Denver: Humanity United is dedicated to cultivating the conditions for enduring peace and freedom. They support and work alongside partners who are working to advance human dignity and change the systems that enable violent conflict and human exploitation to occur around the world.
Srik: Thank you, Denver. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Denver: So, your organization was founded back in 2005. Tell us a little bit about its history and of its mission.
Srik: Sure. Yeah, we are a philanthropic organization. And as you said, we are focused on cultivating the conditions for enduring freedom and peace, and I’ll say a little bit about each of those words. But in terms of our history, we were founded and we continue to be supported by Pam Omidyar and Pierre Omidyar, who are well-known philanthropists.
And going back to our mission, each of those words were specifically chosen. So, the word “cultivate” speaks to the organic nature of social change and the fact that it’s really more about tending a garden than it is about operating machinery.
The word “conditions” speaks to the systemic nature of the change, and we really are an organization focused on systems change–defined as shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place.
The word “enduring” speaks to the multi-generational, long-term nature of the problems we are tackling and the sustainability that we hope to achieve.
And then the words “freedom” and “peace” really speak to our main programmatic areas of focus.
Denver: A lot of time spent on such a short statement, I know, but to get it all in there… and it’s packed with meaning… and I like that an awful lot. Well, you do focus on two broad areas of work, and let’s discuss each of these, starting with peace-building.
Now, Srik, according to the UN, as you know, violent conflict has reached a 30-year high, and more than 70 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide. This is a daunting challenge. How do you even approach something like this?
Srik: Oh my gosh. Yeah. Daunting indeed. Yeah. So, our peace-building portfolio really focuses on establishing the frameworks and conditions for peace, often in post-conflict situations in regions of the world, but also trying to set up some global infrastructure and frameworks and processes.
There’s three specific areas of focus that we have within our peace-building portfolio. The first, we call people power, and that’s really about providing people with more power, really the people that are closest to the issues, the closest to the work, empowering them to act.
And the second area of focus is shifting institutions, and that’s about getting global institutions to recognize the power imbalance that exists in our current post-colonial, peace-building system, and shifting their practices accordingly.
And then the third piece is called catalyzing conditions, and that’s where we support organizations, networks, coalitions that are working on establishing this global infrastructure for peace.
Denver: Okay. Let’s talk about just one of those– Shifting power imbalances… Do people in power recognize that? And how do you really shift those power imbalances more than somebody saying we’re doing it… but actually surrendering that power, which frankly was never theirs to begin with, but really understanding that this is an even playing field here?
Srik: Yeah. I think it’s a combination of things, and I think one is building power in communities that hadn’t traditionally had the power and providing them the tools, the resources, the capacities so that they can build their own power.
The other is helping some of the global institutions, as I mentioned, that have traditionally benefited from having that power, and helping them to understand that it is really in their interest to give some of that power up, really in their interest if they’re really seeking to enrich and improve these communities. It is not going to happen in this current system of skewed power differentials.
Denver: Yeah. Got you. Is there a movement to have more of this peace-building being done locally… with locally-led organizations?
Srik: Absolutely. I think that is really our prime focus here, to support localization, to support local organizations, to move the locus of power, if you will, more towards the local.
And I also want to unpack the word “local” a little bit because often it tends to be interpreted to be the same as “regional” or from a particular place. That may be true in certain situations, but we define it more broadly as the people that are closest to the issues that we care about.
So, the people might be closest to the issues by being part of the community, or they may just be survivors of conflict or survivors of trafficking. And in that way, they are close to the issue and have this lived experience off the issue.
Denver: Yeah. And then what you try to do is take these locally-led efforts, and you try to connect them to networks, and things of that nature. Would that be right?
Srik: Absolutely. We take these local efforts and, for instance, peace-building we’re working in Colombia, in South Sudan, in Mali. And we connect those to each other as well as these global infrastructure and global networks for peace.
Denver: Your other focus that you just touched on a moment ago is forced labor and human trafficking. And these are issues that you’ve been working on for over 10 years. How significant a problem is that? We don’t really know, I think, in this part of the world, how big that might be. And what are some of the initiatives that you’ve undertaken to address it?
Srik: Yeah. By most global estimates, put the number of displaced or trafficked people between 25 and 40 million worldwide; that includes labor as well as sex trafficking. And we are just starting to get the numbers of how that has changed in the last few years with COVID. And by most estimates, there’s some significant increase in those numbers that we have seen in these last two years.
