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Navigating the Challenges of Funding In and Around the Global Commercial Sex Industry

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Autumn greetings from all of us at the Imago Dei Fund. In the spirit of this month’s International Day of the Girl, we stand with partners who are doubling down to address the many gender regressions that have fallen so heavily on girls and women globally and have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the rise of patriarchal authoritarianism. Our main blog post is the first in a series on the stubborn problem of commercial sexual exploitation that persists around the globe and undermines all of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as our shared human quest for a just, free, and gender balanced world. Here at IDF, we are committed to continuing to do our part to support the deeper transformation of patriarchal norms that have for many centuries normalized sexual exploitation as tradition and “work” that too many girls and vulnerable people are born into and must accept. In the year 2022, let’s all bravely and carefully connect the dots and be on guard for any new narrative (whether in religious or progressive form) that sugarcoats and sanctions the oldest oppression in the history books as normal.
In solidarity,
Emily Nielsen Jones, Founding Partner & Trustee


Is the sex industry an empowering human right to be legalised and mainstreamed? Or patriarchal sexual exploitation?

About ten years ago, I went on one of my first donor trips with a group of women to Turkey. I stumbled upon an issue I’d hoped might fade away – an enthusiastic celebration of commercial ‘sex work’ framed as empowerment and a fundamental human right that should be normalized, mainstreamed, and fully legalised. As a feminist, mother of a young girl, and someone new in my philanthropic journey engaging with a gender-lens around the world, all this was hard to wrap my head and heart around.

Flash forwards a decade: today, off-the-radar, a well-funded movement is quietly gaining traction across the United States to fully legalise all aspects of prostitution. Not just the selling… but also the buying, pimping, and brothel-owning. You see it in New York, Oregon, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Washington D.C. and more likely in the works. As World Without Exploitation co-founder Lauren Hersh describes: ‘Since 2020 these campaigns have been popping up across America so quickly, often under the guise of something else. Troubling as it is, we have seen self-admitted sex buyers bankrolling these campaigns. Many people don’t realise that these bills would dramatically increase the size and scope of the commercial sex trade, giving more power to pimps and sex buyers.’

What role does philanthropy play in this movement?

I’ve taken the time to digest various perspectives, which all seek to appeal to lofty values I hold dear: freedom, empowerment, dignity, etc. This isn’t an easy topic to navigate. There’s a lot of terminology and jargon. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between wishful thinking and the un-sanitized facts on the ground. And I find myself pondering what really is philanthropy versus funding rooted in self-interest?

Thank you, Alliance magazine, for hosting this series promoting dialogue around a complex issue which deserves robust discourse and nuanced, systemic thinking to carefully consider the larger ramifications of policy decisions on both individuals and society.

Sadly, in many settings – including women’s philanthropy – this taboo topic’s been politely scrubbed off conference agendas. In many female and progressive-leaning spaces, the sex work is work and is empowering mindset is seen as a settled matter. At that conference I attended a decade ago, all organisations working to curb human trafficking and related harms of sexual exploitation were excluded from the agenda. Yet, I’ve found if you speak with people offline, many acknowledge misgivings but find it complicated to question what feels like a new orthodoxy.

‘Sex work divides feminist opinion like few others issues’, describes Frankie Miren. ‘The ideological clash – prostitution as violence against women vs simply a job – may never be resolved but where debate coalesces, around proposed legal systems, ideas become concrete and can be logically hashed out.’ We must not ignore this issue which impacts us all and the overall landscape of non-profit work many philanthropic sectors are funding. As it currently stands – not in some imagined future state – the commercial sex trade is a highly-lucrative, exploitative, global network unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

However, the conversation diverges around the role and nature of consent within an ‘industry’ created and perpetuated by a nexus of deeply entrenched, intersectional injustices and socioeconomic vulnerabilities. From a philanthropic perspective, the pressing quandary remains: Should we support approaches seeking to normalize/expand the sex trade’s growth and reach into society? Or efforts seeking to contain it?

The task is not to make – or win – some purist, abstract ideological debate over who sounds the most ‘feminist’ or ‘progressive.’ Rather, to get past the rhetoric to truly understand the systemic nature of the problem, the actual realities and competing values at play to carefully weigh the human impact of various approaches proposed.

A quick primer: three different directions:

There are three main ‘camps’ which have very different prescriptions of both the problem and the solution. They sometimes sound similar, so attention to nuance is critical.

1) FULL CRIMINALIZATION is enshrined in legal codes in most places globally. It makes illegal all aspects of commercial sex: the selling, buying, pimping, and brothel-owning.

