Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Jonathan Wiles Of Living Water International Is Helping To Change Our World

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
12 min readSep 28, 2023

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Create margin. Make space in your rhythm of life to think, reflect, and renew. I pray and meditate daily and schedule a weekly review every Friday afternoon. I set aside time each month and quarter to “get on the balcony” — stepping back from the action to observe patterns, trends, and opportunities. These practices help me develop self-awareness. They increase my value to my organization and my family. Of all the things I wish I had started earlier in life, this is at the top of the list.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan A. Wiles.

Jonathan A. Wiles is an executive and strategist who has dedicated 20+ years to serving the world’s thirsty. As Chief Operating Officer at Living Water International, a Christian humanitarian agency, he leads programs in 17 countries that have served more than 7 million global neighbors with safe water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

Jonathan is compelled by a vision of physical, spiritual, and social flourishing rooted in the life and work of Jesus Christ — for both the organization he leads and the people they serve around the world. This infuses his work on strategy, culture, change, and operational excellence. Deeply committed to activating skills and resources across organizations, Jonathan recently completed a term as board chair at the Accord Network, an association of 100+ Christian relief and development agencies, and served for six years on the board of the Millennium Water Alliance.

A lifelong learner, Jonathan has completed formal studies in political science, history, the Bible and culture, and international development. He is now concluding a PhD in Organizational Leadership at Eastern University, where his dissertation is focused on the process of vision formation in international organizations. Jonathan lives in Richmond, Texas with his wife Maridyth and their four children.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

If you listen to a few graduation speeches, you’ll hear more than a few business leaders, actors, and philanthropists tell you to “Follow your passion.” I think that’s terrible advice; the things I was passionate about as a teenager and young adult would have made for dreadful career paths, at least for me.

I knew early on that I wanted to be part of something global. I focused on international studies at university and spent most of my 20s living and working in Europe. But the turning point came when Gary Evans, the founding CEO of Living Water International, invited me to go to Kenya with him in 2003. Those two weeks showed me firsthand how unsafe water impacts communities — robbing them of health and dignity and undermining their education and livelihoods. I also got to know some dedicated Kenyans who were determined to serve their thirsty neighbors — water and health experts helping communities develop safe water sources and leverage them for improved health as an expression of the love of Jesus Christ. I was inspired. And for the last 20 years, I’ve been working to support local leaders like them.

These days, I tell my own kids, “Find something worth being passionate about, then get really good at it.”

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In the rearview mirror, I think we’re beginning to forget how much of an existential threat the COVID-19 pandemic felt in 2020, as we were watching the infection numbers and death rates spike in one country after another.

At that point, we didn’t know much about the virus that would eventually kill more than 6,000,000 people. We did know that handwashing with safe water and soap is one of the main ways to stop the spread and that 40% of households and hospitals worldwide don’t have adequate handwashing facilities. As it happens, Living Water International has a great team of water engineers, public health specialists, and community organizers — about 300 people in 17 countries who are good at what they do.

When the pandemic started, my colleagues didn’t waste any time. They stopped their regular plans and started working with local governments, churches, and hospitals to help out. In the next year and a half, they trained 30,000 church and community leaders, built 3,000 handwashing stations in communities and clinics, distributed hygiene supplies to 250,000 people, and reached over 6 million people with COVID-19 prevention messages.

Our teams did all sorts of things to help. They recorded public service announcements for local radio stations, organized grassroots communication campaigns on WhatsApp to fight disinformation, and found new ways to solve problems when global supply chains fell apart. Looking back, I’m still inspired by how smart, determined, and innovative my global colleagues are.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Ha! So, on my first trip to Ethiopia, I had an amazing family meal in the home of one of the leaders in a community where we were working. We were sitting together on cushions around the table, and my new friend handed me a shallow cup of steaming liquid. Committed to accepting the hospitality, I promptly took a gulp… of hot water lightly laced with soap. Yes, it was the finger bowl, which had been offered to me first as the out-of-town guest. After we got over our mutual shock, we had a good laugh and an unexpectedly deep and vulnerable conversation about cultural differences.

