Skip to main content

Google By Day, Nonprofit by Night

Nathan Rogers ’12 is helping empower communities in Ghana to fund, build, and maintain clean water wells.
July 14, 2023
By Tracy Seipel
Photo of a Ghanaian woman using a Well Constructed hand pump well.
| Photographs courtesy of Well Constructed.


As valedictorian of the Class of 2012,  Nathan Rogers reminded his fellow Santa Clara graduates to never forget their tremendous potential to generate meaningful change throughout the world.

Then he went and followed his own advice. 

Eight years ago this month, Rogers co-founded Well Constructed, a nonprofit that helps communities in West Africa fund, build, and maintain fresh water wells. Today, the group is on track to complete its 323rd well by year’s end, serving some 175,000 people, and counting.

Rogers’ success comes as no surprise to those who knew him at Santa Clara, where civil engineering Senior Lecturer Tonya Nilsson says Rogers’ “contagiously positive attitude” set him apart from others. “He was ‘all in’ in the classroom, asking questions, participating in discussions. I remember he and a classmate were always competing to see who could do better—and they would both do really well.”

But he was also a valued team player, says civil engineering Professor Reynaud Serrette. “If he could help you, he would help you—that was his nature,” Serrette recalls. “He was the glue that pulled everyone together.”

Life-changing trip

Rogers traces his non-profit journey to a Senior Design Conference presentation he attended as a sophomore in 2010, where a team of civil engineering students showcased their work building a sustainable library and house in the Upper East Region of Ghana.

In rural areas, they explained, Ghanaians traditionally build circular mud huts with thatched roofs made of tree branches. But decades of deforestation had mostly eliminated that option. 

Western-style housing, the students knew, would be expensive and impractical. Through their SCU studies, they had learned about older structures around the world that were commonly built using primarily local soil. They focused on a combination of mud and soil.

“They had built something that people were going to use, which could change the building practices in the whole region and beyond, and have a massive impact on people’s lives,” Rogers remembers thinking.

SCU engineering students helped to build this sustainable home in Ghana.

SCU engineering students helped to build this sustainable home in Ghana.

Seven months later, he would join a new group of SCU students traveling to Ghana, where they followed up on the previous cohort’s efforts, further refining their concepts. Not only did it become the basis for Rogers' own Senior Design Project, the experience opened the Seattle native’s eyes about the kind of impact he could make on humanity.

As he noted in his valedictory address, “For the first time, I had a sense of meaning. For the first time, I saw with stunning clarity, this is what happiness is … And this is what it means to live a constructive life.”

The ‘aha’ moment

After graduation, Rogers started working for Turner Construction, where he had been an intern. He didn’t stay long. A year later, his focus changed when Google recruited him to parlay his engineering skills into team building and project management.

Yet Ghana always loomed in the back of his mind. In 2014 he returned to mentor a group of SCU civil engineering students, once again building sustainable housing there. 

While Rogers was focused on housing, he also visited with Ghanaian friends he had made there in 2011, including Rashed Anaba. At the time, Anaba had been building wells in the sun-baked region. He now told Rogers that his funding was about to end, and unless he could secure more, he would soon be out of business. 

The Upper East Region of Ghana, which is home to about three million people in rural communities—like the one where Rogers was helping to build housing—is in desperate need of clean sources for water. Locals rely on surface water to meet their daily needs, but the lake and river water they drink and use to bathe with is often shared by animals, which can spread E. coli that can sicken people.

If locals want a clean source of water, Anaba told him, women and children must walk hours to get it, which means kids miss school and women are absent from work. Anaba’s solution was to drill down to the nearest water table, then install a hand pump and concrete foundation up top. The entire process, which costs $4,000, takes about three weeks.

It was an aha-moment for Rogers, who realized the impact of drilling wells for clean water was more urgent than building sustainable housing. He committed to fund one well; anything more would require a huge investment he couldn’t afford on his own.

Nathan Rogers '12, co-founder and executive director of Well Constructed.

Nathan Rogers '12, co-founder and executive director of Well Constructed.

As the two men talked, they dreamed. And Rogers, who had always wondered about the world of nonprofits, considered ways they could start their own well-drilling operation as a nonprofit. The next year, Well Constructed was born, with Anaba as its CEO.

A money and management challenge

“What we do is not a sexy solution,” says Rogers of the  nonprofit's well-drilling process, which does not include creating solar-powered wells at this time. There's a reason for that: those wells, he says, require added maintenance, parts, and specialized skills to effectively maintain. So when a solar well goes down, the repairs are slow and expensive. 

“It’s old tech, but it works,” says Rogers of the nonprofit’s well-drilling model. “So it’s not a tech challenge, it’s a money and management challenge.” 

This no-ego approach is central to his philosophy about helping people. Even before Well Constructed’s launch, Rogers knew he wasn’t the right person to be making the key well-drilling design and implementation decisions. That’s because Anaba had already established strong relationships with local vendors and crews experienced in doing the work. Rogers realized he was better suited to raising money, so he focused his efforts on setting up the nonprofit, assembling a board of directors, and learning how to fundraise.

“I can add a lot more value by getting behind someone who is from that area and already implementing things,” he explains. ”I can be their cheerleader and supporter and help them with funding.”

Well Constructed runs a lean operation, according to Rogers, with no paid staff in the U.S. “So when anyone donates money to us, it goes directly to fund the operations in Ghana, and keeps the money flowing to where it is needed as efficiently as possible,” he says. The nonprofit’s board of directors covers the cost of website fees, accounting, and other administrative expenses. Last year, Rogers spent about $1,200 to raise $483,000 in donations. 

Personally, Rogers takes no salary from Well Constructed. His job at Google eliminates any need.

A Well Constructed team drills a well for a community in Ghana.

A Well Constructed team drills a well for a community in Ghana.

In Ghana, the nonprofit employs a team of five Ghanaians. And wherever Well Constructed builds wells, a five-member community association—which must include at least two women—is established and responsible for raising funds within the community for maintaining the well and keeping the well area clean.

“I think what’s unique about us is we kind of take this bottom-up approach,” says Rogers. “That’s how we’ve been able to scale and grow and stay organized. We put the power into the hands of the local people who are driving these projects.”

The 'always learning' mindset

While Rogers’ first priority is his job at Google—and it keeps him plenty busy—he says co-workers help support his efforts.

“I’m able to connect with a lot of people who are really smart and paid well and want to do something good with their money,” says Rogers, who accomplishes the bulk of his fundraising during Google’s holiday giving campaign, where the company matches donations raised by individual employees.

Diane Solinger, a team leader at Google and nonprofit expert who  has helped advise Rogers along the way, marvels at his tenacity and passion to make the world a better place.

“It’s been a really incredible journey to watch his social entrepreneur path,” she says. “It’s hard work, and sometimes things don’t go as planned. But he picks himself up and asks, ‘What could we do differently?’” 

Solinger, who has two sisters and a nephew who graduated from Santa Clara, says she sees a similar attitude in all the Broncos she knows. “That’s the kind of ‘always learning’ mindset that a good education gives you. And Santa Clara does that.”