Kansas City makes it easy to lose faith in people.
Elected officials often act like schoolchildren. In the local corporate world, job-shredding incompetents outnumber innovators. A list of the metro's 200 most repulsive inhabitants would include a fair number of clergy.
But every once in a while, someone so decent ... so breathtakingly effective ... emerges from the heap of mediocrity that passes for leadership in KC.
Gary White is an engineer by training and a Catholic relief worker at heart. Twenty years ago, he took on a mission to improve access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world. His initial fundraiser took place at a Knights of Columbus hall along the Blue Ridge Cutoff. The day-after-Thanksgiving dinner raised $4,000 for a water project in Honduras.
Today, White is the executive director and co-founder of a standard-setting nonprofit called Water.org. The other co-founder? Matt Damon.
White met Damon at a 2008 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Damon was already involved in relief efforts through the H2O Africa Foundation, which he created in 2006. The actor liked White's ideas. H2O Africa made a grant to WaterPartners, the organization that White had started with the help of St. Bernadette's Catholic Church.
White and Damon stayed in touch. White says Damon is "incredibly knowledgeable about the water and sanitation crisis."
The engineer and the movie star eventually came to a decision to merge their nonprofits into Water.org. Through H2O Africa, Damon had the ability to tell a story and raise money. White, meanwhile, could deliver results. "We really knew how to get stuff done on the ground," he says.
Last summer, White and Damon traveled to India. Following local custom, they broke open coconuts on the front stoop of a home in Hyderabad. India is where White has had the most success with an initiative called WaterCredit. The program makes small loans to individuals and communities. In India, the loans have helped people build toilets and connect pipes to existing utilities. White says 98 percent of the loans have been repaid to date.
White's application of microfinancing to the water crisis has made him a star in the philanthropic world. Last spring, Jeff Skoll, eBay's second employee, presented him with the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. The honor carried with it a $765,000 grant.
White does good, and he does it well. I recently paid a visit to his office. He's on the 18th floor of the downtown building that AMC Entertainment uses as its headquarters. Nothing about his appearance or his surroundings betrays occasional jet travel with the likes of Jason Bourne.
His nonprofit operates in Africa, South Asia and Central America. But I took some lessons from our conversation that I think would benefit anyone — especially Kansas City's prestige-minded "leaders."
See the World
As a student in the mid-'80s, at what's now known as Missouri University of Science and Technology, White took a trip to Guatemala. "Basically, I wanted to know what was going on in the world and see how I could help," he says.
White was looking for a way to combine his knowledge of engineering with his commitment to social justice. In the slums of Guatemala City, he walked streets running with sewage. He watched a girl carry home water scooped from a filthy container.
About 900 million people worldwide lack access to safe water. An even greater number go without decent sanitation.
White began to puzzle it out. Why does the problem exist? Why are the existing solutions sub-optimal?
It wasn't enough to care. White needed answers if he was going to make a difference. "Get that idea and then really execute with excellence," he says, "then I think the world discovers you."