donors closer to the front lines. We really appreciate you being on, and I think it’s going to be a game-changer for the folks that listen.
Justin, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure and good luck at Lifewater.
JN: Thanks, Gabe. I appreciate your time. It’s been run.
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