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The History of Humanity United

  • 2003-2007
  • 2008-2012
  • 2013-2017
  • 2018-2022
  • 2023 —
  • Our work began in 2003 when Pam Omidyar and Randy Newcomb started exploring a shared vision of addressing human suffering, protecting and elevating human rights, and contributing to a world where everyone has the opportunity to flourish.

    The first area of focus was addressing modern-day slavery and we soon expanded to the horrors caused by conflict and mass atrocities, including the growing genocide in Darfur. Through the Omidyar Family Foundation (and later the Omidyar Network) Pam and Randy held fact-finding conversations with activists, academics, and thought leaders in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict as well as the prevention of human trafficking.

    In 2005, they convened a group of policy leaders, including Samantha Power, who was then at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Meetings followed the next year with members of the Bush administration, members of Congress – including then-Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Barbara Mikulski – and Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Chris Smith.

    From those conversations, three key themes began to emerge as high priority: high-level advocacy to stakeholders, grassroots social movements, and information and analysis from the field. In 2007, the Humanity United (HU) initiative was launched, focused on supporting enhanced peace processes, civilian protection strategies, and accountability for deadly conflict and mass atrocities. In that same year we supported the creation of The Action Group, a coalition that pushed for U.S. government action to address human trafficking.

    A conversation with former President Bill Clinton led to our support for Liberia’s newly elected leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in her early efforts to maintain peace in Liberia. That led to more than a decade of engagement in that country and HU’s founding of the Philanthropy Secretariat based in the Liberian President’s office.

    We also supported President Nelson Mandela’s idea of creating The Elders to bring former world leaders together so their experience and wisdom could act as a guide for the global community through perilous times. Additional early grants included support to Free the Slaves, Invisible Children, and the Genocide Intervention Fund.

  • In 2008, we transitioned to an independent 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, no longer an initiative of Omidyar Network, and established offices in Redwood City, CA and Washington, D.C. At the end of 2008, there were 20 employees and programmatic spending of approximately $11 million. By 2013, we had more than doubled in size, both in terms of budget and employees, having invested approximately $125 million since its founding.

    In 2009, The Action Group became the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), which has become a preeminent voice on anti-trafficking law, policy, and implementation in the U.S. Through its early advocacy, ATEST helped influence former President Obama’s landmark speech at the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2012 as a call to action for the international community to address modern-day slavery.

    Our early work to address forced labor largely centered on Nepal, with a focus on eradicating child and bonded labor in the domestic production of bricks and the migration corridor between Nepal and Qatar, and also on preventing exploitation of workers who had begun building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. In the same period, we explored efforts to address forced labor in the supply chains of gold, palm oil, and seafood.

    As Managing Director from 2010 to 2017, Peter Rundlet helped transition HU from a focus on “preventing and ending” genocide, atrocities and modern slavery to “building and advancing” peace and human freedom. In the first decade, we supported multi-year conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Sudan, and eventually South Sudan. We funded advocacy efforts to establish the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board and the Prevention and Protection Working Group coalition.

    In 2011, we supported the negotiation strategy around South Sudan’s independence as well as subsequent efforts to protect civilians and build peace in Sudan and South Sudan. The following year, our program officer for the DRC was seconded to the office of UN special envoy, Mary Robinson, helping build the framework for DRC and neighboring countries to bring greater peace and stability to the country.

    Working in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), we launched the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention in the fall of 2012, awarding small grants to two dozen promising interventions.

  • In 2013 we began to invest in independent journalism and media, supporting a series in The Guardian on modern-day slavery and the experiences of migrant workers from Nepal. Bringing the issue into public view helped focus broader attention on the condition of migrant workers throughout the Gulf states.

    We also launched three important partnerships in 2013. Along with the Legatum Foundation and the Walk Free Foundation, we began Freedom Fund – a donor collaborative aimed at raising $100 million for global efforts to address modern slavery. Also launched was KnowTheChain, which was aimed at addressing instances of human trafficking and modern slavery around the world. In collaboration with the Obama administration, we established the Partnership for Freedom (PFF), a $6 million public-private partnership aimed at confronting challenges facing victims of modern-day slavery in the United States.