It was a great lesson in not making assumptions. I have learned over the years that entering into cross-cultural experiences as a curious learner is always welcomed. People love to share their customs and traditions, which helps us more quickly realize all the things we have in common as members of the human family.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

On the one hand, the social impact of the work I do at Living Water is dead simple. 703 million people in the world don’t have even basic water access, and 1.6 billion don’t have a basic toilet at home. Diseases from unsafe water kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Every day, women and girls around the world spend 200 million hours collecting water rather than studying, generating income, or being with their families. It’s a crisis, and we’re hard at work addressing it.

On the other hand, this work is unexpectedly complex. It’s easy to assume that if we drill enough wells, the crisis will be solved. However, broken-down hand pumps are standard worldwide because organizations must pay more attention to support systems and supply chains. And we know that even when water keeps flowing, it only substantially increases community health if sanitation and hygiene behaviors improve. Human behavior is all wrapped up in a web of cultural norms, taboos, and religious practices — and people aren’t always motivated to change by what we think should encourage them.

The work we do is art, science, and calling. It draws on engineering, public health, theology, sociology, and behavioral economics. It’s challenging work, but it makes all the difference when we get it right.

Years ago, we found that our water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) work is most effective when we focus our work on one district at a time over multiple years. These ‘WASH Program Areas’ create space and time to build support systems through local governments and businesses, help communities choose the best technologies and approaches to addressing WASH inequities, and work in long-term relationships with churches and other faith communities, often the key to behavior change.

Last year, our local teams served 820,000 people through these programs, working together toward a shared vision of physical, spiritual, and social flourishing.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Some time back, I had a chance to spend time in the Rift Valley in Kenya. I was visiting communities where my Kenyan colleagues completed water, sanitation, and hygiene projects in the 1990s. It’s a tough place to live, especially for the Maasai people, who depend on their cattle in a region where the dry season can stretch for months. My colleagues told me these communities had been desperate before the safe water systems were developed.

To learn more about their lives, I talked to many local people. But the one I remember best was Kemei, a boy of 14 or so. When I asked about water, he shrugged and said, “I don’t think about it much. My parents told me they used to walk far to get water that wasn’t clean and made them sick, or they just went without. But I’ve never been thirsty.”

Kemei’s words have stuck with me. He represents why we do this work — to help the next generation grow up without worrying about surviving day-to-day so they can focus on their future.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Yes! The first thing people can do is to grow in knowledge. Spend the time to learn about what life is like for our global neighbors who don’t have safe water or sanitation. Understand how difficult it is for communities to envision a better future when they are preoccupied with where they will get their water today — when waterborne diseases and hours spent carrying water keep kids out of school and undermine a family’s efforts to earn a living.

Then, look for ways to expand your experience. Build empathy by listening and learning from people who have experienced the water crisis, either in your city or by traveling to learn and serve. Get to know other people passionate about serving the thirsty. Volunteer for an organization with thoughtful, empowering programs and a proven track record of results.

And finally, invest for impact. Consider how you can be generous with the financial resources God has entrusted to you and how you can influence funding decisions made by your church, business, or government. And it is an investment — World Health Organization research shows that every dollar spent on water and sanitation provides an economic return of $4.30 in improved health and recovered time, which has an exponential impact on educational and economic outcomes.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Broadly speaking, leadership is influence — influencing people’s thinking, behavior, and their personal or professional development. In an organization, leadership is about alignment: aligning thinking, behavior, and development toward a singular goal.

