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March 01, 2021 The Marketing Issue

Wine to Water: Connecting Your Firm to Your Cause

Identify projects or initiatives that can benefit staff, lawyers and the community alike.

Mike Nestor
Attorneys and staff appreciated the opportunity to work with their hands on a project that enabled them to make a direct impact.

Attorneys and staff appreciated the opportunity to work with their hands on a project that enabled them to make a direct impact.

Photo courtesy of Wine to Water

A simple twist of fate can make a big difference, both personally and professionally. Several years ago, a good friend became the CEO of Wine To Water (WTW), a nonprofit that provides clean water to communities in developing nations. I didn’t know anything about WTW, so I clicked on a few articles, reviewed the website and watched a few videos of Doc Hendley, the founder and president. It seemed like a cool (Doc = cool), worthwhile cause—providing water to people who need it.

From the Boardroom to Nepal

My firm Young Conaway decided to partner with WTW on a “filter build.” At the time, Puerto Rico had been devastated by Hurricane Maria, and access to clean water was critical. The filter-build was a firm-wide project in which all employees heard the story of WTW from its CEO, David Cuthbert, and then worked together in teams to build water filters to be sent to Puerto Rico. The event was an incredible success. Attorneys and staff appreciated the opportunity to work with their hands on a project that enabled them to make a direct impact, and to do so together as the Young Conaway community.

The “simple twist of fate” occurred a couple of years later, when David emailed a group of friends to see if anyone would be interested in taking a weeklong trip to Nepal. The trip was designed to get a better understanding of the impact that WTW makes in the communities it serves. I appreciated the invite, but I knew there was no chance I could take a trip around the world on a whim. I have a large, active family and a busy practice. However, when I sent the email to my wife with a simple “?”, she could not have been clearer: “You are going!” Had she not said that, the twist would have ended there. My wife is awesome.

The trip would involve a five-day tour of five communities to review different stages of water development, including communities where WTW had completed its mission, communities where WTW was in the process of completing its mission, and a community that was desperate for a consistent, clean source of water for its more than 600 men, women and children. I had no idea what to expect.

As with any trip away from home (particularly recreational), there are myriad opportunities to cancel—family obligations, work emergencies and the general inconvenience of being away from home. This trip was no different. The day before I was scheduled to embark on my 28-hour trip to Nepal, a case blew up and threatened weeks of extended expedited litigation. However, my partners sent a message that was identical to that of my wife: “You are going!” With that, I finished packing and was bound for Kathmandu. My partners are awesome.

The Importance of Clean Water

I’ll reserve my experience in Kathmandu for another article, but suffice to say it’s worth a visit if you are ever in that part of the world (or en route to Mount Everest). After spending a night in Kathmandu, we were bound for the Chitwan District of southern Nepal and our five-village tour. From the moment of our first village meeting to our departure from the last, I was astounded by the impact that access to clean water can have on a community and the heartfelt appreciation expressed by everyone we encountered. At each village, the leaders met and welcomed us with the traditional Namaste greeting, the application of sindoor powder as a symbol of good luck and celebration, and incredible handmade flower necklaces (incredible is an understatement). After that heartfelt introduction, the leaders then provided a detailed overview of the true impact that water had in the past, has continued to have or could have in the future on their communities and families. I began to understand the fundamental impact of water and the transformation that water can make for an entire community.

We saw villages with a completed water resource, projects that were in progress and communities still in need. Before the trip, I generally thought of water as important only for consumption and sanitation. I had no idea. Villages with completed WTW projects allowed residents to have water accessible at their home, rather than trekking miles every single day. These villages represented the totality of transformation that a ready access to clean water has on a community.

Wide-Ranging Effects

Clean water is critical to the health and welfare of a village. With a ready source of clean water, health improved. The villages eradicated health conditions caused by the previously unavoidable consumption and use of water contaminated by impurities and bacteria. The communities could more regularly clean every aspect of their lives (home, body, clothing and souls).

Access to water also improves farming. With ready access to water, unusable yards and fields were irrigated and transformed into productive farming and livestock resources. Previously barren or overgrown space then yielded incredible bounty.

