Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The catalysing power of philanthropy in anti-trafficking

A few large donors forced a step change in anti-trafficking work when they began to collaborate a few years ago. Now others are building on what they started.

Nick Grono
3 February 2021, 7.00am
'Walk for freedom' against human trafficking in Berlin in 2014
Paul Zinken/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Over the last eight years, I have observed firsthand how the contributions of a number of large philanthropic foundations have significantly advanced efforts to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.

I first began working in this space in late 2012 when I became the inaugural CEO of the Walk Free Foundation, which was a new foundation established by the Australian philanthropists Andrew, Nicola and Grace Forrest to combat modern slavery.

In early 2014, Walk Free joined with two other large philanthropic foundations, Humanity United and Legatum Foundation, to launch the Freedom Fund. I was the first CEO of this new fund, a position I have held ever since. So I guess I am as well placed as anyone to make the case for philanthropic capital in the anti-trafficking space – which I’ll do here through the lens of the work of the Freedom Fund.

This model of philanthropy has proved to be highly impactful in the anti-slavery space, and has significantly contributed to the many advances we have seen in the last eight years or so. To my mind, philanthropy has moved anti-trafficking work forward in three main ways: through donor mobilisation and collaboration, by championing a systems approach, and by investing in measurement and research. I’ll examine each of these briefly.

Donor mobilisation and collaboration

When the Freedom Fund was founded, funding for the anti-slavery space was relatively limited. We estimated that private funding was around $98m in 2014. It was in this context that the Freedom Fund was an unprecedented effort by three of the largest philanthropic foundations operating in the anti-slavery space to combine and scale resources, and to encourage other donors to do the same.

Other philanthropic foundations were attracted to this model and soon joined the initiative, committing significant funding it. In recent years, the UK and US governments have also committed funding. For a number of the private donors, it was the first time they had committed funding to anti-slavery initiatives. In total we have raised some $130m in commitments, representing a significant mobilisation of new capital to support anti-slavery efforts.

In addition to funding, there is a high degree of collaboration between the Freedom Fund’s donors. Donor collaboration can take place anywhere on a spectrum ranging from weak coordination – such as sharing information on each other’s strategies – to close partnership. The Freedom Fund collaboration is at the robust end of the spectrum, with the funders committing predominantly unrestricted funding against a common strategy. This is potentially a powerful model for other sectors.

Using a systems approach

One criticism levelled against philanthrocapitalism is that it favours traditional penalisation and rescue approaches over more complex narratives. However, from its conception, the Freedom Fund has focused on bringing a systems approach to tackling modern slavery. We have been able to do so in no small part because of the philanthropic funding we have been able to mobilise.

Far from focusing simply or primarily on criminal justice approaches, we concentrate on the root causes of modern trafficking and adapt to complexity by working closely with local communities to build resilience and support their efforts to advocate for change. We work closely with survivors, understanding that without significant ongoing support they often remain highly vulnerable to trafficking.

Our whole model is premised on the importance of local voices and expertise, and working with those vulnerable to exploitation to support them in mobilising and organising to resist that exploitation. As a result we work with, and fund, over 100 local, frontline, organisations in the countries we work in (Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand and Brazil).

In all our work, we recognise that power disparities underlie and enable modern slavery.

Our local partners help shape our strategies, and we then work together to implement them. We also invest in movement-building initiatives with women and survivor leaders in these countries. And we seek to use our to access global policymakers to promote local voices and expertise.

For us this is not just a philosophical approach, but one best geared to drive the significant change required to reduce the vulnerability of those at greatest risk of exploitation.

In all our work, we recognise that power disparities underlie and enable modern slavery. Those wielding disproportionate power over highly vulnerable people – be they factory owners, landowners, ships captains, mine owners – often use this power to illegally exploit those working for them. They use coercion to extract maximum profit from those in their supply chains. To address these power disparities, we need to help these exploited communities to organise and amplify their voices. This is a primary focus of Freedom Fund’s partnerships with frontline organisations.

Investment in measurement and research

One of the biggest changes in the anti-slavery space since I have been working in it has been the big investment in improving research and measurement.

Much of this has been spurred by the work of the Walk Free Foundation in establishing the Global Slavery Index back in 2013. At the launch of this nascent effort, Walk Free frankly acknowledged the weakness of the data and challenges with the methodology. But also had the clear view that producing such an index – along with a commitment to continually refine and strengthen it as data improved – would be an important driver of efforts to improve the data on slavery more broadly. And so it has proved. Walk Free now partners with the International Labour Organisation to produce a robust, periodic, global estimate of forced labour and forced marriage, which then informs the Global Slavery Index.

At the Freedom Fund, we have invested heavily in improving data, particularly on regional prevalence. We have published 70 research reports in collaboration with 42 research organisations from 13 countries. Within that body of research, we have published nine prevalence studies to quantify the scale of child labour, forced labour, sex trafficking and forced marriage.

And we are delighted to see others also investing heavily in data - most notably the US Government’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which is now funding a significant number of regional and industry level prevalence studies.

Of course, it can be counterproductive to have an undue focus on measurement at the expense of other forms of assessment of impact. One of the critiques of philanthrocapitalism is that it pushes charities to adopt market-based approaches and other practices from the business world, such as an emphasis on performance metrics, when these may not be the most appropriate tools to achieve or evaluate impact.

The Freedom Fund borrows a range of ideas from business, but we are careful to apply these where they add specific value rather than as part of a broader ideological approach. For example, while we work with the private sector to reform the seafood industry in southeast Asia, we also support, as part of the same programme, migrant worker rights, grassroots legal aid, community organising, collective bargaining, policy influencing, and recovery services for survivors.


That’s a quick gallop through how philanthropic capital has contributed to significant advances in the anti-trafficking space, from the perspective of the Freedom Fund. Certainly, my experience has been that the willingness of big philanthropic foundations to closely collaborate in efforts to scale the resources to fight slavery, and the impact of those resources, has been a very positive influence in the anti-slavery space.

This debate has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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