Jon Rose started Waves for Water, a non-profit organization, which has a mission to get clean water to every single person who needs it. The organization born in 2009 strives to eliminate unclean water from the Earth’s surface and reduce the number of deaths due to water contamination in the world. Jon’s life was changed in the middle of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that destroyed the city of Padang in Indonesia where he risked his way through crumbling buildings to help the victims. He was carrying ten water filters at the time, which allowed the rescue workers to clean the wounds of those affected with filtered water. That’s when he started using his life lessons for a better world. Read on for Jon’s inspiring story.
Ishita Gupta: Jon, you’re a pro surfer turned not-for-profit entrepreneur. Tell us about the transition.
Jon Rose: As a surfer, I used to travel around to so many places in the world that have good waves, which meant a lot of the times I was in very remote locations where the locals faced severe challenges such as lack of resources, unhealthy surrounds, poverty etc. I was seeing the same situations in different under-developed or developing countries – and realized that buying a souvenir or a t-shirt was not enough. A lot of the realization also came from my Dad who is a not-for-profit founder himself. He started to work in Africa doing some carpentry work but was drawn to water cause after realizing that people and kids were dying every day from the lack of clean water supply in these countries.
He knew there’s enough food in the world. There’s enough water in the world. It’s just in some cases it’s not clean or people have no access to clean food and water. So he went over to Africa, and developed various ways to catch rain.
Ishita: His organization is called Rain Catcher, right?
Jon: Exactly, he founded Rain Catcher. I was inspired by my Dad. I said to myself, “You know what? I’m going to do just that. I’ll go to these places which I have seen with my own eyes and I’ll start there.” It was a great way to go full circle to places which had given me so much in terms of rich experience when it came to travelling and surfing.
Waves for Water was originally meant to be a fun side-project. I went to Indonesia with ten filters. I’d never used them before although I knew how to use them; they were simple enough to operate. I decided I’ll just go do my first project. I thought it will be fun to go to an island I knew. What I didn’t know was that I would be stuck in an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude on my last day there. It was then that I would see death and destruction at its highest level. I would be unhurt and the first responder.
The earthquake happened underneath the ground. The epicenter was underneath Padang, which comprises 650,000 people in Sumatra. I could see the city as I was just anchored in the little bay on the beach. I was supposed to leave the next morning, so I was just on the boat, basically waiting for my flight. And then it hit. We instantly went on the boat in deeper water, which is what you do in case of a tsunami. As soon as we realized there wasn’t a tsunami, we came back in and I was literally looking at like fire and smoke and death and destruction.
I was there in the thick of it and I had access like nobody else. I had these filters with me and thought, “I can go in there and help them.” It was pretty instinctive and there was no questioning; there was no choice. It felt as if I was meant to be here and help these people. I didn’t have any second thoughts about it. I just thought, “Ok, I can go in there. I can do my part.” I knew these people would need clean water. I did go to Indonesia with the filters to do the work, but never expected such grave circumstances.
By now, I was literally going through a city that was like a scene out of a movie. I was hearing voices screaming, coming out of the rubble and the heaviest of things that humans can be exposed to. It was then that I was able to see, first hand, how practical these types of solutions can be. It was a life changing, defining moment for me. After everything was over, I just looked up at the sky and said, “I’m listening.” I was able to save thousands of lives with those ten filters just because I went to these little medical outposts where they were collecting bodies of the wounded. Being a city of that size, they did have access to drinking bottled water; but in those first few days until international relief showed up, they didn’t have access to water to clean the wounded. So we set up these systems and they used it with a source of water that was otherwise looked at as waste. We were able to access that source to clean all those wounded. Who knows how many… I can’t put an exact number. But it was this defining moment where I was just thrown into the thick of it and it changed my life forever. It changed the path and the course of everything that I was doing. From then on, it was pure dedication.
I guess, my overall point is that being a pro surfer or just a surfer in general, you’re probably somewhat adventurous already. The waves aren’t just in Miami. You’ve got to go and search for them. And oftentimes, you end up at places that are otherwise very uncomfortable: there’s adversity; you’re bitten by bugs; there’s no food. But you’re getting perfect waves, so the payoff is great. And it’s during such expeditions that you become more adaptable to adverse situations than everyday people. I think that’s an asset. You make decisions quickly and start becoming more resourceful.