So, our focus there really is on the labor trafficking side of the equation and looking at situations of labor exploitation that often happens in situations of migration. So, we have three focus areas again under forced labor, human trafficking.
The first one is called safer migration, and that’s to create pathways for safe migration for workers. The second is about worker agency, and that is building the power and capacity of the frontline workers. And the third piece is corporate accountability, and that is about holding corporations accountable for fair labor practices, including in their supply chains.
Denver: So, having done this for over a decade, what new understandings, and maybe you just mentioned those new understandings, have you come to that is really informing your work?
Srik: I think just like we talked about in the peace-building, right? It has to be this combination of local and global work, and change that needs to happen for the sector to have some significant shifts. So, for instance, in our forced labor, human trafficking work, we work locally in the Middle East, in Qatar, and we work in Thailand, and we also work globally on companies and supply chains.
So, it has to be a combination of those things. So, the work in the Middle East focuses on labor migration from South Asia to the Middle East for instance. The work in Thailand focuses on labor migration from say Myanmar or other Southeast Asian countries to Thailand, where folks are forced to work on these slave ships, as they call them, for months, years at a time.
But those problems cannot be solved in isolation regionally. You also have to have corporations. You have to have governments that are held accountable and responsible. For instance, in Qatar, we are working to put pressure on the government of Qatar using the upcoming Soccer World Cup as a venue that the world has its eyes on this country.
And we are also working at the same time on issues of mandatory human rights due diligence in Europe. We’re working on the Tariff Act in the US. So, really, this multi-pronged approach that has to come together for us to really improve these situations of forced labor.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. I love the World Cup one because, again, what you’re doing is you’re seizing an opportunity, and people were pretty outraged they even got that awarded in the first place. But now that the world’s going to be looking, you might as well leverage that to the hilt and try to get them to do some of the things they probably should have done a long time ago.
Srik: Exactly. And using the government, but also corporations…there are going to be international hotels chains that are putting up these visitors to the World Cup. There’s FIFA. That’s part of the equation here. There’s several different international teams that are going to be visiting the country.
So, how do we, again, take this multi-pronged approach to draw attention to the issue, but also use it to catalyze some real change?
Denver: Yeah. Another part of your portfolio, Srik, is public engagement. Now, what does that entail? And what are the keys in making that successful? That’s a tough one.
Srik: Yeah. Public engagement is our cross-cutting portfolio, if you will, and it houses our policy communications and journalism support teams. And the overall objective of that portfolio is really to create some global, national policies, structures, and narratives in support of freedom and peace. And, I think, for us, the key to making it successful is that it’s a two-fold objective.
So, one is that the public engagement portfolio is in service of our other programmatic portfolios, but it’s also at the same time in service of our overall mission and the overall field. So, for instance, if our policy team works on a piece of legislation, say the Global Fragility Act or the Trafficking Victims Protection Act or recently, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, those directly inform and benefit our portfolios and our partners and grantees, but they also benefit the larger field. And, I think that really is the key to their success.
Denver: Yeah. That’s really interesting. I guess you could phrase that as movement generosity, but often when you’re trying to get an organization’s work out there, the media doesn’t care that much, but if you broaden it to a whole movement, a field, you got another hook for them to be able to say, “Let’s write about this. Let’s get some attention to it.” So, it’s not only the right thing to do, but it also sounds to me like a pretty smart thing to do.
Srik: Exactly. And then the journalism work that we support, in some ways, amplifies and shines a light on those movement generosity efforts.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Humanity United, you recently announced a new organizational strategy. But before we get to the specifics of the strategy, and we will, what precipitated this new approach? What were the conditions that had you say: it’s time for a new organizational strategy?
Srik: Yeah. So, like many family philanthropies, we grew up organically through our programs. We started with the programs that our founders were most interested in, and we grew from there.
But as we entered our teenage years, we realized that we had a need for some more coherence, some more strategic coherence across our work, and some more structure and stability to the organization. While the early years were great for innovation and experimentation, we needed to balance that with a bit more stability and guidance.
And also, over the 15 or so years of our existence, the world has changed and continues to change. There’s been some massive shifts just in the last two years with COVID, and we felt like we needed some organizational guideposts or anchors to really help us navigate this increasingly complexifying world.
