Fighting The Cruelty Of Human Trafficking, Social Entrepreneurs Craft New Models For Helping Victims

This article is reposted in its entirety from Forbes and was written by Tom Watson. President Obama has named January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month – public campaigns aimed at shining a light into the darkest corners of human cruelty: modern-day slavery and the trafficking of human beings in the United States and around the world.

One effort to combat trafficking and help its victims centers on the creativity and energy of social entrepreneursPartnership for Freedom is a coalition of funders in partnership with the Federal government to identify and fund new models for “innovative and sustainable social services for human trafficking survivors,” created by Humanity United, which is partof The Omidyar Group, and launched in partnership with the Obama Administration at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2012. The coalition includes the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative,Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, and other private donors, led by Pierre and Pam Omidyar.

That’s a lot boldface names, but one aspect of the partnership is well worth noting: a public funding challenge that asks social entrepreneurs to propose new solutions for helping victims of human trafficking in the U.S. That challenge has a prize of up to $1.8M over two years to fund the big ideas and measure their impact. Last month, a pool of 162 ideas from more than 260 organizations in 39 states was culled to a dozen finalists – later this spring, as many as three projects will be chosen for funding.

But while the funding is clearly top down, the ideas are much more bottom up.

And that explicit connection to social services practitioners, regional nonprofits, and a range of social entrepreneurs firmly links the hands-on knowledge and experience in this very difficult societal issue with the kind of support that can get a project off the ground, measure its impact and success – and potentially position the idea for greater scale and sustainability.

“The anti-trafficking space has been around for 15 years, we have laws and strong policies in the books, a great system of justice and engaged law enforcement and social services,” explained Catherine Chen, director of investments at Humanity United. “But there  has been little to no work on innovation around solutions in getting survivors out of the situation and helping them to rebuild their lives. We found this area particularly exciting, and the goal is try and spur groups on the ground, to think big – frankly, bigger than the current funding mechanisms at their disposal.”

The finalists for the initial challenge are intentionally diverse; they include ideas like:

  • SafeNight, a mobile and crowdfunding technology to increase emergency short-term shelter for human trafficking survivors, proposed by Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup.
  • The Networked Survivor, a plan for creating powerful career paths and networks for survivors of human trafficking, proposed by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
  • Homes for a New Horizon, an initiative designed to economically and socially empower Hawaii’s forced labor trafficked survivors and their families though an agricultural center, created by Pacific Gateway Center.
  • Thrive Partnership, a new community-based model for assisting survivors of domestic sex trafficking in the greater Baltimore area toward long-range goals of increased independence and self-sufficiency proposed by  the Araminta Freedom Initiative

One aspect that drove the decision to create a challenge – even in an age of manifold philanthropic contests that often leave nonprofits weary and defeated – was the idea of pushing for innovation, while also creating an entirely new funding channel. “For most providers, the primary funding mechanism has been the Federal funding model,” said Chen. The application barrier was purposely kept low, she explained; proposals were limited to no more than six pages with no fancy graphics or charts. “We wanted to keep the bar low intentionally at the beginning,” said Chen. Applicants were asked to answer one major questions – how could they increase services and improve the lives of trafficking victims in one of three particular areas: better housing, increased empowerment, or improved social services.

Last week, the finalists gathered in Washington DC for a day of collaboration aimed at tightening the proposed models, thinking through the models, and taking advantage of outside experts provided by the funding coalition to provide different viewpoints and additional knowledge. The pairing of these experts had a dual purpose: to help the teams with their ideas, but also to expose the experts to an issue area they may not be familiar with. For example, a landscape architect will advise the agricultural project in Hawaii, an expert from LinkedIn will counsel on the creation of a  professional network, experts in housing, homeless welfare,  refugees, and foster care will work on other projects. There was also coaches in communications, public relations and story-telling. Human trafficking, admits Chen, is often a hard story to tell – and a tough cause to sell.

Yet, Partnership for Freedom sees a maturing in the services area and a desire of those working so hard to end trafficking to improve systems, use better data, leverage technology, and take a chance on new models. The coalition’s fund in designed to be risk capital for those ventures. “This really needs a grassroots movement behind it,” said Chen. “We need to engage and activate professionals who wouldn’t have any interaction with this issue.