I personally am an adventurous spirit. I love riding motorcycles, finding waves and climbing mountains. So when I was stuck in an event like a full-blown earthquake, I was able to use all the other stuff I learned when I was training and schooling for adventures. For example, I had to overcome my fears as a surfer, so I had that personal and mental training already which allowed me to act with courage when I saw the place crumbling down.
Ishita: So you’re saying it’s not innate. You had to develop this courage over your training.
Jon: Yes, I think everyone develops it. I think we all start out somewhere. Of course, there are some people with a different wiring. For example, my adventurous spirit comes from my Dad. So yes, you have that. Maybe you don’t learn so much; maybe you are born with some of the courage. But you learn resourcefulness. You learn adaptability. I think those are learned things.
Ishita: Was that learning difficult for you at first?
Jon: Yes. You learn by mistake, by trial and error. “Oh, that doesn’t feel good. I’m not doing that again.” And then you have your notebook and write, “Ok, note to self. Don’t do that again.” Slowly, you step away from being a novice and become an expert at something. So personally, before I started Waves for Water, I felt like an “expert of the world”. I was a student of the world, traveling for fifteen years straight and being exposed to every type of culture, tradition, philosophy and environment. That’s where I found my comfort and my confidence. So when I get thrown into this whole new space, I quickly realized it was going to take disaster relief. I didn’t set out to be a disaster relief agency. But when I saw that I was good at it, that I could go in there and make good decisions quickly and efficiently and get the job the done, I was inspired to start Waves for Water. Gradually, I started looking around for smart, decisive and adventurous people and invited them to join forces. From what I’ve seen, surfers, or adventure-travelers in general, make good first responders and can handle adverse situations well.
Ishita: You talk about it in a way that I’ve never actually heard before. You take your story and you make it quite poignant. You talk about resourcefulness, which I don’t necessarily think about when I think of surfers, which of course is a bad assumption on my part. It’s not only about this glamorous life that people see on TV. There’s more to it such as this resourcefulness, responsiveness or this instinct to make quick decisions. That to me is a fundamental part of fighting for your developing experience.
Jon: Yes, I have to honor where I come from. That’s who I am. It’s made me who I am today and Waves for Water is entirely based on my fundamentals and the way I live my life and what I believe to be honourable and respectable. Honestly, I think Waves for Water is developing a new category in the space of the humanitarian space because we really want to inspire people to go do what they love first and then plug this. So if you get involved, you’re having the time of your life, following your path whether it is by travelling or learning about new cultures, and using this amazing platform to serve humanity.
Another thing: I’m going to Afghanistan with the US military. They reached out to me and said they have this area of operation in Northern Afghanistan. They asked, “We want to help this village, but there’s this really contaminated river that goes through. Would you be interested in partnering with us?” And I said, “Yes”.
The point is that this will be the first military/civilian partnership of its kind since the war started. The military doesn’t partner with NGOs. NGOs don’t partner with the military. We’re creating a new category where the military says, “We’ll work with you” and also where the NGOs say, “We’ll work with you too!” So I almost liken us to Black Ops, when there’s a war going on with the military in place and the model is broken or it’s not working, then the government sends in the Black Ops to get it done quickly and efficiently before anyone can say, “No, you can’t do it that way.”
Ishita: Right, that’s like leveraging the best of both worlds. You have the infrastructure and system and the trust from the military that you can provide the implementation.
Jon: Yes, and that’s been my philosophy which comes from those days of traveling around as a surfer. I modeled our whole thing after that. It’s very no-nonsense based: “Look, all I do is go and identify the need or the problem and apply the solution.” I have it. So there is no bureaucracy involved. It doesn’t even come into my world because I don’t let it. In the same way, I wouldn’t let it hinder me if I was going out and trying to explore as a surfer back in the day. It’s the same mentality of “Look, all the ingredients are here. Just go do it. Just get it done.” Of course, all this happens without hurting someone and being disrespectful.
