In 2014, Jon Rose was approached by Red Bull to be featured in a documentary series that hones in on “the new face” of social entrepreneurship.
It’s no surprise. The former professional surfer has been focusing his efforts on Waves for Water, a nonprofit that he founded back in 2009 to provide clean drinking water for impoverished surf communities. Since then, the organization has been able to impact the quality of life for more than 7 million people.
As a humble individual not looking for the spotlight, Rose was initially unsure about the concept, but quickly realized that by getting in front of the camera and telling his story, it could only help elevate awareness and provide clean water to even more people in need.
“I didn’t get into my line of work to be on TV and I thought the process might infringe upon the integrity of my programs on the ground,” Rose said. “That said, I knew we had hit a ceiling in how we were communicating our message.”
Close to three years later, the organization’s story is being amplified in a whole new way, and Rose couldn’t be happier with the results.
In honor of World Water Day, March 22, Red Bull is premiering the feature length documentary that chronicles Rose’s life leading up to founding the organization and what’s in store for the future of Waves for Water.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Rose and dive into the details of his journey.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk about the moment you realized you wanted to pivot your career from pro surfer to humanitarian. What was the transition like?
I was aboard a boat off the coast of Sumatra during a surf trip in September 2009 when I felt a slight shake. I had no way of knowing at the time, but a 7.6 earthquake had destroyed the nearby city of Padang – with more than 1,000 lives lost and 100,000 homeless – until I came to shore and saw the devastated city.
I happened to be en route to Bali to deliver 10 water filters for what would have been the first Waves For Water mission. It wasn’t supposed to be a job, just a fun side project to help some of the areas around the world we liked to surf. But with tragedy striking Sumatra, I went into Padang to get water filters into the hands of rescue workers to help those who were most in need of clean water.
That action became the start of Waves For Water. What's still most meaningful to me at this point is just doing my part. We all have the ability to do our part. If we stick to doing what we can do directly in front of us, we’ll never lose. Then what we can work on from there is scale. I can put 10 water filters in my bag and save, potentially, thousands of lives. But if I get other people involved, if companies join in, and private donors and sponsors, then I'm going through a lot of the same motions, but scaling up the results.
What are some of the people, places and ideas that continue to drive your motivation daily to commit to this issue?
Well, I always try to bring everything back to center, to my driving force, my DNA—which is completely based around FUN.
My dad used to ask me when I was a kid if I was having fun when I was doing something. If I said no, he’d say “then why are you doing it?”
I’ve never lost sight of this. Our entire mantra for W4W is, “Go do what you love, and help along the way.” So that’s exactly what we do: we go out into the world and follow our passion, and then we plug the purpose into that — not the other way around.
Can you share success stories from the early days that compelled you to keep going with Waves For Water, even when it got tough?
The best moments for me are those like running into a mother that we donated a water filtration system to, and having her tell us that her baby doesn't have diarrhea now, for the first time in its life.
Talk about the support you have received from the surf industry along the way. What has helped the most?
Waves For Water is an independent 501c3 non-profit organization. That said, Hurley has been an ongoing partner/supporter since very early on. They have really focused on engaging the masses; making them aware of the global water crisis and also what can be done about it, via Waves For Water.
Aside from the monetary support they’ve shown us, the partnership has truly given us a platform to get the message out in a way that is unique in comparison to most other non-profits. We basically have this forum to be able to fuse lifestyle and purpose, which has proven to be incredibly engaging for the “Hurley” generation/demographic, and ultimately a great match with our guerrilla-style DNA as an organization.
Partnering with the WSL also gave us the opportunity to implement Waves For Water's Clean Water programs in areas on tour and worldwide. A percentage of event funds are being allocated to implement programs in under-served areas of the cities that will host these events.
I'm excited about this partnership. It's going to be a really fun initiative and I don't think we can truly anticipate the impact it will have – not only on the places we choose to implement and help, but also for the surfing community as a whole.
How has Waves For Water evolved over the years? What do future projects and initiatives look like?
Our goal is to get clean water to every single person who needs it. In addition to our primary focuses around clean water, the organization has coordinated disaster relief efforts following earthquakes in Indonesia, Haiti and Nepal, post-tsunami Japan, Pakistan, Brazil, and Hurricane Sandy here in the US. We work with world leaders and strategic partners who take a 'no-nonsense’ attitude toward making global change.
It's hard to say when we'll be able to achieve this lofty goal, but our organizational structure and work is built upon trying to get as many people as possible involved in this mission. The idea isn't to get one person to drop off 100 clean water filters and call it a day. Let's instead try to get 100,000 travelers to each pack 10 small filters, or team up with groups to implement projects with larger filters for an entire village. Then, the world will start to take notice and we'll be that much closer to realizing the ultimate vision.
But the biggest thing I like to highlight and remember is to always think about addressing this challenge in a decentralized way — as a group, a movement, we can solve this problem, and in our lifetime no less.
Any other closing thoughts or words?
Stay crazy. If people are referring to the things you are doing as “crazy,” then you know you’re on the right track! We’ve got a short time on this planet—don’t waste it fitting in.