WaterWheel in Surrender to the Flow!

Surrender To The Flow is celebrating WaterWheel’s 25th Anniversary with a feature in the new issue. Check it out below!

Be sure to pick up your free copy of STTF on tour, or you can download a digital copy of the full issue here.

Happy 25th Anniversary to The WaterWheel Foundation!
By Jessica Coughlin, Boston MA 

This year The WaterWheel Foundation is celebrating two and a half decades of “thinking globally and acting locally,” with its Touring Division, fundraising across the country for local nonprofits in the communities where Phish performs, as well as hometown Vermont-based organizations. The missions of these nonprofits include social services, with a focus on women and children, environmental causes, particularly clean water and public land conservation, food banks, and much more. 

Fans raise funds by purchasing special merchandise, as well as show prints signed by the band and donated fan art, with the net proceeds after overhead costs contributed to the local nonprofit tabling at the show. Since its creation, WaterWheel has donated over $3.7 million to over 500 nonprofits through its Touring Division with $2 million to organizations working to protect Lake Champlain, $2.5 million to local Vermont groups, and $1 million to 30+ beneficiaries through the hugely popular Dinner And A Movie campaign. STTF is celebrating WW’s 25th all year and this is the first of a two-part feature in conversation with the folks who keep the wheel turning. 

Beth Montuori Rowles, General Manager at Phish Inc. and WW reflected,  “For me, WaterWheel is an embodiment of a collective consciousness of the Phish community.  The foundation is unique in the fact that it is part of Phish’s business structure, their 501(c)(3) entity, yet through the touring division WW has also become an integral part of the fanbase.  This type of charitable collaboration between a band and their fans is not common, though it has become a wildly successful partnership due the continuous support of both. All of the funds we’ve raised, all of the important work we have supported, all of the good will we have spread would not be possible without this collaboration. And, I like to think WaterWheel is an influence for the way the community thinks about its ability to influence positive action.  Even beyond WaterWheel, there is a plethora of charitable activity that takes place from within the Phish community.”

Henry Schwab is a founding father of WaterWheel and was there when it all began – he is the President of the B-corp women’s wear company WVN (pronounced woven), formerly the owner of Synergy Organic Clothing, and is now also working with World Systems Solutions, a nonprofit dedicated to resolving climate change. He first became involved with the Phish organization through working for Greenpeace and Henry spoke to us about the early days of WaterWheel, sharing his reflections on the impact on the live music community (this conversation has been edited for length and clarity):

“In early ‘97, Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream was created and the band wanted to give the royalties away to charity, which is how WaterWheel started. Later that summer, Greenpeace was closing their operations in the U.S. and we had our last night representing the org at The Great Went. At the time we shut it down, we got on the phone with members of the Phish organization and gave the whole rap of what we could do to make WaterWheel work on the road. As a band and with their management, they really do their due diligence and want hard working people, so we were able to convince them that it would be a success. And then WaterWheel Touring Division started on the first show of the fall tour, Las Vegas in November of 1997. 

The band was interested in different things. Fishman was more environmental, he was into water projects. And the other band members were into spreading out into different ideas like helping food banks, domestic violence and children’s causes. So it was my job to find a local nonprofit organization everywhere the band played and bring them to the concert and raise funds for them. Which I had done for Greenpeace on tour with Phish for 5 years, so it was already set up and ready to support what the band members and the organization would be into. 

We already had volunteers with tons of experience, we were already doing it, it was just the trust factor of taking Phish’s baby of The WaterWheel and bringing it on the road. All thanks to Beth Montuori Rowles, the head, the chief, the boss, the genius, the kindhearted person who without her, none of this would have ever happened. She is that hard, strong, brilliant, talented, original northeast powerhouse behind the scenes making the whole thing possible. She is the shining light of the organization and gave us all the support we needed to go on the road. 

We had about a 2 year period of making sure it worked, a little open-ended old school craziness. And Phish saw what a giant success it was, as it became more involved and became the entity it is today. In the fall of ‘97 we met Matthew Beck in Austin, Texas, and got him into the scene to help with the nonprofits to eventually become the WaterWheel leader on tour for over two decades. He is another person who was integral like Beth- if Matthew wasn’t out there being the guiding light and so beloved by the crew and the band, WaterWheel would not be able to evolve to the magic it is today. 

Right now what WaterWheel has done with bringing other groups into the fold has been amazing, like Phans for Racial Equity (PHRE), it is such a beautiful thing. I was able to talk to them at Deer Creek and feel that energy and know how important it is to have these groups keep on evolving and keep getting better. Jim Pollock has his pop ups at shows and donates all his time and energy, it’s wonderful.  It’s an honor to be part of it as one of the godfathers of the organizations, to be one of those OGs is just a great feeling. Phish was always making sure the nonprofit groups got huge donations, they really care about everything we do and the feeling they put out there. There’s not many bands that do that and a lot of organizations have copied what WaterWheel has done. The stories over the years are endless and the people are the key to the whole thing, the love that the organizations give back and how happy they are to come to the shows, receive the money, and feel the outpouring of support of our community.“