• Written by Emily Armanetti
    27 March 2014

We’ve officially set up Akvo Foundation USA, with headquarters at the OpenGovHub in Washington, D.C. and an office in New York City. Akvo Foundation USA (501(c)(3)) will operate as an independent entity from Akvo Foundation in the Netherlands, while working in close collaboration with our network of hub offices around the world. We have an MOU in place with Akvo Foundation in the Netherlands, which outlines roles and responsibilities and we are accountable to an active and engaged board with whom we meet quarterly.

Quite a lot of work has gone into establishing the U.S. foundation and, now that we’ve had a chance to catch our breath, it seems like a good time to clarify what this means for Akvo and our partners. I recently caught up with Henry Jewell, executive director of Akvo Foundation USA, to answer some key questions.

The Akvo Foundation was formally incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation in the Netherlands in 2008. What was the driver behind setting up Akvo Foundation USA? What does this enable us to do that we couldn’t do before?
This is really part of the larger hub strategy. We want to be closer to our partners and know what is happening in any given region so we can react to their needs in a way that’s relevant to the local context. I see this as really important in our work because not every tool is implemented in the same way in any given region. It also helps us provide partners with the best training and support we possibly can and make sure our tools are being used in the most effective way.

We also have a lot of partners, such as the World Bank, USAID, Water for People, WSP and the Millennium Water Alliance, who have a presence here in Washington, D.C. Being geographically closer to U.S.-based partners, as well as in the same time zone (at least for some of them), helps us collaborate more closely. We also currently don’t have a hub in Latin America so activities there will be managed from the U.S. with the ultimate goal of setting up a local hub in Latin America.

Being here also helps uncover funding opportunities and be part of the conversations that will help meet our ultimate goal of increased transparency and effectiveness within the development sector.

You mentioned funding opportunities. How is Akvo Foundation USA being funded initially?
We’re funded by a mixture of grants and service revenues. Overall we get grants for a number of reasons; because organisations see what we do and want to help us do it “faster, bigger, better”, to help develop new products and to support all the work that we do in areas of developing a new infrastructure to promote end-to-end transparency. At the same time, our service revenues help us build a self-sustaining organisation so our partners can be confident that our tools will be there for the long term. We’re working to grow our network among foundations and grant makers, but also our partner base in terms of organisations that are using Akvo tools.

Does this change the way our existing U.S.-based employees work with our other offices around the world?
On a day-to-day basis, no. It really goes back to the core questions – Why the hub strategy? Why a U.S. foundation? Working in a more decentralised way is very important in terms of the decision making process. Within Akvo, ideas matter. If every idea or decision needs to go through one head office, the process can become burdensome. This way, working within Akvo means you can act on your ideas. We’ll still collaborate with each other across teams and offices and we’ll make sure we hang on to our culture of focused, innovative people as well as all of the “little” things that make us uniquely Akvo.

At the same time, we’re accountable for the work we do here. We’re accountable to our board and our decisions need to be made to ensure we are fulfilling our obligations, but we are part of the larger vision that is shared by the entire Akvo family. We are greater than the sum of our parts.

What does establishing a U.S. foundation mean for Akvo partners or potential partners?
It makes it much easier for U.S.-based partners to interact with us. Certain U.S.-based organisations have geographic restrictions, so whether we can collaborate with them is generally based on either the country of origin or destination (where the project is being implemented). This is another reason why the hub approach is very effective. There are fewer administrative hoops to jump through.

What sectors of international development will the U.S. foundation focus on initially and in the long term?
As a global network, we grew up in water, sanitation and hygiene. That is where a lot of our network still exists and we are very strong in that sector. We are getting to the stage where we are involved in conversations with governments for national level monitoring and really helping change their water and sanitation ICT infrastructures. So it is logical for us, as a first point of emphasis in the U.S., to expand within our water and sanitation networks and with partners we already work with such as UNICEF, Water for People and WSP.

Having said that, our tools are sector agnostic by design. A tool that is designed purely for one sector is a wasted opportunity. Tools should be able to work across sectors to really try and break down the silos that exist. There is a lot of cross-cutting knowledge and even implementation among sectors so the way we can help most effectively is to work across many sectors. We have done some work in food security and health and, going forward, we are looking to expand in those areas as well as extend to new areas such as environmental impact assessments. 

It makes sense for us to work in any area where real time data is important.  If organisations are looking for real time data to make decisions on, or bring projects online and report directly from the field, we can help them do that.

You were integral in setting up the U.S. foundation. What did you learn that might help other organisations looking to establish non-profit status?
Having a clear vision and understanding of what you want to achieve from the beginning and finding the right staff members to make it happen are both very important. Having a board that is engaged and willing to really help contribute knowledge and consult on strategy is critical. Finally, make use of the network of people around you to get advice and help navigate the hoops you need to jump through. Having an office in the OpenGovHub in D.C. was really helpful because we were surrounded by other small, fairly new organisations that have been through the process.

How does a US foundation enable us to meet our ultimate goal of transparency in international development?
Development issues are global, so we need to make sure we are part of the larger conversation on things like standards and policy changes so we can help direct them in a way that will be beneficial to governments and beneficiaries. We can also draw on our expanding networks around the world to promote transparency and the value of open data in development. In order for Akvo’s tools to be sustainable in the long run, it is not just about getting partners to use them; it is also about getting the right actors and partners around the table for discussions about how this fits into the larger context of international development and how can we make this sustainable moving forward.

Emily Armanetti is communications manager at Akvo, based in New York City.  Henry Jewell is executive director of Akvo Foundation USA and is based in Washington, D.C.