Often times, people get caught up especially in the humanitarian world, in this bureaucratic framework that drags them to a standstill.
Ishita: That’s just so funny. All the social entrepreneurs that I’ve talked to in the last year talk about the nimbleness of being small, of being five or six to a team, of being able to work on the ground and how you’re able to get more done that way as opposed to being a really big, systematized organization. And you’re echoing that now as I talk to you. It’s just easier that way, right?
Jon: Well yes, and we essentially just want to be a conduit, a source, a catalyst for a movement, to inspire a whole generation of people by giving them the tools to go and do it their way. I use phrases like “guerrilla humanitarianism” and “Do-it-yourself humanitarianism” all the time because in my mind, the old models like the Peace Corps model is broken. It is about being a nimble and lean infrastructure on purpose. Yet, we are able to partner with the UN and the military. So we’ll partner on the biggest scale and we’ll be the Black Ops if you may, which is the implementing partner on the ground to get it done. It’s the perfect marriage because you have these big beasts of organizations that can’t be nimble. They just have too much infrastructure. But they have a lot of funds. So you’re serving as that bridge.
Ishita: It is working with the beasts rather than working against them.
You mentioned earlier that you don’t let bureaucracy into your life or the organization. How do you do that?
Jon: In the NGO world, I work with water. So our organization is under the water and sanitation department. There are things called “wash clusters”, which are all those divisions within NGO organizations, and they all have a board where they work together. They tend to have meetings about meetings about meetings. So when you have a cholera outbreak, they tell you, “This is great. Let’s have a demonstration. We’ll hang onto this stuff and next week we’ll get together with the cluster and we’ll design a strategy of how to distribute.” But how many people are going to die between now and then? That, to me, is not acceptable. No, we’re not going to wait. We’re doing it today. A lot of times, I’m pretty frank with them about this. I’ll say, “Look, I’m not asking for your permission. I’m inviting you to participate. We’re already doing this because the situation is that severe.”
Ishita: How have you gotten people to join the tribe or the movement for Waves for Water? Is it just by being honest? Is it just by showing them your goal or your mission?
Jon: I think knowledge is power, so the first thing is spreading the information. There are solutions out there, so there is no reason anybody should ever die from dirty water. There are solutions that exist that can stop it in two seconds. It’s not like cancer and HIV where we spend so much time, money and effort in trying to save people and we still lose them because there are still questions that don’t have answers. There is not one question pertaining to water that doesn’t have an answer. So it’s the information I try to spread.
The way that I’ve gotten people involved is I’ve designed our clean water volunteer program is called the “Clean Water Couriers,” which is basically inspiring travelers to carry filters. I want it to be second nature. I don’t care what it is you like to do; in my case, it’s surfing and adventuring. For example, if you like to bird watch, bring a filter and offload it where you are. We will be a resource to show and teach you how to do that.
But we don’t want to limit you either. We want you to go out there and do it yourself and tell us how it went. We want you to become a part of this huge network of people who are doing it themselves. And the network is thriving. We have people all over the world, everyday, buying and carrying filters from our website and sending us back testimonials. What’s amazing about it is that it’s so empowering when they do that – it’s like they become a project manager for us in that area now.
Everyone brings a different story. They’ve gone and done it themselves, first hand. They approach it in a certain way, give the filters to people there and have a story behind their why. They come back home and write to us, “It was fantastic! I am going there next year again with ten more filters!” They keep in touch with us, sharing their stories. The network is growing exponentially. If there was bureaucracy in there, we would rather opt for one person taking 1000 filters to Yemen. With Waves for Water, however, what we’re doing is asking 1000 people to carry one filter each. That way, there is no customs, no nothing. You just walk right through and you’re spreading it that way, virally, organically.
Ishita: When you started Waves for Water, did you have any fear of failure like most new entrepreneurs do?
Jon: Since we’re a non-profit, there is an entrepreneurial spirit for sure. I have been driven from the start. Once I got tuned in to the information that several people are dying every day due to lack of clean water, I was shocked: “You’re telling me a 5-year old dies every day because they don’t have clean water? What?” It didn’t make any sense.
