The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Urban Sanitation Community of Practice

Strategic Philanthropy | Mar, 2019

India Philanthropy Report 2019 highlights the ‘Field Approach’ where non-profits, corporates, government and philanthropists have successfully worked towards eradicating malaria and controlling tobacco consumption, and are presently seeking to address sectoral challenges relating to urban sanitation and adolescent empowerment. The report concludes by describing the key themes that emerge from these cases that form the principles of a field approach and calls for Indian philanthropy to take a more ambitious and holistic view towards creating impact at scale.

The following case highlights ways in which philanthropists and other stakeholders have successfully adopted a field approach. The cases are not all funded by philanthropists, but they all demonstrate how the field approach works and how philanthropists could adopt a similar ap- proach to their giving.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds more than 60 organisations in the urban sanitation space in India, with an emphasis on the holistic sanitation value chain. The Gates Foundation joined 24 of those organisations to form the National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance, which functions as a community of practice (CoP).

The problem: Sanitation is a complex issue. India generates more than 40 million tonnes of sewage daily, of which less than 30% is treated. The remaining untreated sewage flows into the environment, posing immense public health and environmental consequences. Furthermore, only one- third of Indian urban homes are connected to sewer lines. Given the long timespan and high cost of expanding the centralised sewerage network, it is critical to explore alternatives to traditional centralised sewerage systems. Decentralised waste management processes are potentially more affordable and faster to scale. Additionally, since more than 70% of households in India are based on on-site systems (septic tanks, pit latrines), it is critical to focus on treating the human waste coming out of decentralised systems. One solution is faecal sludge treatment plants (FSTPs), wherein human waste is collected from on-site containment systems and transported to a waste-treatment facility that produces treated water and sludge that can be disposed of safely.

The approach: Recognising FSSM as a viable solution to India’s sanitation crisis, a group of 25 organisations banded together in mid-2016 to form a CoP around urban sanitation. Their objective was to accelerate the treatment and safe management of human faecal waste.

The NFSSM Alliance CoP is a voluntary body that aims to build consensus and encourage discourse on FSSM at a policy level, and share knowledge among members to avoid duplication of efforts.

What has been achieved so far: The Alliance CoP has successfully framed policies and created knowledge products.

  • Framing policies: The CoP convinced the government that FSSM is a viable solution. It worked with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (the erstwhile Ministry of Urban Development) to draft the National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management, which launched in 2017. This led to 19 out of 36 states and union territories drafting state-specific FSSM guide- lines and at least 4 states making financial commitments to FSSM. Today, states have committed to building more than 400 FSTPs over the next three years, especially focused on smaller cities that lack any sort of sewage treatment.More recently, the Alliance CoP suggested revisions to the National Urban Sanitation Policy (2008) to include the provision of FSSM and gender considerations while designing sanitation systems. It has also submitted a memo to include FSSM as one of the provisions in the 15th Finance Commission. If approved, this will unlock government funding for FSSM.


  • Creating knowledge products: In an effort to share best practices within the sector and inform stakeholders, including government officials, the NFSSM Alliance CoP has released multiple knowledge products, including guides to FSSM, organisation profiles, video case studies and infographics. They also advocated for state-level involvement in FSSM in Telangana, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

What sets it apart: The CoP’s strength lies in its diverse membership, which includes research institutes, academic institutions, think tanks, quasi-governmental bodies, implementing organisations, data experts, consultants and intermediaries like Dasra. This multidisciplinary view of urban sanitation encourages members to build on each other’s specialised viewpoints. Coming together as a collaborative gave the CoP credibility when it approached the government and led to policy recommendations that were both inclusive and comprehensive—and had buy-in from several stakeholders in the sector. Members who had worked closely with the government for decades were an added advantage.

Although the CoP has been successful, it took time to foster an aligned and collaborative culture. Dasra, as a facilitator of the CoP, organised regular gatherings and encouraged members to engage with each other through newsletters and online platforms. Targeting quick wins was critical to creating momentum.

Today, the NFSSM Alliance CoP is a cohesive unit in which members volunteer significant time and effort on a common vision for the future. They want to treat at least 50% of toilet waste in India by 2025, and they plan to take a multifaceted field approach to get there.

Key success factors:

  • Collaborative action: By allowing experts in the field to learn from each other, avoid duplicating effort and act as a single unit, the NFSSM Alliance CoP presented a powerful collective voice to the government.


  • Government allies: The NFSSM Alliance is composed of trusted members, with a track record of work in diverse states and cities, who helped move policy. They created an integrated platform for national and state government to interact with and validate each other’s recommendations. This allowed states to allocate funding to FSSM solutions, put FSSM at the centre of urban sanitation and amplify the NFSSM Alliance CoP’s reach.


  • Design for scale: FSSM as an urban sanitation solution is particularly effective because it is relatively inexpensive and decentralised and is therefore scalable across the country. In order to promote it as a scalable solution, the NFSSM Alliance CoP created video case studies, best practices and implementation guides.
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