Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Doc Hendley of Wine To Water Is Helping To Change Our World

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If I knew then what I know now, it never would have translated the right way or prepared me for what it’s like when you’re losing sleep over having to let go of a team member, or even loss of life, or other really hard situations in an organization. No amount of foresight is ever going to prepare someone that’s in the middle of a challenge and having to work through it. I truly needed those on-the-fly failures, mistakes, and successes to figure out how to navigate them on my own. And a strong team is key as well.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Doc Hendley.

Doc Hendley is the Founder and International President of the nonprofit, Wine To Water. He began the organization in 2004 and has since worked in 50 countries and reached more than 1.4 million people with clean water. Doc was selected as a CNN Hero in 2009 and his work has saved thousands of lives by providing humanity’s most basic need and right: clean water.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

While a bartender back in the early 2000s, I had no idea there was a global water crisis. I didn’t have much idea what was going on outside my little bubble in the Irish pub where I worked in the Raleigh area of North Carolina.

One night, a phrase kept coming to mind, “Wine To Water.” My daddy was a preacher, and so I was used to hearing phrases about water and wine, but the phrase I was thinking seemed backward. I kept thinking, “Why is this stuck in my head, and why is it backward? Maybe it’s a cool idea for a country song.” So, I wrote down “wine to water” on a pad that I keep near my bed to write music ideas. And when I saw the words written on the page, I knew it was supposed to be something else other than a song. I didn’t know what, but that night, I couldn’t sleep.

I started researching on the computer and found out there was (and is) a water crisis going on in our world. I discovered there were kids and families that walked for hours just to get water. And then when they got it, they drank it, it made them sick, and some even die from it. I discovered people were dying around the world from diarrheal disease due to contaminated water. I knew I was supposed to do something about this.

Not long after that, I quit my job and moved to Sudan to begin working on helping people have access to clean, safe drinking water.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

We were responding to the Haitian earthquake in 2010. It was about a year since their government collapsed — physically collapsed — there were no government offices, etc. which made it the easiest time to get supplies for aid and help in and out of Haiti. We were able to get water filters in to help people in the area.

The second the government started to rebuild buildings and got things back in order, they closed the borders and corruption started happening. The Wine To Water team bringing in help for people was told by the border officials that they needed to bribe them to get across. They wanted us to pay $5,000 to get our truck over the border with the life-saving water filters. My team called me in a panic, and I said, “We’re not paying some government official five grand to bring life-saving aid into their country! I’ll be down there in a couple of days to take care of it.”

I flew down there, drove to the border, and tried many different ways to convince my way across, but nothing worked. I even tried to just blow by the officials and drive on through — not to hurt anybody, because there wasn’t anyone in front of me — they all jumped out of different areas with guns and stopped the truck. At that point, I realized I’m not going to get this truck through at this location without giving in on the bribe. So I backed up, went down south to a small fishing village in the southern part of the Dominican Republic, and paid a fisherman to help us unload our whole truck into a boat. We smuggled in all our life-saving water filters by ocean, through the night, where my team met us on a beach and got it all to shore.

In my mind, no law can be written against helping people on this planet have access to safe drinking water. And I was always a little bit of a rebel anyway, so it was a fun way to break the rules a little bit, but also save lives.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve made a lot of mistakes — probably 100 times more mistakes than successes. We learn more from our mistakes. The very first water well I ever tried to dig in Sudan was a miserable failure. I paid some workers and we dug by hand with no machinery. I just thought I was going to start doing this project with no engineering background, no idea what I’m doing, and we dug for almost a whole month or more in this one spot. We made the hole extra big because I thought, “When we hit water, I want there to be a lot of it for all these people.” Eventually, we just had to give up because we never found water.

So that’s when I began to realize that maybe I didn’t have to have an engineering degree to get started, but it’s important when I’m in a local area, to find people that know what they’re doing. Those people are all over the place. Now we love hiring local teams and local people on the ground that know the area, know the landscape, and know the communities and what’s available. Then we can also have locally available materials to fix these problems instead of shipping in people and materials from the outside world.

So that early mistake taught me a whole lot. Unfortunately, there may still be a massive, gaping hole in the middle of Sudan. Hopefully, it hasn’t swallowed up any goats, sheep, or anything like that.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I don’t think there is any more of a social impact on this planet than helping people access clean, safe drinking water. Whether it’s here in the United States or the other 50+ countries where we’ve worked around the world, helping millions of people access clean water is about as socially impactful as you can get.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I remember specifically, a mother in Cambodia. We went to visit her water well about four or five years after we installed it, just to check on things. She told us it was still functioning great, and we asked her to tell us her story. She said before this well came, she used to have to go around her community and beg for food for her family, just to survive. Her husband had died, and it was just her and her children. Then we installed the well for her and some of the surrounding homes in her community. After that, everything changed. She started using the water from the well not just for her family to drink from and not get sick but also used it to irrigate and grow a garden.

