By Elizabeth Buhungiro
International Lifeline Fund (Lifeline) is the legacy of a good man – Dr. George Wolf. Dr. Wolf’s life was cut short by lymphoblastic lymphoma in October 1983 at 49. By this time, he had overcome a challenging childhood as a Jewish refugee who fled to the United States with his parents at five. Dr. Wolf became a distinguished professor of neuropsychology and a pioneer in the study of sodium appetite. Most importantly, Dr. Wolf was a good father. He instilled in his son, Dan Wolf, a sense of social justice and the irresistible compulsion to “make a contribution” in life. George inspired Dan to become the authentic, generous, compassionate man who later founded Lifeline in 2003 in memory of his father.
Lifeline was founded with the theory of change: “Given affordable access to cost-effective products and services that meet their basic clean water and energy needs, the underprivileged can begin to lift themselves out of the dire circumstances in which they live.”
In this interview, Dan Wolf speaks honestly about what it’s like to fund rural programs. He opens up about his fears and failures as a non-profit founder. He also discusses what it takes to achieve sustainable impact in rural programming from a donor’s perspective.
Hi Dan, welcome. Please introduce yourself.
My name is Dan Wolf. I’m the Founder and Executive Director of International Lifeline Fund. I also serve as chairman of the board.
Welcome back to Uganda. When were you last here?
I was last here in July 2021, so it’s been about a year since I last visited.
How often do you come to Uganda, and for how long do you stay?
During Lifeline’s first several years, I would come to Uganda twice or thrice a year. That has gradually reduced over time. In 2017, I took a break, and then we had the COVID pandemic. I’d say that the most extended period when I didn’t visit Uganda was between 2017 and 2021. I usually stay for two to three weeks.
As Lifeline’s founder, why do you think it’s important to visit the country office regularly?
When you’re in the U.S., it’s easy to lose touch with the impact that you’re making because you spend most of the time troubleshooting. You only get back in touch with that when you visit communities and see the difference you’re making. Every time I come back, I am reminded that we provide tangible solutions at Lifeline. This keeps me inspired and motivated.
I also visit Uganda regularly because it’s important to stay connected with the team; they get to know me better as the person leading the organization and understand my vision. I try to inspire staff when I’m here. You can do that to a certain extent through virtual meetings and phone calls, but there is nothing like physical interaction. Technology cannot replace human bonding – the tangible presence of a human being. During this visit, we’ve done serious brainstorming with the team, and we’ve come up with creative solutions to some problems we’ve been facing. It would be hard to do that remotely. But the most important thing is to see the staff and for them to see me.
You have been funding Lifeline for nearly 20 years. In your experience, is there a right or wrong way to fund rural programs?
Yes, I think so. I think the wrong way, and why there have been so many failures, is to put funding on a short-term cycle, which is what is generally done. You only get one or two years to complete a project and then go on to the next one. However, rural interventions take a lot of time. There is a lot of trial and error involved. If you want to have an impact, you need time to adjust your program to the realities on the ground and to the mistakes you will inevitably make. So, I think it’s important for funders not to be too wedded to a funding cycle that dissolves in a limited period. And that goes to the second issue, which is that funders want to see immediate results. That is very understandable, but if a funder makes too much of a demand for outcomes on the implementing agency, which they frequently do, the implementing agency will exaggerate their numbers. That happens because they need to keep the funding, so the information they provide often ends up being inaccurate or misleading. They may also have trouble admitting to failure when it happens. In the long run, the intervention does not deliver a sustainable impact.
Can you give an example of when Lifeline implemented a project that didn’t work out so well because it had a limited timeline?
Here is the thing about Lifeline: we do not operate in a funding cycle. We are lucky to have an endowment that has enabled us to bridge the gap between one funder and another. So, if someone puts us on a cycle, we have historically found a way to place resources of our own in that gap so we can operate long-term. And there are so many examples of that.
One example is EverFlow, Lifeline’s preventative maintenance initiative. We developed the idea to ensure that each water point we installed or rehabilitated would function continuously. At some point, we sought and received limited funding for implementation. We’ve since learned that while our system is excellent and achieves over 99% functionality, securing the community subscription fees needed to run it is challenging. We’ve spent more money trying to market to communities and collect fees than the user fees we are collecting. If we were operating on a funding cycle, we would have had to throw up our hands in failure. But because we insist on not operating on a funding cycle, we have developed several methods of addressing that problem. One of those is the drip irrigation system which will create a revenue flow for the community. We are piloting that as we speak. The other is EverFlow 2.0, which offers communities a tiered service at different prices. That way, we can help address the issue of inadequate financing from the community and lead to greater functionality of each water point for less money.
In your opinion, what is the appropriate minimum amount of time to fund a rural intervention?
The timeline depends on the nature of the initiative. But, in general, my experience has been that new and innovative rural interventions require a long-term commitment- generally about 3 to 6 years. That is because you’ll learn so much as you go along. If you don’t have the funding to implement all your learnings, you will lose your investment. We are grateful for partners like charity: water who are open to performance-based long-term financing.
What questions should you ask yourself before funding a rural program?