2) FULL DECRIMINALIZATION would render legal all aspects of the sex trade noted above. Overall, it’s guided by a societal vision where ‘sex work’ is fully mainstreamed and normalized as any other line of work. Found in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, certain regions of Mexico, and Thailand, the Decriminalize Sex Work approach is framed as an empowering choice between consenting adults calling for destigmatization and legalization to be made more safe. There are two streams within the full decriminalization camp: pro-sex work feminists/progressives and pro-‘adult entertainment’ business owners and sex buyers. These odd bedfellows converge on similar language that ‘sex work is work’ and use similar Read More

The Future of Democracy is Gender Equality

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Early in my philanthropic journey, I was privileged to have found my way to Women Moving Millions (WMM), a membership organization for people/organizations bringing a gender-lens to philanthropy. After two years of not meeting in person, WMM held its Annual Summit this past April and the conference theme—The Future of Democracy is Gender Equality—couldn’t have been more relevant and timely everywhere in our world as we have watched freedom slide backwards and authoritarian, patriarchal forces on the rise. Enjoy this blog post by the WMM CEO Sarah Haacke Byrd. – Emily Nielsen Jones, Founding Partner & Trustee


Let’s be bold in action.

That’s a wrap! What an incredible week of learning, inspiration, and transformation. Together with some of the leading experts and advocates working to advance gender and racial equality, we explored new ideas, perspectives, and solutions to realize gender equality.

This year’s Summit theme, The Future of Democracy is Gender Equality, was a call to attention to one of the greatest threats to gender equality; the weakening and unraveling of democracy. We cannot realize a gender equal world when democracy isn’t strong –and we can’t have strong democracies without equality.

Now is the time to acknowledge that gender equality and democracy are linked and that wherever women’s rights are under threat and retreat, so too is democracy. Building stronger democracies will depend on our ability to unlock greater giving on critical issues affecting women’s rights.

It will require the bold action of philanthropy to ensure women’s rights are treated not as a parallel or complementary strategy but instead placed at the center of national and global approaches to build a more equitable democracy. Indeed, women’s rights and participation are integral to the very integrity of democracy. As USAID Administrator Samatha Power stated: “if you want peace in this world, trust women to deliver it.”

For fifteen years, Women Moving Millions has modeled the transformative potential of a community of women coming together to do just that – to leverage their combined expertise, influence, and resources to advance gender equality. What unites us is our shared vision of a gender equal world – a world that is just, at peace, and flourishing. What drives us is our belief that as long as less than 2% of philanthropic giving goes toward organizations advancing gender equality, that world will remain out of reach.

From climate solutions to designing more inclusive economies, ensuring greater representation in the culture sector, bolstering women’s reproductive health and rights, and restoring peace and security, women are architecting solutions to the most significant challenges confronting democracy. Meanwhile, philanthropy has more resources and tools than ever before. And communities like Women Moving Millions are positioned to lead the way.

So let’s be ambitious. Let’s be bold in action and harness our collective power as a force for change. The next chapter, written on democracy’s triumph, will be written by women.

We cannot confront the growing assaults on democracy and gender equality without investing in the leadership, power, and influence of women at scale. Philanthropy must step up and finance the priorities on which the future of democracy depends. The future of democracy is gender equality.

“We cannot confront paternalistic, regressive assaults on gender equality and democracy without investing in women’s leadership, power, and influence. We must advocate for bold approaches to philanthropy and greater investment in our greatest agents of change: women.” – CEO @Sarah Haacke Byrd at #WMMSummit22. The Women Moving Millions community has bold plans for the future. #WMMSummit22

Spring Update: Growth & Change

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At the Imago Dei Fund, we believe in continuously learning, growing, and changing, especially in response to new needs we hear from our grantee partners, peer funders, and the field at large. In this spirit, while continuing to support new and current partners in 2022, we are also taking some time to get ready to embark on a new strategic planning process to shape our direction and priorities for the next three years. Our team is also spending this year learning about how to fund those working on climate change mitigation and on supporting immigrants, refugees, and other displaced people. We look forward to sharing any updates later this year. Many of you in our network have been integral to helping us learn and for that we are deeply grateful.

As we grow up as an organization, we are so excited to be working with three new (or new-ish!) team members:

Marie-Rose Romaine Murphy has been working with IDF as Project Director of The Girl Child Long Walk to Freedom project since spring 2020. The project, which started as a pilot reading journey, has grown in the past year to include a global fellowship program and virtual community with membership from around the world, and is an integral part of IDF’s work to advance universal human rights, gender balance, justice and spiritual holism. “It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Emily, Domnic, and our team on supporting the development of The Girl Child Long Walk Project,” said Marie-Rose. “Globally, we are facing challenging times and seeing too many societies (including the U.S) take leaps backward when it comes to gender equality. As The Girls Child operates in the intersectional space of faith, gender equality and community-led development, we seek to work with faith-inspired community leaders to identify gaps in services and support the solutions they develop to meet these gaps and support the structural and sustainable change that our communities (and our world!) need.” Read more →

Leah Questad joined our team in January 2022 as Project Manager. Among many other projects, she is working with Founding Partners, Ross and Emily Jones, on launching “Project Multiplier,” an effort to build additional funder support for our grantee partners. Prior to IDF, Leah’s work has been in fundraising and development, and as a mentor and client service relationship manager for a multi-family office and trust company. “I am so excited to join the IDF team to further support the amazing work IDF and our grantee partners are doing both locally and globally,” said Leah.