Ever since then, she never had to beg ever again. She then had an abundance and was able to help other people in her community.

All this was just because that woman now had access to something that many take for granted, because we have it coming right out of our tap and we don’t have to think about it.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, support Wine To Water’s volunteer program which is now relaunching after the pandemic. We love having volunteers come out in the field to work alongside our teams that are making filters or digging wells. There are also opportunities when we’re responding to disasters, like helping people get filters right after a hurricane, tornado, or flood.

We also need funding for this type of work to provide filters, and to build factories in places like Tanzania, where we get people jobs, and teach them how to make water filters to help their own community. It requires startup costs to do those kinds of things. Donations can be made on

Finally, raise awareness and host a fundraiser. Wine To Water fundraisers are a great way to bring friends and family together. There are several ways that both the community and society can help support our organization.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I have a love/hate relationship with the word, “leadership.” I think we tend to throw that word around and use it for anything and everything as a society, especially in the business world. There are different types of leaders, and there should be different words for them, but we tend to lump them all together.

There’s the type of person that manages people and their actions. We need those types of people. Then I think there’s something else that defines leadership, and it’s not just the idea of selflessness, it’s the ability to help others see the world through a different perspective. Perhaps to help them to see their job, or what they’re trying to accomplish in their community, and help them to see someone else’s perspective. The point is not to just convince them that your way is either right or better, but to help people to see things through a different lens and see the world — whether it’s their local world, or the global world — in a more holistic way. For me, that’s an important part of leadership.

Then helping encourage people towards decisions — again, not a leader-specific decision, but to look at a problem and solve it in a different way than they maybe would have had you not intervened. Then in the end, allow that person to take ownership of that decision, whether it’s right or wrong, and be behind them 100 percent.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I don’t know if I have five things, in fact, I’m not sure I could answer that question at all, because telling someone to prepare for failure or heartache, and prepare for hundreds of sleepless nights, might keep them from moving forward. If someone would have told me all those things, that probably would have just terrified me more than I was already with starting something new.

If I knew then what I know now, it never would have translated the right way or prepared me for what it’s like when you’re losing sleep over having to let go of a team member, or even loss of life, or other really hard situations in an organization. No amount of foresight is ever going to prepare someone that’s in the middle of a challenge and having to work through it. I truly needed those on-the-fly failures, mistakes, and successes to figure out how to navigate them on my own. And a strong team is key as well.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Being impactful with water work would have a massive influence on the world. Water brings people together. It can unite people; people from different tribes, different religious backgrounds, different faiths, or no faith at all. If they do it properly, they all come together around water. They realize that water is our literal lifeblood as a society, and we need to work together so that we can all thrive.

When that begins to fall apart — perhaps tribes or different groups of people think they are more important than others, or they dehumanize others- that’s when water turns into war.

I would encourage others to use water work properly because it can unite people from around the world and we can accomplish big things, not just with water, but other things for our society. We must come together and realize that our differences are what makes humanity vibrant and beautiful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As I said, my dad was a preacher, and there’s a quote he would tell me that I think about and have used a lot at many different times in my life. “Fight the good fight.” With this water work that we do, sometimes we must deal with things like greedy officials demanding bribes for themselves, or we have to deal with things that we don’t want to deal with, and there are times that it’s simply just time to fight. There are fights that are worth fighting.

I spent a lot of time in my earlier life (before Wine To Water) not fighting a good fight. I was a very difficult, hard-headed individual, and I spent a lot of time and energy fighting the wrong fights when I was younger and probably causing way more harm than good. As I got older, it helped me to take that energy that’s somewhere deep inside, to fight for good.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

The first person that comes to mind is Barack Obama. I am intrigued by Obama as it relates to an event that occurred at a prestigious university in the northeast — it was a discrepancy of sorts — between a professor and somebody else. I do not remember specifically what the situation was, but what I would like to discuss over a private meal is Obama’s response. He invited these two individuals to the White House to have a beer and talk about it. That solution stuck with me.

If we could take two opposing parties that seem like they’re the exact opposites of each other and figure out a way to just sit down and talk through challenges in a relatable environment, there would be fewer issues in our world.

I saw conversations like that work every day back when I worked in the pub. My favorite thing about being a bartender was watching people from all walks of life interact as equals — CEOs of companies would sit next to schoolteachers, and stay-at-home moms next to construction workers. We all had different ideas, opinions, and views of the world, but we all had great conversations, and everybody walked away as friends at the end of the day, even though we may have disagreed on some topics.

I learn more from people that are different from me than from people that are just like me. I’d rather sit down with somebody that I’m intrigued by and from whom I have a lot to learn.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit our website,; the pages are full of our latest relief efforts in the U.S. and around the world, volunteer opportunities to sign up for, and our holiday wine and coffee gifts you can purchase to support our cause.

I appreciate this opportunity. Cheers!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Doc Hendley of Wine To Water Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.