About The Sumba Foundation

We are fully committed to helping the people of Sumba prosper while preserving and respecting the cultural traditions of its people.

Petra Graves and the first staff at Nihiwatu. (1989)


The Sumba Foundation had an unlikely beginning. The founders, Claude and Petra Graves, first developed a hotel resort, called Nihiwatu. In the early years of the development of Nihiwatu (1988 to 1994), Claude and Petra Graves lived much the same as the villagers around them did. They didn’t have running water, electricity, or clinics to go to if they were sick. They each contracted malaria dozens of times, experiencing firsthand the debilitating disease.

Claude and Petra committed to finding solutions to these core issues their neighbors were struggling with: no access to water, poor health, widespread malaria, malnutrition, no health facilities within a day’s walk, and minimal education. The vehicle they would use to fulfill the needs of the community was Nihiwatu. Claude and Petra started by getting their guests involved in helping them help the community around the resort.

In 2001 they met Sean Downs, who was a guest at Nihiwatu. He was at a stage in his life where he was looking for something more meaningful, and he found it in Sumba. After reading Claude’s 20-year Sumba Foundation business plan, which outlined the many projects, how and when they would be initiated and their cost, Sean offered his help.

Soon after, the Sumba Foundation was established as a private, non-profit, non-governmental organization under the section 501(c)(3) of the United States Internal Revenue Code. The goal of the foundation: To help ease the burdens of poverty the Sumbanese communities were living under.


With the hotel guests’ involvement, miracles started to happen. Their support was and still is instrumental to the success of the Sumba Foundation.

Guest donations went directly to funding specific projects, and the donors often became personally involved in their projects. Knowing they were helping added value to their stay at Nihiwatu.

Nihiwatu’s role, in the joint mission to alleviate poverty in the region, was to be the economic engine of the Island. Hundreds of jobs were created in and outside of the resort. Without that employment there would have been no hope of lifting the community out of the harsh conditions they were living under.

The Sumba Foundation and Nihiwatu model, that of a non-profit working side by side with a for-profit business, each with its own role to play in poverty reduction, was recognized in 2007 when the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) awarded Nihiwatu the Tourism for Tomorrow Award, the “Oscars” of all travel awards.

And again in 2008, this tourism model was the winner of the PATA Gold Award.

A shining example of what can be achieved when people have commitment and there is a close collaboration between local people, owners and guests … an inspiring and fascinating story that will serve as a model for other places.
Judge’s comment


We may be small but we are a very effective organization that is fully committed to helping the people of Sumba prosper while preserving and respecting the cultural traditions of its people.

Our aid plan is based on 30 years of firsthand knowledge of the island and its people.

In those years, we have closely observed the way of life of the Sumbanese and we have consulted with them about their most urgent needs and aspirations. We have also gathered information from anthropologists, foreign volunteers, aid workers, and the government to formulate the way forward.

Our aid philosophy is to help the people help themselves; we do not believe in giving ongoing handouts or spending large sums of money to solve problems. The Sumba Foundation understands that small projects that are well managed and cost efficient bring the best results.

We feel that each and every one of us has a responsibility to better use our position and resources to help people living in poverty realize their needs and vision of a better world.

It is not simply about sharing our resources with others in need, but perhaps more importantly, it is about getting involved in the world around us with the goal of gaining a new perspective.

The Sumba Foundation’s work is rooted in the knowledge that the most effective actions must come from within the context of our own lives and hearts. As members of the human family, each of us is responsible and all of us are accountable.

The work of the Sumba Foundation aligns with many Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations.


Since the beginning of the Sumba Foundation, water, health, education, nutrition and economic projects have grown to cover 575 sq kilometers (359 miles) in West Sumba and the foundation has flourished and changed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

We have made life better for the 45,000 people we are helping every day with our many water, health, nutrition and education initiatives. Outside our core area there are several hundred thousand more who are benefiting from the collaborative projects we initiated in other areas of Sumba.

The Sumba Foundation is constantly evolving to meet the current and future needs of the Sumbanese people. Having established a solid foundation of better health and basic education for the community, we can move to what is needed next: supporting even better education, training new skills, and creating employment and small-scale business opportunities for future generations.