Over the years, I’ve seen business leaders who cared more for building the company’s equity than for the well-being of their employees. I’ve seen NGO leaders who drive a top-down agenda and squeeze out those who aren’t entirely on board. But I’ve also seen great leaders who have empathy to listen, connect, and extend compassion to those they lead. They draw out and articulate a shared vision and help their teams organize toward that vision. Authentic leadership is about service and stewardship, not position and power.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Oh, there are a lot of these. But if I had to choose just a few, I wish someone had encouraged me to:

Create margin. Make space in your rhythm of life to think, reflect, and renew. I pray and meditate daily and schedule a weekly review every Friday afternoon. I set aside time each month and quarter to “get on the balcony” — stepping back from the action to observe patterns, trends, and opportunities. These practices help me develop self-awareness. They increase my value to my organization and my family. Of all the things I wish I had started earlier in life, this is at the top of the list.

Listen first. In this line of work, it is easy to get locked onto ideas and ‘solutions,’ plowing ahead regardless of what is happening or what is changing around you. But spending the time to listen first and to listen well is critical. We must be deeply accountable to the people we are here to serve. When Living Water needs to make major directional decisions, we bring people together for regional summits — to ask questions, listen, and learn. Every quarter, we listen in a disciplined way by interviewing local people across all our programs about the most significant changes that have happened in their communities. One of the most essential practices in my work is the time I spend in communities in Zimbabwe, Liberia, or Guatemala, gaining insights from community members, pastors, and mothers.

Build a network. You can’t do this work on your own. Over the years, I have learned how valuable it is to have a diverse network of personal and professional relationships that expand my thinking and enable collaboration. It’s vital to dialogue with people who don’t look or think like you. I’ve learned the value of seeking out the ‘outliers’ in my sector — people with unique backgrounds, perspectives, and approaches — and people from different cultures, disciplines, and industries.

Keep learning. Social sector organizations address some of the most challenging problems in our world — problems that aren’t being solved by the private or public sector alone. As a leader, I must constantly build new skills and mindsets for growth. It’s easy to think that the skills that brought me here will take me there, but it’s not usually true — for me or my organization. There are plenty of barriers to ongoing development, and I’ve experienced them all: lack of time, the need to unlearn old habits, fear of failure, or just general resistance to change. But it’s part of the job description.

Be tenacious. It’s incredible what’s possible when you stick with a goal over a long period of time. “A long obedience in the same direction… always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living,” said Nietzsche (and later, Eugene Peterson). Don’t wait for perfection. Iterate. And keep moving forward. My team will tell you that during every annual planning cycle, I quote Bill Gates’ summary of the planning fallacy: “People overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in a decade.”

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It would be a mindset shift. We must stop seeing our global neighbors as objects of pity in need of our charity. As a Christian, I believe all people are made in God’s image and have dignity and worth. All people are intrinsically creative and productive, and ultimately, we will flourish as humans if we live in the right relationship with God and one another and contribute generously to our common good. If we — especially those of us with power and resources — came to see our global neighbors in a new way, it would turn the world upside down for the better.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Years ago, I read a homily written by Bishop Ken Untener in honor of Saint Óscar Romero, who was shot down by a ‘death squad’ in El Salvador for speaking out against the social injustice and violence sweeping his country in the early 80s. There’s one quote that has stuck in my head all these years and informs the way I think about life and work:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

A deep sense of relief and release comes with the realization that no person (or organization) is called to do everything — but that each of us can do something and do it well. When I’m making decisions about next year’s budget or what I hope to accomplish in the next five years, those lines echo in my thinking and help me stay focused on the unique contributions my organization and I are called to make.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

There are so many — but one that comes to mind now is Dr. Jayakumar Christian. He is a long-time leader in the international development sector who has thought deeply and written extensively about poverty and power from the perspective of an Indian and a person of faith. I’ve shaken his hand and said hello. Still, I would very much value a chance to pick his brain over a meal — on the rapidly shifting landscape of global development and how all of us, from north and south, east and west, can come together to serve better our global neighbors experiencing poverty.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/jwiles, and look Living Water International up at http://water.cc, or on your favorite social media platform.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator