On a monthly basis, REST receives inquiries from people all over the country who are considering starting an anti-trafficking organization and are looking for a “how-to.” We are so grateful to be receiving these requests and know first-hand how important it is to learn from others who have gone before you. We did this too. We decided to write this blog, in hopes of providing some things for your group to consider before starting an anti-trafficking organization. Before I launch in to a set of “how-to” steps, it’s crucial to begin by understanding your motivation. What compels you to do this work?
Ask yourself “why?” Why do you want to do this work? If the answer is something as simple as “because I want to help people,” ask yourself “why?” Why do you want to help people? Your motivation is not only important to the clients you may eventually serve, but remembering the “why” will sustain you through the inevitable long hours, disappointments, failures, and uncertainty.
REST was built on Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest.” We know the powerful rest God offers each of us, as both sinners and sufferers. This is our motivation. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross on our behalf, we want to share his Good News to those who need it most. Simply stated, God has been gracious to us – he has loved, served, and provided hope, healing, peace, and dignity – and we are compelled to love those around us by offering the same. We aren’t “saviors” or “heroes” in anyway, but we are grateful for the opportunity to lay our lives down in service to victims of human trafficking and those exploited in the sex trade.
According to industry experts, more than 100,000 nonprofit groups nationwide will fail within the next two years. With more than a million US charities in existence today, how will you ensure viability? We think these 5 steps will help.
STEP 1: SURVEY THE LANDSCAPE
We believe the first step is to do extensive research and canvass existing services and providers in your area. There are exceptions, but if trafficking victims exist in your community, it’s likely these girls and young women are already in contact with local service providers like police, foster care, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, and schools. Seek to understand the needs of sexually exploited people and learn what they are asking for. Ask existing service providers and, if possible, clients, to identify gaps in services, and allow them to dream with you. Begin to map out the existing services and build a network of support. Here are a few questions to ask:
Who is currently serving this population?
Are the services effective? How do you measure that?
Do those existing services have adequate staff and funding?
What resources are needed but difficult to access?
In your experience, what do the clients identify as their biggest needs and barriers?
What gaps in services do they see?
Meaningful collaboration is a core value at REST; we believe in a thoughtful, effective, strategic continuum of care. REST is committed to engaging a broad spectrum of services aimed at ending exploitation and injustice. We work within a network of people and groups – area social service providers, other faith-based organizations, government departments and agencies, researchers, educational specialists, mental health providers, and anyone else who is providing the services our clients need. We carefully surveyed our local landscape to see what gaps in services existed, and have remained committed to finding or building the services to fill those gaps.
STEP 2: SOBER SELF-ASSESSMENT
It’s a good assumption that, after a thorough survey of the local landscape, you will find gaps, whether within direct services, training and awareness, staffing, funding, or something else. After you’ve identified the existing gaps, it’s time to take a sober self-assessment.
When considering taking on any role, an assessment of skills is necessary. In anti-trafficking work, not doing so can have devastating consequences. Offering help, and then not delivering, can reiterate the message exploited individuals have likely heard before: “It’s hopeless. No one can help you.” Many victims of human trafficking suffer the effects of complex trauma, co-occurring disorders, addiction, complex family histories, and financial and social barriers. If you plan to serve them, assess whether or not you and the individuals in your program have the skills, training and resources to actually follow through with what is actually needed. Here are a few questions to consider:
Have you worked with vulnerable populations before? How did it go?
What training and skills do you possess? What training or skills does your team possess? What is missing?
Where can you gain more experience and training? (Internships, volunteering, free or low-cost domestic violence training or safety planning, etc.)
REST began with people that had experience in social services, providing sexual assault counseling, engaging in late-night outreach to sexually exploited young women, training in wrap-around case management, and more. That was the beginning; as we developed, we made a long list of competencies we lacked and sought team members who could step in with those strengths. We still do this today, and it is a big reason we’re able to serve hundreds of clients each year.
STEP 3: INCLUDE SURVIVOR VOICES
When we make assumptions about what people need, including the girls and young women trafficked for commercial sex, we not only waste time and resources “helping” an imaginary person, but we further exploit those we seek to help. By definition, pimps and traffickers have removed their victims’ agency. They have silenced their voices through manipulation, fraud, or coercion. As service providers, we must keep this in the forefront of our mind and mission at all times. Incorporating the survivor voice and leadership at all levels is crucial.
Since REST began, our primary aim has been to build relationships with girls and young women being trafficked for commercial sex. Our hope was to build trust, so they would feel free to identify the things they needed to begin a life free from sexual exploitation when they were ready. Once their needs were identified, we were committed to doing whatever it took to help them access resources; including building those that did not yet exist. This survivor-led relationship and needs-based model has driven all of our progress to this point and continues to guide us. This approach has allowed a growing number of women to completely escape and begin to recover from sexual exploitation in our region.
STEP 4: BUILD TRUST & SUPPLY EXCELLENT PROGRAMS & SERVICES
Most traffickers and exploiters recognize a young woman’s vulnerabilities and gain access to them through affection, compassion, and a promise to help. He or she becomes a companion who listens and promises protection and a better future. Then, they make an offer—if she leaves, he or she take care of her. This relationship closely parallels what service providers’ offer, which should cause us to proceed with caution and patience. If a young woman risks leaving what’s familiar and the person who seemed to show loyalty and care, perhaps for the first time in her life, as a service provider, you’d better be ready to respond with relational integrity, and superior services. Here are some questions to ask:
How are survivors informing your programs? What are survivors asking for? How are clients able to provide regular feedback about your services?
How will you assess the effectiveness of your programs? What measurable outcomes do you plan to achieve?
How much funding will you need?
Where will the funding come from? How do those sources affect your programs and services?
Who should be on your board of directors? What competencies should they have?
REST started by doing weekly outreach with a team of dedicated, trained volunteers. As we learned from our clients and service providers about gaps in services, we built programs at a pace that felt rapid at times, but that we felt God was asking of us and we could sustain. We secured the staffing and funding necessary to provide stable and quality programs. Now, after almost five years, we have six and a half paid staff members, nearly 80 volunteers, and eleven programs, including those direct outreach services we began with.
STEP 5: BE THERE FOR THE LONG HAUL
We’ve heard the staggering statics - the problem of human trafficking is immense and systemic. The numbers can be daunting, whether you are looking locally, regionally, nationally, or globally. Given the complexity of recurring issues, helping someone recover from years, or possibly a lifetime, of sexual abuse, assault and exploitation will require patience, creativity, and endurance. In addition to building excellent services and programs, you need to be committed for the long haul. One of the inadvertent consequences of a well-meaning organization closing up shop is the reiteration of the message that help is not available. For example, when an organization in an impoverished area runs out of funding and is no longer able to offer educational support, this failure breaks down trust in other existing or future organizations that promise help. Statistics show that, on average, it takes seven attempts to successfully exit “the life.” Are you committed to being there for attempt number 4 or 7? Are your funders? Some questions to ask:
What benchmarks for success will inspire you to continue?
What does your ten-year plan include?
Who will be your successor?
What partnerships do you need to ensure you are there for the long haul?
While REST hasn’t been around long enough to share stories about longevity, we do ask ourselves these same questions. This week, we are in the process of relocating our office space. Client needs, future plans and sustainability are at the top of our list of considerations.
We’ve spoken to enough people over the last few years to know that these considerations can be daunting. But we can assure you that these will be some of the most critical hours spent in evaluating whether you should start an anti-trafficking organization; they will pay off a hundred-fold in the long run and show that you are motivated to do whatever it takes to ensure that commercially sexually exploited girls and young women are cared for and not subjected to another empty promise.
I would be doing you a disservice if I failed to mention that our organization was built by God’s grace. He loves his suffering children, and so do we. This blog is dedicated to Jesus, the hundreds of clients we’ve had the privilege of serving, and all those we have not. Your strength, dignity, and perseverance are absolutely inspirational to us, and we love you.