“By design our organizational strategies go light on the whats and heavier on the hows because that’s really where we hope to have this consistency in the organization across our various programs; and candidly I believe that’s our secret sauce, is in the hows.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. I run into this all the time particularly for founders of organizations that have run that gamut of 10 or 15 years or so, and those ideas that energize the organization have just run flat… you call it teenage years; I might even call it a midlife crisis, but there’s a time where you need to say we have to recalibrate this because we’re in a different league now and our impact, we just can’t go with the starters, the spunk. You really have to think about this in a completely different way. Looking at those guideposts, you have five strategic pillars. Tell us about those.
Srik: So, let me just step back for moment and say the organizational strategy as we have it, someone who’s steeped in a traditional view of strategic planning might look at it a bit quizzically and say: That doesn’t look like organizational strategies I’m used to,” and I would say that’s quite intentional.
By design our organizational strategies go light on the “whats” and heavier on the “hows” because that’s really where we hope to have this consistency in the organization across our various programs; and candidly, I believe, that’s our secret sauce, is in the “hows.”
Denver: I really agree with that because the whats are a to-do list. When you check things off the to-do list, they come and go, but how you do things endure.
Srik: Yeah. And it’s also a way for us to hold ourselves accountable to our partners, say, this is how we intend to show up. And we’re actually going to do a grantee perception report this year after a gap of several years, and we’re going to be asking for feedback: Did we show up in those ways?
So, going back to the strategic pillars, those really are an articulation of the hows. So, there’s five of them. The first is that we work through relationships and networks, and this essentially means that we hardly ever work alone. We work almost always in partnerships with local community organizations or global organizations working on systems change.
The second pillar is that we practice a philosophy of accompaniment. And this is a word that’s special to us. It’s a term of art. It comes from the work of John Paul Lederach, who’s a giant in the peace-building field and a senior fellow on our team, as well as the work of Paul Farmer and others.
And the way we define “accompaniment” is that it’s a long- term commitment to walking alongside our partners and doing everything in our power to increase their power, capacity, and expertise. It’s a long-term commitment to walking alongside and doing everything we can to increase their power and expertise and capacity. So, that’s the second pillar.
The third pillar is that we are learning-focused, system- enabled, and people-centered, and that recognizes the fact that we are a systems change organization, but at the same time deeply cognizant of the fact that people are at the center of these systems, and mutual learning with our partners is just wrapped around the whole approach.
Our fourth pillar is that we are expansive in our efforts. And this speaks to our ability to provide support beyond the check, whether it’s policy and advocacy support, communications, research, convening, network-building, we have that expertise on our staff, and we are able to provide that to our partners, to complement the financial support they receive from us.
And then the last pillar, the fifth one is that we invest internally so we can grow together with our partners. And this is really about our commitment to be the change we want to see in the world by investing in our own organization, being a values-based and resilient organization… where our folks can go out there and be change makers in the world.
Denver: I want to pick up on that last one in a moment, but let me just ask you a little bit about your approach to doing this. If you were going to give some advice to somebody who’s probably contemplating a new organizational strategy, and I know there are a lot of people out there doing it, what first piece of advice would you give them before they embark upon this journey?
Srik: Well, I would maybe ask them to look inside their own organizations and see how much is just already in the bloodstream of the organization that just needs to be made explicit because often people think about, “Oh, a new organization strategy! Let’s start from scratch; let’s think blue sky.” In some cases, that might be the right approach, but most organizations have a history, have a legacy, have years of experience doing something.
So, I would ask them to look inside their own organization and say, Is there something in your bloodstream that is implicit that just needs to be made explicit. And that might be 80% of the job of getting there. And in addition, you might have to articulate some new things, but really start looking underneath the organization first.
“And, again, our role in this was building the network, showing up as a company who is providing support beyond the check, but really letting those partners on the ground run with the plan for what needs to happen in this current fragile environment.”
Denver: That’s a good idea. I think when you talk about change management, we always talk about the change, and you almost want to say to people 70%, 80% of this is going to stay the same, so don’t freak. And it’s good to ground them. Not everything’s going to change.
But leaders sometimes just go right to what’s going to be different, and that also can get people to feel like “What have we been doing for the last 10 years? Has that been a waste of time?” And you don’t want them to have that. Can you give me an example of this new organizational strategy at work and maybe a result of employing it?
Srik: Sure, I can talk about an example from a couple weeks ago. I was in the country of Colombia. So, we’ve been working in Colombia for the last few years. And as you know, that country is at this precipice moment right now in its history. There is a new administration in place; it’s an amazing story, the first Afro-Colombian person in a leadership position as the vice president. The Truth Commission has just come out with its report.
