With more than 250 chapters and 12,000 members nationwide, Engineers Without Borders has brought its philanthropic efforts to San Francisco, harnessing local talent and charity to create sustainable solutions for the needs of developing countries all over the globe.
Dubbed the “Blueprint Brigade” by Time Magazine, Engineers Without Borders – EWB – is a national, nonprofit organization that, as its name implies, brings together engineers and individuals with engineering-related backgrounds and interests to spearhead infrastructural community projects in more than 45 developing countries worldwide.
The EWB San Francisco chapter is the first professional one and is also one of the biggest and most organized. There are more than 100 active volunteers and six current infrastructural projects in countries like Panama, Fiji and El Salvador.
“The best thing about EWB is that we come up with simple, sustainable solutions to help developing countries,” said Jennifer Lehane, public relations chair for the EWB San Francisco. “We use all local materials and local workers; no materials are bought from the U.S.”
These projects range from renewable energy to sanitation to water and irrigation systems and are completed in partnership with local NGOs and the community at large. EWB teams from the different U.S. chapters forge five-year commitments to each community with a need and team members take turns returning to that country within that five-year time frame.
“Every project is completely different because all communities are different; each [project] kinds of runs itself,” Lehane said. “What the community wants is what we do.”
EWB-SF member Paola De Cecco has been traveling with a team each year for the past three years, staying in a developing country for about a month every time.
“They [community members] ask for something and we look at it from an engineer’s point of view and decide what is appropriate,” De Cecco said. “The right solution may sometimes be a well with a hand pump rather than faucets in every home.”
De Cecco said that with each project, the team faces a “delicate equilibrium” that requires care and caution, as they introduce many changes into the local community.
For every project, EWB forms a team from among its members, and the team meets with the local community in another country to discuss the community’s greatest needs. The team then spends weeks – even months, at times – planning, fundraising, creating blueprints and building relationships with local workers and leaders. All materials are locally bought to support the country’s economy.
Lehane herself has just returned from El Salvador, where she has been working over the past two years on a local infrastructural project.
“I wanted to give back to the community and use my skills for the greater good,” she said.
Funding for EWB’s projects comes primarily from large engineering companies both in the Bay Area and nationwide that their members connect with, Lehane said. The companies include Boeing, Baker and Genentech, who gave tens of thousands of dollars in donations to EWB in recent years.
“These big companies hear about us and just give money,” she said. “They want their name associated with a pretty strong foundation with a solid reputation.”
Additional funding comes the group’s annual fundraising events, grants and donations from other private companies.
“More and more money is coming in this year, and every small amount goes a long way in a developing world,” Lehane said.