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Changemaker  |  Corporate Engagement

Not Just a Drop in the Ocean

7 March 2016 at 8:10 am
Xavier Smerdon
Matt Henricks’ career as an organisational psychologist has led him down the unusual path of providing clean water to communities in Africa. Henricks is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to journalist Xavier Smerdon.

Xavier Smerdon | 7 March 2016 at 8:10 am


Not Just a Drop in the Ocean
7 March 2016 at 8:10 am

Matt Henricks’ career as an organisational psychologist has led him down the unusual path of providing clean water to communities in Africa. Henricks is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to journalist Xavier Smerdon.

Matt HendricksMatt Henricks, an organisational psychologist based in Sydney, started a program several years ago that provided prosthetic hands to landmine victims, the Helping Hands Program.

Since then he has used his corporate team building programs to create water filtration systems to villages in Africa.

The Water Works Program sees teams of employees build the filtrations systems that will be sent to countries like Uganda to provide fresh water to people.

As this week’s Changemaker he shared what inspired him to create change and how it felt to making a tangible difference in the world.

Can you explain what the Water Works Program does?

Effectively we build water filtration systems and we donate them to people in Uganda who desperately need clean water. There’s a billion people in the world who are need of clean water and the result of that is half of the hospital beds worldwide are taken up by people with waterborne diseases and other stuff that’s completely avoidable. We put together some really simple and effective water filtration systems and we donate them overseas, but we do that as a corporate team building activity that enables the corporates that are sponsoring us to have absolute transparency around where their system is donated.

How did you come up with the idea?

We’ve been working in and around this space for a little while with a program called the Helping Hands Program where we built prosthetic hands and donated them to landmine victims. We knew that exercise was incredibly powerful and it was really popular. We just felt that we had to tackle the biggest problem in the world, which is the clean water issue. Water and sanitation is number one in terms of global problems, so we felt like we had to get involved. I have to say when we first started it was a project that was a bit of a dream. When I went to Uganda last year, it really galvanised for me how important this was. In fact, I think my imagination wasn’t good enough. The size of the problem over there is so much bigger than we could ever imagine.

When did you launch the program?

We launched it in April and we ran our first program in June last year. Since that time we’ve sponsored 392 water systems which have been donated overseas. That’s three entire villages. The way it works for us, we know that if we just went in and gave one system to one family it would create some jealousy and temptation for criminal activity. We try to just avoid all of that and when we go in we make sure that we give everyone in an entire village clean water at once and effectively it avoids a lot of the challenges that other charities have had in trying to tackle this problem.

What do corporates get out of the program?

People can donate money and other stuff in lots of different ways, but what our activity gives people the opportunity to do is really attach emotionally to the problem that they’re trying to solve, to really understand and see the way the system that they’re donating works. We also track each gift on a website that we built that’s basically like a courier tracking system. You can see exactly where your donation is. You also get a photo back of the end family that received the system that you donated. It’s a hell of a lot better than what most of us get up to on corporate team building days. There’s nothing wrong with just going out and having a long lunch, but we think that we can generate a lot more value for companies by having a great team building activity while also making a difference at the same time.

As an organisational psychologist, did you ever see yourself working in places like Uganda?

Certainly not. It’s funny though because a lot of the content that we discuss in the workshops that we run do actually come back to my training so we understand how important it is for every employee to feel emotionally attached to their employer. We know that people work best in environments where they feel like they really do believe in the purpose that they’re serving. While I certainly didn’t think I would be doing this, I think it’s a better fit than most people would have thought. We try and help people rediscover that inner child that thought they were put on the planet to rock the world. We hope to remind how powerful they can be when we ignore all the grumbles that we all feel from time to time. In just an hour they can build a water filtrations system that will change an entire household’s life, and while that’s amazing, the scary thing is that we’ve all got that ability in us every day. When we go back to the workplace we’ve got a lot more of an ability to make a difference than we give ourselves credit for.

What inspired you to do this?

I first got introduced to a really inspiring company in America that was doing this kind of stuff over there. I think they were definitely way ahead of the curb in terms of philanthropic team building and I was just really inspired by attending a particular session. I have to admit that I was just dabbling in the idea at first and then I went on my first trip to Cambodia to fit hands over there and once again it was similar to that experience of going to Uganda and seeing with my own eyes that there was such a fundamental need out there.

How big would you like to see it get?

We’ve made 392 systems so far through Water Works and we’d love to donate 5,000 by the end of 2017. 5,000 systems would be enough to provide clean water to a minimum of 50,000 people. Each of our systems is actually capable of providing clean water to an entire school or a health centre, the kind of places where there might be 100 to 200 people involved. 5,000 is a minimum because households in Africa tend have around 10 people in them. I think it’s a big enough, hairy and audacious goal to start with but if we can smash that goal by 2017 then we’ll look at something even bigger and scarier.

What do enjoy most about the work that you’re doing?

Not many people get a chance, I think, to see others happy every day of their life. I get to see the full gammat. I get to expose people to some challenges that might put things into perspective for them. But I also think that we do help people reconnect with that inner child that thinks that everything’s possible. It’s pretty rare that we don’t have multiple people come up to us and the end of workshops that tell us how inspired they are. I wouldn’t swap it for the world. There’s not many other occupations where you get to hopefully inspire people a little bit everyday. Of course once a year or so I get to go and visit one of these villages and I get to see first hand the contribution that we’re making. You couldn’t put a price on that either.

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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