How Nonprofit Founders Know When 1+1=3

Pictured: Mercy, from Agong village in northern Uganda, collects clean water from her newly functioning well. Since 2006, Lifeline has helped over 200,0000 Ugandans access clean water. Image courtesy of Deborah Terry Photography.
On October 9, 2016 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC International Lifeline Fund and ClearWater Initiative celebrate their merger.
Founding chairpersons Daniel Wolf and Laura Sklaver explain the remarkable backstory behind joining forces.

Many mission-driven NGO leaders identify the best solution to a problem and refuse to let their efforts fail, often acting on the wise words of: “Those who don’t understand the problem are getting in the way of those who are busy trying to solve it.”

It is no wonder, then, that NGOs rarely choose to merge and often have a hard time collaborating. It’s difficult for NGO leaders to reconcile with the fact that anyone else they meet has a slightly different take on how to address the problem at hand.

A special subset of NGO leaders carry an additional weight beyond that of their cause, however: those that have created an organization in honor of a lost loved one.

Both Lifeline — which Daniel Wolf started in honor of his father — and ClearWater Initiative — which Laura Sklaver has shepherded in honor of her fallen son — are guided by legacies that give additional meaning to the organizations’ work with impoverished people around the world.

In the spring of 2007, Dan, a human rights lawyer, and Ben Sklaver, a U.S. Army Captain, met by chance at the Lillian Tower Hotel in Lira, Uganda. It was a serendipitous moment for both of them: just a year before, Dan had launched the first projects for the International Lifeline Fund (“Lifeline”), an NGO he founded that was devoted to providing access to clean water and sustainable development solutions in vulnerable communities. At the same time, Ben was contemplating the creation of an NGO of his own that would implement similar water projects in post-conflict Northern Uganda.

Growing up, Dan had been heavily influenced by his father, who as a refugee from Czechoslovakia, imbued in him the importance of using the gifts life had given him to “make a contribution.” Dan devoted his legal career to fighting for victims of human and civil rights abuses, witnessing first-hand the hardships faced by refugees and other impoverished individuals. To address these hardships directly and honor his father’s legacy, Dan created Lifeline and a private gift giving foundation called the George Wolf Memorial Trust to help fund it.

The path that led Ben Sklaver to create an NGO that was likewise focused on empowering vulnerable communities was different. While deployed in the U.S. Army Reserve in Northern Uganda at the very end of the two-decade old civil war against the fanatical Lord’s Resistance Army led by the infamous Joseph Kony, Ben was struck by local communities’ dire need for clean water.

One year later, in 2009, Ben was tragically killed by a suicide bomber while serving in Afghanistan. After his death, Ben’s mother Laura Sklaver, fiancée Beth Segaloff and former classmates from Tufts Fletcher School of Diplomacy committed to keeping Ben’s dream alive. They built a local team on the ground who had deep community roots and keenly understood the dynamics of the post-conflict society in which they were working.

Today, both organizations have grown to play a critical role in the problems they aim to solve: Lifeline has provided access to clean water to over 200,000 impoverished individuals and clean cook stoves to an additional 1,000,000 people, while ClearWater has facilitated access to clean water to over 13,000 people.

When Dan and Ben met at that hotel in 2007, they had no idea their organizations would follow siloed but parallel tracks for the next 8 years. But as the boards of Lifeline and ClearWater met recently in Washington, DC with the intention of looking ahead to our future, we were struck by all that our histories had in common — in what challenges we’ve faced, how we overcame them, and how much love and passion we felt for the local communities we wanted to see strengthened.

We emerged with an urgent sense not just that we could work together, but that we must, as our mutual commitment to both a cause — community based engagement in water projects — and a legacy were complementary and synergistic. ClearWater had experience in microfinance projects and education, whereas Lifeline had developed a district-wide platform that it was seeking to scale. ClearWater brought a base of public supporters and volunteers from around the country, while Lifeline had relationships with numerous industry funders.

Finally, we considered what to call our new partnership, and a Solomonic solution emerged. Lifeline would continue using its organizational brand and name its water program the Clear Water Initiative to ensure the continuity of both legacies.

Just as not all businesses can or should merge as they grow, not all NGOs can or should. But as our sector focuses more on scaling impact, it is our hope that sharing this story can encourage more organizations to explore opportunities like ours — in which one plus one may equal three.

By Dan Wolf; Founding President, International Lifeline Fund and Laura Sklaver; Founding Chair, ClearWater Initiative