Women especially benefited in these communities. Instead of traveling each day for water, the women in these communities could focus their time working the land, producing food for their families and communities, and engaging in trade with other communities. In fact, two of the communities had a small restaurant and a one-room hotel. Importantly, WTW provides women with the tools to become leaders; at each village that we visited, women were an important core of the village and water management leadership.

With ready access to water comes the ability to make materials for the construction of safer and more secure homes, schools and buildings. In Dahakhani, ready access to water enabled the community to construct expanded school buildings, which included an extensive hand-washing station and, critically, a female bathroom for the young school girls (who, until then, had no choice but to run to a local home for use of facilities).

Avoiding long trips for water also improved safety. Many of the communities that border on the Chitwan National Park face daily threats of attack from tigers, rhinos and elephants (to name a few). With a ready/local source of water, the communities can avoid the uncertainty and danger occasioned by long trips to or near the jungle. At one village, WTW teamed with the community to construct a fence around the school to ensure the children were safe at school each day.

WTW is very much focused on ensuring that each community is invested in and takes ownership of the water project, more than simply enabling each community. They are expected to actively participate in construction of the water project; monitor/service the water source once completed; and account for access, improvements and repairs as necessary. The goal is to provide the communities with the infrastructure to manage and operate the water resource going forward. Water access also promotes cooperation. At one community, which bordered on public land, an indigenous tribe had relocated directly behind the water source. The tribe, which survived on the humblest of necessities, was able to sustain its water needs from the community water source runoff/excess. The community was more than happy to oblige.

Our final stop was at a village of more than 650 people who had no access to clean water. The village had two old pumps to wells that ran dry for months during the year. Even when the wells weren’t dry, the water contained lime and bacteria that caused stomach and related issues for the community. These issues were particularly problematic for the young and the elderly. At this village, a group of 31 women leaders banded together with the ward leader to ask WTW to engage with and commit to their community, one of many needing such assistance. While communities with at least some progress on water projects reflected the difference that WTW had made and was making, this remote village was a stark and realistic reminder of the actual issues waiting be solved with ready access to clean water.

Making A DifferencePersonally and Professionally

So, what is the lesson? It is obviously worthwhile to do anything that helps those less fortunate. For example, donating cash is great, easy and incredibly helpful. A bigger picture exists though. My takeaway from this experience is both personal and professional.

Personally, this experience reminded me of the importance and benefit of getting involved in and understanding the “initiative.” I did not know, and could not have known, the comprehensive impact that ready access to clean water could have on a community and its people. This does not mean that you need to jump on a plane and fly to Nepal; but having a simple conversation, as a start, could be a bridge to better understanding of the investment.

Professionally, I would stress the importance of actually connecting yourself and your firm with the project, charity or initiative. We are all moving quickly through our matters and files, running our practices, and rushing to and from family events. Both for charitable and business-development purposes, it will benefit you personally, your firm professionally and the initiative logistically if there is a clear understanding and connection from your firm to the organization or initiative and to the result. Connecting those dots will provide a definitive message regarding the impact you and your firm have had with the organization; and will define the message for your firm, your clients and your community.

The Bankruptcy and Corporate Restructuring Group at Young Conaway has gone on to partner with WTW on a multiyear program. The program contemplates (1) financial support; (2) filter-build events with our friends and colleagues across the country (when in-person events are again viable); and (3) in the final year, an invitation to our closest friends and colleagues to travel with us to visit and assist WTW community projects. The in-person visit is for those involved to see and feel the initiative, from our effort at Young Conaway all the way to the resulting impact on the affected communities. I look forward to writing an article in a couple of years detailing the success of our support for and relationship with WTW, and the impact that our partnership has on the communities that WTW serves.

Mike Nestor

Vice Chairman

Mike Nestor is vice chairman of Young Conaway, co-head of the firm’s Portfolio Company Management Group and head of the firm’s New York Office. With more than 25 years’ experience leading company-side reorganizations, Nestor has developed a niche advising private equity funds and portfolio companies regarding the proper management and governance in connection with distressed and conflicted transactions and reorganizations. [email protected]

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