    To support additional funding for PFF, in 2013 we also incorporated a subsidiary 501(c)(3) public charity, Humanity United Charitable Fund (HUCF).

    After a decade focused on supporting peace and freedom, 2014 was a year of assessment. Around this time, organizations within The Omidyar Group (TOG) began to take stock of the systems they were trying to change and better understand long-term patterns driving the behaviors, structures, norms and policies that affected the lives of people and communities.

    We relied heavily on the expertise of partners and those closest to the substance of the work and began a deep dive into complexity and systems change that led to centering perspectives of those with lived experience on issues we seek to address – a way of working that we remain invested in today.

    In the end, incorporating systems thinking into the work resulted in refreshed strategies and decisions to exit specific bodies of work, freeing up resources for other initiatives. It also resulted in greater investment in our operations as well as strategic learning and impact teams. Simultaneously, we began realigning relationships with partners toward more reciprocal, trust-based partnerships.

    The systems approach also led us to focus more intently on funding journalism. In 2014, we supported The Guardian’s investigation into human trafficking aboard fishing vessels in Thailand, which sparked corporate reaction and led to major policy and regulatory shifts in North America and Europe.

    We also moved to a more holistic “corporate engagement” strategy, focused on creating tools for corporations to address issues of forced labor in their supply chains, investor awareness, brand and reputational risks, and corporate and legal accountability. As part of this new strategy, KnowTheChain – which is now operated independently by the Business and Human Rights Resources Center – moved away from a focus on compliance and toward benchmarking broader efforts to address forced labor by the world’s largest public companies in key sectors.

    In Nepal, we began supporting technology innovations aimed at improving the lives of migrant workers, while continuing to support market incentives for bricks produced free from child and bonded labor. At the same time, we stopped funding work on forced labor in palm oil production, with a capstone report produced in partnership with leading labor and environmental groups that laid out principles for labor standards at palm oil plantations and mills. We eventually transitioned out of working on Nepal’s bricks sector, providing three-year exit grants to engage municipalities in the hope they could continue the program.

    In 2014, John Paul Lederach of the Kroc Institute for Peace at Notre Dame and Akwasi Aidoo, a longtime leader in philanthropy and founder of Trust Africa, joined us as senior fellows. With the addition of their vast knowledge and relationships, we began focusing more on locally led and supported efforts to build peace.

    While we continued to support peacebuilding efforts in South Sudan, the strategic decision was made to sunset bodies of work focused on DRC, Sudan, and Liberia, as well as shift away from the more institutionally focused international justice strategy.

    During this period, we also supported exploratory peacebuilding work in Burundi, which was displaying warning signs of potential violence in the lead-up to controversial presidential elections. And in 2017, we began to support peacebuilding efforts in Mali. These efforts informed the emerging work on how more locally based peacebuilding initiatives might support a global peacebuilding system geared toward the agency of those living closest to conflict.

    We also undertook a corporate reorganization in 2016, separating our legislative advocacy work in the 501(c)(4) entity – renamed Humanity United Action (HUA) – and concentrating charitable activity in the 501(c)(3) private foundation, Humanity United. These changes were accompanied by shifts in governance, and our founding board moved to governance roles within HUA and HUCF.

  • By 2018, with the support of longtime VP of Investments Ed Marcum, we had grown to more than 50 staff members and had a combined budget with HUA of $43 million.

    A process of refining and rethinking the most effective internal structures and culture needed to support our external work also began that year. The evolution was influenced by our systems and learning journey, as well as peacebuilding principles and the philosophy of trust-based philanthropy. We also began to refine and rearticulate its mission, values, and strategic pillars. Simultaneously, grantmaking decisions shifted from a centralized committee to HU staff.

    In 2018, Randy Newcomb – our first President and CEO – transitioned to a new role within TOG. A senior leadership team was assembled to lead the organization and create early elements of an organizational strategy.

    Two managing directors were hired to design and carry forward the work within two formally structured portfolios. Melanie Greenberg began leading the Peacebuilding portfolio and Philippe Sion, the Forced Labor & Human Trafficking portfolio.