And the peace process has been under way since the historic agreement with FARC in 2016; previously dangerous portions of the country are now much more peaceful. So, really, there’s this sort of moment of opportunity in this country, but there’s also a lot of underlying tensions that still remain. It’s a high degree of polarization.
The last election was extremely close. There is still, I think, historic trauma and economic inequality, and there’s just this underlying sort of tensions. So, in some ways, the next few years in the history of Colombia are going to be as or more important than the last few years that have led up to the peace.
The peace is still fragile and needs to be preserved and maintained. So, in this broader context, we brought together about 15 different organizations that are all working in some form or fashion on peace-building in Colombia. And our role in this meeting was as conveners and as accompaniers; we created the space. We provided them some tools, but really it was their meeting.
And you could see over the course of the day, this network actually starting to form and flow together. People exchanging phone numbers, getting on WhatsApp groups together, joining together to access particular resources. And by the end of the day, the system was far healthier than when we had started.
And, again, our role in this was building the network, showing up as a company who is providing support beyond the check, but really letting those partners on the ground run with the plan for what needs to happen in this current fragile environment.
Denver: Now, that’s a great example. And it goes to show you, too, that leadership today is becoming more like being a facilitator– not coming in with the answers, but coming in with the questions and trying to make sure that everybody’s included… and just letting it bubble up from the people who are there, as opposed to, I think, our old image of coming in there and saying, “Hey, we’ve done the research. We’ve done the study. This is what needs to be done.”
I did say I wanted to get back a little bit to your workplace culture because you indicated that you wanted to be the change you promote inside. And I know when you have a new organizational strategy and people feel threatened, or wonder: “Is my job going to change?” And we all resist change.
It can really be an important part of it because if it doesn’t work inside, it’s never going to work outside. So, tell us a little bit about that internal journey and some of the bumps in the road and how you navigated those bumps.
Srik: Yeah. So, there’s a few different, I think, threads in our internal journey. So, one is there’s the thread around our journey to become a more, what I would call a DEIJ- fluent organization– diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice- fluent organization. And we started on this journey about three or four years ago and obviously catalyzed by some of the events of the last two years, we’ve made a series of commitments to changes we are making.
And we are right now in the process of acting on those commitments. So, internally, everything from the diversity of our staff and our leadership team to how we hire, retain, promote staff… professional development, how we do grant-making: we’ve embraced an explicit, trust-based approach to grant-making, and all of the implications of that philosophy.
And externally, we’ve started an exploration on racial justice and equity work in the United States. Traditionally, a lot of our work has focused outside of our borders. And, as I said, catalyzed by the events of the last few years, we felt a moral obligation to make a contribution in the domestic realm..
And we recognize that a lot of the same patterns that we see abroad, whether it’s high levels of polarization, whether it’s historic trauma, whether it’s weak institutions, we see that a lot of that happening in the United States as well. So, we are working on making that commitment explicit and really working to improve in whatever small ways we can, racial justice, inequity in the United States.
Srik: And then, the other journey we’ve been on is one as a learning organization. We’ve gone from reporting on dashboards to the board once a year to really centering our learning agenda as an organization.
So, for the last two years, we’ve had this annual meeting where each of our teams, including our operations team, comes together and talks about what they’ve learned– some of the successes, some of the challenges, failures, and how they really see the pathway going forward.
And that really has been a huge step forward in our journey as a learning organization. Not to say there haven’t been bumps in the road as there always are. I think, as an organization, we are still in these awkward adolescent years. We’re not quite grown up yet.
So, there’s always a bit of two steps forward, one step back as this typically happens in these large change efforts, but I can definitely say we’re making significant progress on both these fronts.
Denver: Yeah. Sounds like you are. Let me ask you a little bit about wellbeing. You’ve got difficult work– these two big broad areas that you focus on…can be challenging. I think every organization has wellbeing issues with their staff. It’s been a difficult two and a half years… could be even accentuated in terms of just the nature of what you do. How do you address that? What are you doing to assure that people don’t burn out, people don’t despair?
Srik: Yeah. So, over the last two and a half years, we’ve really put in a series of supports for staff, and we’re still learning what the right set of supports are. When the pandemic hit, we provided a ton of flexibility, as well as care stipends for staff, for self-care, for childcare, for both physical and mental health.
