Giving Back: Key to Thirst Relief International’s Success

Giving Back: Key to Thirst Relief International’s Success


Ohio wedding photographer Jim Davis-Hicks received a middle-of-the- night calling in 2005: “Thirst. Take water to the nations.” He shared his vision with his wife, Lara, and photographer friends Mike Colon and David Jay.

At first he thought, “Yeah, I’ll do it when I turn 50. I’ll have all my ducks in a row, a nest egg built up, a solid business running, and I’ll be in a position to give a little back.” A fortuitous meeting with a man about his age, who owned a business and ran a nonprofit, was the spark he needed to found Thirst Relief International, an organization that brings clean water solutions to countries where people are literally dying from the lack of clean water.

“I couldn’t wait another year, day or even minute because every 15 seconds someone dies of a waterborne disease.”

A few staggering statistics to consider:

• 884 million people lack access to safe water supplies (down from 1.1 billion in 2005, the year Thirst Relief began).

• 2.5 million people die each year from water-related diseases.

• The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives than all wars combined over the past thousand years.

• An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than a typical person in a developing country slum uses in a whole day.

Since their first project, bringing clean water to Brazil’s Amazon, in 2005, Thirst Relief International has brought relief to eight other countries: Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Cameroon, India and Haiti. By next month, they will have brought more than 200,000 people a long-term clean water solution for only $5 per person!

“We do this by using a bio-sand filter (BSF), which uses a naturally occurring bio layer that acts like Pac-Man and actually eats the viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause illness,” says Davis-Hicks. “It is an amazing and simple technology. We use local resources, local labor and local management to oversee and produce highly accountable reports and results.” 

Photo Industry Support

Jim Davis-Hicks and his team introduced Thirst Relief to the photo community at WPPI in late 2005. Since then, about 65% of its funding has come from fundraisers held throughout the photo community, such as the Annual Thirst Relief Mentor Auction.

“For this popular annual auction, about 100 top photographers donate 90 minutes of their time to become mentors for other photographers,” he explains. “The auction has grown each year, now drawing thousands of bidders vying to win time with their favorite photography mentors. Sponsorship spots are welcome, offering product giveaways, matching donations, helping us spread the word to the industry and beyond.”

They also hold an annual Thirst Relief Benefit Shoot in Las Vegas, a hands-on instructional photo shoot featuring as instructors Mike Colon, David Beckstead, David and Luke Edmonson, Richard Sturdevant and Joseph Victor Stevanchek. Professional models, great locations, vintage scooters, travel buses and food are all a part of this popular shoot.

This year the Thirst Relief team started three fundraisers for photo professionals:

1. Thirst for More Tour. Davis-Hicks and his family are traveling the U.S. in a 40-foot RV to share with photo groups all over the country. His talk, “Thirst for More: Passion. Purpose. Profit. Productivity,” inspires, challenges and gives photographers the tools they need to combine their desire to give back with their passion and businesses in a practical, profitable and highly productive way. They’ve traveled to 12 cities and have another 20+ booked. If you’re interested in sponsoring this tour, hosting a meeting and spreading the message that $5 saves a life to the photo community, please contact Thirst Relief at or call 866.5THIRST. A redesigned website will be live soon as well.

2. Plus One. Photographers who present workshops open up one extra seat per workshop, thus the name Plus One, with proceeds from that extra seat benefiting Thirst Relief. No out-of-pocket expenses are involved for the workshop leader. If you’re interested in becoming a Plus One Partner or Plus One Workshop Sponsor, please contact Thirst Relief at or call 866.5THIRST.

3. Thirst Giveaway. This one-day giveaway event has many products from manufacturers of quality photography accessories, equipment, software and workshops. To be entered in the raffle, photographers must sign up for a $5 monthly recurring donation. To sponsor this event, contact Thirst Relief at or call 866.5THIRST.


Thirst Relief M.O.

Thirst Relief started with a small, passionate team of volunteers. Still quite small today, the organization is run incredibly lean and mean with 100% of public donations going for clean water. Administrative salaries are raised separately.

“After serving as a volunteer for six years, I am transitioning into a paid position at Thirst Relief so I can keep up with the growing demands upon the organization and its need for strong leadership. We are currently building that team and in search of more partners,” says its founder.

On the ground in the various recipient countries, Thirst Relief works with nationals who know the language, care about the people and have long-term interests in the communities and lives of those they serve. They equip, train and deploy bio-sand technicians, well drillers and hand-pump repairmen to go into impoverished communities and provide long-term clean water solutions, along with essential education on sanitation and hygiene.

Not surprisingly, difficult economic times make it harder to encourage people to donate. “It’s difficult to think about others when you fear for yourself and those you care for,” says Davis-Hicks. “Our goal is to explain to everyone within and beyond the photo community that a simple $5 gift can provide a lifetime supply of clean water for someone who is literally dying of thirst. You may think, ‘what difference can $5 really make?’ For those we serve, it’s the difference between life and death!”


Business Impact

As founder and president, Jim Davis-Hicks wears many hats, one day conference calling with staff, partners and donors, the next day leading meetings, networking, connecting, strategizing for improvements in projects, or updating Facebook,, or tweeting. He’s traveling cross-country this year with the Thirst for More Tour, meeting with donors and people along the way, talking to schools, photo groups, churches, rotary groups, et al.

“In retrospect, I realize I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I started, but I have no regrets. I am downsizing my home and have reduced my business to focus more on Thirst Relief, so we can save as many lives as possible. My wife and kids have given up more than anyone, while I’ve maintained two businesses— for photography and for editing software—and they are key players in this project. My kids sell lemonade and original works of art to contribute to the cause. We have an amazing website——funded by an anonymous foundation, which allows any donor to create their own fundraising page to track how their donation was used, see images from the projects, etc. My children created their own page at The Power of Kids fundraising page, where they can see the power of their donations over time.”

He is very excited about the momentum in the photo industry as more photographers join in and give back via their businesses. Many are emulating what he has done with his business. For example, he offers photography clients “life in art, capturing yours saving another” as part of every package, collection, album, etc. With each of these Signature Life Collections—named after water projects, such as Xingu Collection—a portion of each sale buys a 24×36-inch custom framed portrait. Each time a client buys one of these portraits, a family in need receives a filter on the Xingu River in the Amazon. You can purchase a 24×36-inch print anywhere, but you can only buy a Xingu from Davis-Hicks. That’s added value to the product, a bigger purpose in each sale, plus a story with each collection.

Have a calling or passion to start something? “Do it. And realize it will cost you a lot, possibly more than you imagine, but the rewards also are greater than you can imagine,” he says. “Surround yourself with people who are smarter, brighter, more gifted, people who fill in your weaknesses. Take blame, push the limits, build trust, allow people to challenge you as a leader. You may not have all the answers and may not have a strong leadership bent, but your heart is filled with compassion, a desire that motivates others to action and a passion that’s contagious!”

Concludes Jim Davis-Hicks, “Late nights, travel, sacrifice are par for the course, but designer items or luxury vacations pale in comparison to what we have gained knowing that literally thousands upon thousands of lives have been saved and forever impacted by following my ‘middle-of-the-night’ calling.”