You need to ask yourself three main questions.
The first one is: is this something that the rural community needs? One of our values at Lifeline is respect. We respect the people we serve and their cultural traditions. So, when we go into a rural community, we talk to them and find out – What problems are they are facing? What is it that they truly need? Does our intervention match their needs? It’s important to match your intervention not to what you think rural communities need or want but to what they tell you about their needs and wants. To find out, you must interface with the community and listen.
The second question is: what level of community participation do you require? If the project involves a lot of uptake from the community, whether that means participating in meetings or training sessions or raising revenues, then you need to understand the strength of the community leadership. Because I can tell you that if you want heavy community participation, you must have strong community leadership. Adopting the intervention will not happen without it, and your time and money will be wasted.
The third question you should ask yourself is: what are the costs versus the benefits? Inevitably, the costs are going to be higher than you think they are. The costs of reaching a remote community, for instance, just the fuel and time to get there, are high, so you have to understand how those costs weigh against the benefits. Otherwise, you’re going to feel frustrated.
We don’t talk enough about failure in rural programming, but as you said earlier, it inevitably happens. Can you tell me one of the biggest failures that you’ve experienced at Lifeline and how you dealt with it?
I’ll be honest with you. We’ve had many big failures, so it’s difficult to choose. But the good thing is that usually, these failures lead to better things.
I’ll tell you about one that happened in or around 2008 during the initial stages of developing our commercial cookstove initiative. At that time, we were producing the insulated bricks that formed the core of our stove in a rural village. One day, while I was working in the Lira office, I received a call from one of our staff informing me that hundreds of women had shown up, explaining that they had heard about the benefits of our stove and asking that we provide them with bricks so they could construct them for themselves. Many of these women had walked for several hours and I thought if they were willing to walk that long and carry those heavy bricks all the way back home, then surely, they would be willing to pay a small price to purchase one.
But I knew that to create a viable market for our wood-burning stove we would have to get the price down to a level that it would be easily affordable for even the most impoverished rural families. I thought one way to do that, while also creating jobs and building local capacity, was to engage rural women to market the stoves to their neighbors and then construct them in their homes.
All they [women] had to do was clay around the bricks, which were inexpensive, costing only about 40 cents. But while, in theory, the idea seemed good, in practice, it didn’t work. There were logistical challenges in delivering the bricks to the communities, the construction was highly inconsistent, and the vendors often lacked motivation . . . there were all sorts of barriers. In the end, the program was a complete failure. We learned that to be successful, we had to mass produce a consistent stove from a central location.
We then spent two to three years developing an efficient, durable, affordable, and culturally suitable stove. It especially took a long time to crack the durability component. And this is where, again, long-term funding is important. Fortunately, we were able to draw on our endowment and commit resources over time until we developed what I believe is the best and, indeed, only wood-burning stove on the market that meets the needs of the local communities and internally displaced persons.
As Lifeline’s founder, what is your biggest fear, and what are you doing to address it?
My biggest fear as the Founder and Executive Director of Lifeline is dissipating the endowment that we have because it would mean losing the ability to be flexible. We would also lose the ability to maintain the current programs at their level. It costs a lot of money to run an organization like this, and we always want to do more for the underprivileged. I’m trying to be more disciplined about approving expenditures and keeping costs down. I’ve also invested a lot of money in our cookstove program with the hope of securing carbon revenue that we can use to sure-up funding gaps.
We have a few funding partners for our rural water, clean cooking, and solar energy initiatives, such as charity: water, GIZ, and Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge. Most recently, we secured funding for the Babington burner, which involves atomizing liquid fuel to create a non-polluting fuel source. We hope to adapt that technology to rural institutional settings in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa.
I’ve also been thinking about ways to raise funds, such as expanding the board and getting more participation from them, particularly with revenue raising. I’m looking into getting help from influencer campaigns. I’m also considering hosting fundraising events, especially now that COVID is over. I would say that one of my chief failings as a CEO of a non-profit is that I hate to ask people for money. I’m just uncomfortable asking for anything even though it’s not for me, so I’m always reluctant to do that.
Speaking of asking, Lifeline is soon launching the end-of-year fundraising campaign that is about unlocking time for rural communities to thrive. What does that mean to you? Why should people give?
I think the easiest way to measure the impact of what we do or to quantify it is by looking at how much time is saved. Throughout Lifeline’s existence, we have saved at least 30-million-woman hours per year. As a result of our interventions, hundreds of thousands of rural women have freed up an average of two to three hours each day that they would otherwise be wasting on foraging for wood, collecting water, and cooking. Women are the economic engine of rural Africa, but they spend six to eight hours a day on those three activities. By reducing that time, we can unleash the ability of the Ugandan woman to tap into her entrepreneurial skills, make more money for herself, and improve her life, her family, and the community at large. When you give to Lifeline, you give to an organization committed to innovation and co-creating sustainable solutions with rural communities. What sets us apart is our tenacity to keep trying until something succeeds.
To find out more about Lifeline’s initiatives, visit our website here: https://lifelinefund.org/our-initiatives/.