And like many organizations, we try to keep our culture going through virtual platforms and having Happy Hours on Zoom… and not as much fun as doing it in person, but having to sort of cultivate or sustain that culture through some of these virtual platforms. And we are still honestly figuring out what the post-pandemic virtual hybrid environment looks like.
We’ve allowed people the flexibility to work from home if they desire through the end of this year. We do have our offices in both San Francisco and Washington DC, but we’ve given people the flexibility to decide whether they want to go into the office or stay home.
And what we are thinking is from next year onwards, we’d probably have at least two face-to-face gatherings a year where we bring our staff together. And those are really about learning together, building culture, getting to know each other, and those moments provide the opportunity for us to, over time, rejuvenate and rebuild our culture. And it’s honestly been really hard… as I’m sure many other organizations have faced over the last couple of years.
Denver: Yeah. And join those teams together from San Francisco and Washington and other parts to come together and really connect, which makes a big difference.
You took on this responsibility just before the pandemic struck. How do you believe the nature of leadership has changed over the last two and a half years or so, no matter who you are leading a social enterprise? And how have you changed? How have you changed your leadership style as a result of what we’ve just gone through?
Srik: Yeah, I think that the nature of leadership, as we talked about a little bit earlier, a leader really has to be a facilitator and a holder of space. It’s not so much that you have all the answers; it’s that you could help bring a group together, provide some structure and boundaries that allow the group then to come up with those answers.
And, in some ways, I feel like that’s been my philosophy all along. and my conviction around that has really deepened over these last couple of years. And I often fall back on Humanity United’s set of values, and I could honestly say we are very much a values-driven organization. And two values that particularly resonate with me are humility and curiosity.
Humility, just given what we’ve experienced, knowing that we live in a time of multiple and concurrent crises, and all we can do is be humble about it and constantly be curious, constantly learn. And as leaders, I think we are our best selves when we show up as learners in the organization and set up for ourselves… or for the organization: What are those expectations around learning and adaptation? And honestly, those are the ones that are in our power. We can’t control these multiple and concurrent crises around us, but we can control how we show up as learners, setting an example and really forging the path for the organization to continue to learn amidst all the complexity and change around us.
Denver: Humility and curiosity are really just two sides of the same coin.
Srik: Indeed. Yeah. Indeed.
Denver: So, what’s your biggest challenge right now?
Srik: Few different things. I would say internally we talked about some of this; we are still in our awkward teenage years, and we are growing into adulthood and trying to keep the best of both worlds, the best of our past as a startup, but also our future as a more professional philanthropy.
Externally, I could point to at least three different things that keep me up at night. And, one is climate change… and particularly the nexus between climate, migration and conflict. We are already seeing that nexus play out in a few parts of the world.
The second is increasing authoritarianism around the world and the closing of civil society’s space and the implication that has for our work. And then the third is probably the one we least understand right now is the role of trauma and toxic stress and impact on mental health on the individuals and communities that we work with, and how that really affects some of the long-term change that we are striving for.
Denver: Yeah. I’m glad to say there’s some work being done on systems change and trauma because we’d launch into systems change without really taking the time to understand what the people who’ve been impacted have gone through. In that case, giving space for trauma and for healing, it really becomes mission impossible.
So, you just gave me three things that keep you up at night, that you worry about. I want to know the one thing that keeps you up at night because you’re so excited by it that you can’t sleep.
Srik: Yeah. There are some bright spots, and I do feel like over the last few years, this movement towards localization has really gained some steam. You can see in some of the global institutions like USAID, they are devoting a significant chunk of their resources to local efforts. I think that’s something that really is a bright spot for me.
And also, in the midst of all our polarization, we’ve seen some bipartisan efforts around policy–- the recent Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is a good example. There seems to be an oasis of bipartisan cooperation in terms of fighting modern slavery, forced labor, compared to some of the other issues, so that definitely gives me hope.
Denver: For listeners who want to learn more about Humanity United, Srik, or maybe get involved somehow to support this work, tell us about your website and the kind of information they can find on it.
Srik: Sure. Our website is humanityunited.org, and you can find a little bit more about our two portfolios as well as our cross-cutting portfolio, and you can see our new organizational strategy that’s right on there, and you can read a little bit more about our history as an organization, our vision, our mission… and read our blog series.
Denver: Sounds like it’s all there. Thanks, Srik, for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the program.
Srik: Thank you, Denver. Appreciate it.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.