I was so driven by that and after being in that divine experience in Indonesia, there was no fear. I realized this is my life now. This is my cause. This is what I’m doing and I’m just going to do it tirelessly. So everything else has come from that spirit. I’ve always been that way with a lot of things that I have done. Yes, there’s always that, that fear of judgment and failure. But that’s what makes you good.
Ishita: I guess that’s true. That’s a really good way to look at it.
I know on your website when I was reading your story, it says you constantly work. It says that you are constantly traveling or doing stuff. Now it might sound silly to say because we’re dealing with such an urgent, important issue, but how do you stay balanced? How do you keep doing what you’re doing? Do you ever take time for yourself?
Jon: I think when you’re in this zone of starting something and you’re committing yourself, whatever the industry, the dedication just comes naturally because it doesn’t feel like work. You just love what you do. Some people would call it an imbalance because I’ve been traveling like twenty to twenty-five days of every month, but I don’t that way. I feel I’m thriving in it too. I don’t feel tired or imbalanced.
But it will change. I certainly don’t want to be doing that much traveling forever. I don’t want to be sitting on that many planes. I have one really good guy working with me and if I can get a couple more guys like him, then I can start passing some of these things off to them and I’m totally happy to do that.
Ishita: Do you talk to your dad about your work?
Jon: Yes, in fact we work together all the time. I just sent him to Uganda and he just got back.
Ishita: Wow! Does he do separate stuff for Rain Catcher as well or is it that he’s moved entirely to Waves for Water with you?
Jon: He still does some things for Rain Catcher. He’s passed the organization off to a couple other guys. But he’s the ultimate godfather for us in all this. He’s the inspiration. Talk about living the cause! He’s just so driven by it and I just try to support that.
Ishita: Well he must be so proud of what you’re doing and vice versa too. It’s clear that you’ve taken a lot from him and his work and I’m sure now it’s a great joy for him to see you continuing that.
What do you think is a challenge right now with Waves for Water?
Jon: The challenge is that it doesn’t matter how much you do. There’s always more. The challenges that it’s hard to feel satisfied ever. We’ve given over two million people water in Haiti and it’s still not enough. There’s still more. That’s the challenge.
We’ve had some great partners to support us. We partnered with NIKE. We partnered with Nextel. We partnered with Hurley. We partnered with the UN. All these people fund different projects while we implement them. At the same time, we’ve had people literally saying, “Well, do you guys really need the money?” because they are looking at our partners. I personally think it’s funny to be criticized for having good partners because usually that would give you credibility. The misinterpretation is in that people think, “Is our money going to be used?” I tell them, “Look, if you’re telling me that every single person in the world has clean water, please give me that confirmation so that I can stop working.” Until that, we need as much money as possible.
The difference between us and other organizations is that they need money because they’ve created a giant infrastructure. So they need to support that. And they need money to pay their staff etc. We need money so we can buy more filters and get it straight to the people. But we don’t need it, either. If it doesn’t come in then we’re not going to crumble. We don’t depend on it because of our lean model.
I’ve never done a fundraiser. I’ve never solicited anything or done a big gala event where I auction Leonardo DiCaprio’s jacket.
It doesn’t mean I don’t like fundraising. I’m open to all funding sources and the more support we have, the more good we can do. At the moment, we get donations and funding from different partners. So if the UN wants to do a thousand-filter program in one part of Haiti, then they’ll cover the cost of the filters and our needs to help with the program. So if you add all of that together, you have a nice, pretty steady flow, depending on what types and how many projects you have going on.
And then we have private donors and we have other organizations that like to give. We have some celebrities who like what we do and they go out on their own and promote us. They’ll tweet for us for example, or donate to us. So they are kind in that way.
Ishita: Thank you Jon! How can one donate to Waves for Water?
Jon: You can visit our website and donate an amount that suits you. We’d be most thankful for that!
About: Jon Rose is a lover of adventure and the founder of not-for-profit organization, Waves for Water. Read more about Jon here.