    The Peacebuilding portfolio acknowledged that those working at the frontlines of peace hold the deep expertise, knowledge, and relationships necessary to transform their societies, and yet their efforts were often deeply devalued within global systems of peace and security. The first formal strategy of the Peacebuilding portfolio, adopted in 2020, focused on shifting peacebuilding institutions to be more responsive to local peacebuilding actors, and on “people power” (collective action for peace, including social movements and network-weaving). The portfolio continued supporting programs in Mali, South Sudan and Colombia.

    The Forced Labor and Human Trafficking (FLHT) portfolio had three focus areas – worker agency, corporate accountability, and safer migration – as well as programs on global supply chains, seafood supply chains, and the Nepal/Qatar migration corridor. FLHT’s first strategy sought to address power imbalances that enable and embolden human exploitation, specifically the imbalance between employers and laborers, and between countries of origin, host countries and migrant workers.

    With support from key corporate and philanthropic partners, we also launched Working Capital, an early-stage venture fund, with the goal of accelerating supply chain innovations to enable corporations to operate more transparently and ethically around the world.

    In 2020, Srik Gopal stepped into the role of President and Managing Partner, with a mandate to continue creating strategic coherence and evolving the organization’s culture, including increasing the decision-making authority of programmatic teams. He also led the development of an overarching organizational strategy and integrated portfolio strategies alongside managing directors of each portfolio.

    In 2021, Sandy Nathan joined as the managing director of the Operations team to provide strategic leadership in organizational-wide strategies and initiatives to shift HU’s culture and operations, including implementation of the organizational strategy.

    We also created the cross-cutting portfolio, Public Engagement (PE), comprised of the Policy and Government Relations, Independent Media & Journalism, and Strategic Communications teams. The new portfolio was a recognition that cultivating conditions for peace and freedom requires the levers of advocacy, high-impact journalism, and effective communication to the field, the public, and the media. The PE portfolio was initially led by Tim Isgitt; in 2022, Kehinde Togun transitioned into the role of managing director.

    All of these intentional shifts influenced the creation of our overarching organizational strategy in 2021, which focused on three specific core conditions: agency, accountable and responsive institutions, and the recognition of shared humanity.

    This strategy, coupled with leadership from our Black-identified staff, informed the development of a new programmatic focus centered around racial justice and equity. The Racial Justice and Equity program began in 2022 and is focused on two interconnected areas of work: building power and supporting communities to thrive.

  • In 2023, the Peacebuilding team refreshed its strategy with a guiding star of a global peacebuilding system led by the wisdom and agency of proximate peacebuilding actors. The work is centered around the core themes of Inclusive Peace Processes, Collective Action for Peace, Healing and Well-Being, and Innovative Pathways for Peace, with particular geographic focus on South Sudan and Colombia. The Peacebuilding portfolio evolved to place less of an emphasis on shifting institutions – although it continues to work closely with the PE team in that regard . The refreshed strategy also recognizes the need for communities to heal intergenerational trauma, and focus on the well-being of those closest to conflict.

    The FLHT portfolio also launched its refreshed strategy in 2023, focusing on developing conditions for safer labor migration for migrant workers, increasing the power of marginalized workers, and increasing efforts to meaningfully hold corporations accountable for their activities that generate or contribute to labor exploitation. In this context, the team continues its focus on seafood supply chains in the Asia Pacific region, global supply chains (including worker power, pressure on the financial investors and accessibility to integrated labor data) and worker organizing for migrants coming from Africa and South Asia into Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

    In 2024, the Public Engagement portfolio will launch its first strategy focused on advancing HU’s core conditions by centering communities with lived experience and influencing policy outcomes to increase accountability.

    We remain strongly committed to priorities such as advocating for creation and enforcement of robust human rights due diligence frameworks, investing in networks to amplify the power of proximate peacebuilders, and greater adoption of approaches advocated by communities with lived experience of conflict and exploitation. At the same time we work to elevate our approach to grantmaking and deepen our DEIJ work, as well our work around trauma and healing.

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