Andrew Jones, our newest team member, joined IDF at the beginning of May as Impact Partner. Andrew’s role will be focused on operations, measurement and evaluation, and grantmaking strategy. He brings three decades of experience in international development and human rights, organizational change, and strategic and operational planning, and most recently served as VP of Global Education Programs at Impact(Ed). He previously served in various capacities for a range of organizations globally, including CARE, Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF, and International Justice Mission. As the brother of Founding Partner Ross Jones, Andrew has been a longtime informal thought partner to IDF. Said Andrew, “I’ve long admired IDF from afar and am thrilled to join the leadership team at this moment in time, with an outstanding staff and an array of grantee partners doing such inspiring work in Boston and around the world.”

Finally, in January we welcomed our tiniest new team member, Operations and Finance Associate Becca Riegel‘s son, Liam! Congratulations, Becca!

All We Can Save – Team Reflections

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Earlier this year, the IDF team collectively read and discussed All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, a collection of essays by women leading the climate movement, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. Here we share some of our personal thoughts, learnings, and reflections.

I like data. Data is important to measure issues and quantify problems. But more than data, the storyteller in me likes stories that remind us of our humanity  and how it’s affected by the challenges that we face. This book puts human/women’s faces on the climate change crisis…. As I kept thinking about it, I thought about (see photo) the leader of a women’s group in Haiti called Fanm Vanyan (which means Courageous Women). Her group grows citrus trees that have been dying because of increasing droughts. They spend hours at night trying to get water from a defective pump. She can tell us about the climate crisis though she doesn’t know the term. We, in the aid sector, have been building and we are still building fields around concepts brimming with ever growing terminology (climate change/crisis, social protection, localization, decolonization)… Sometimes, I just want to scale down the scaffolding and say: “Please, come. Let’s just meet and serve communities.” – Marie-Rose Romain Murphy, Project Director, The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom

In an age when temperatures are rising, climate-anxiety is filling the space on therapists’ couches, and we are bombarded by eco-disasters across the globe it is hard to find a sense of hope. More than a collection of essays, All We Can Save became a grounding experience for me to move out of a place of feeling hopeless, helpless, and powerless. Instead, seeing a common thread through the individual stories, I found a deep sense of community-driven change; helping me see that my role is part of a larger collective. All We Can Save has me shifting to a perspective of how to engage within a community to further the sacred work already in progress – and to see the climate crisis as an opportunity of communal spiritual practice. – Leah Questad, Project Manager

A dominant and recurring theme throughout the collection of essays and poems in All We Can Save is that of community. Building an inclusive community, one that centers marginalized communities, communities of color, and Indigenous peoples, is what we need to effectively address the climate crisis at hand. As Johnson and Wilkinson observe in the final essay of the book, “From the foundation of science and community . . . [k]now that we already have most of the solutions we need – from regenerative farming to renewable energy to restored ecosystems to redesigned mobility, materials, and structures . . . we just need to get to it.” We all have a role we can play if we’re willing to be part of a collective and collaborative solution. – Jen Oakley, Program Partner

We have been given the wonderful gift of this planet and it is difficult to see how we are continuing to destroy it. As it has been said many times over the years at my church, “it is very easy to ruin something and it can be done quickly, but it takes tremendous time and effort to build something.” (based on Matthew 7:13-14, the narrow and wide gates) All We Can Save is a powerful anthology that brings together many perspectives and voices about the topic of climate change. There is a glimmer of hope reading about the grassroots efforts of many women who are engaging in the effort to save this planet and to be challenged to think how decisions in daily life impact the health of the planet. What am I using or purchasing today? What can I do today to be part of this collective force to make a difference in the race to save this wonderful gift? – Sonya van der Meer, Project Coordinator, The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom

Following the release of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe.” For me, All We Can Save was another wake-up call, and perhaps more importantly an invitation to action, from women and girls across the globe. It lifted up the power that each of us holds to make change and offers insight into different pathways to engage with the climate movement. Taken together the stories and essays deepened my understanding of the frontline impacts that are happening now, while highlighting the extraordinary work that women and girls are doing to save what still can be saved. It helped me to see that while the issues are incredibly complex, if we listen to people working in frontline communities for climate justice, we will discover ways of moving forward and find reasons for hope. I believe that we need these stories to help shift the narrative around climate change and move us to action that is rooted in our shared love of the earth and our fellow human beings as well as in an understanding that while there is no one correct way to engage, there is urgency for each of us to act. – Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

I really enjoyed the breadth of voices this book brought forward on what has to be one of our most pressing existential risks as a species and planet. I especially appreciated reflecting on both community centered solutions and indigenous wisdom, Read More

It Takes a Network: The Global Learning Community

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Early on in my own philanthropic learning curve, I had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia and meet Helen Sworn and colleagues at Chab Dai, a network of local organizations working together to combat the scourge of human trafficking. Looking back, I can see how learning from and seeing in action the power of the “network effect” has shaped my own lens on social change and how we approach our work at the Imago Dei Fund. It is our pleasure to host this blog post sharing Chab Dai’s approach to cultivating an intentional ecosystem to combat the deeply entrenched global scourge of human trafficking and their pivot to taking this work global. As I read this, I am reminded of how small our world is, particularly as we are emerging out of this global pandemic, and how collective action can take each of our humble efforts and make them part of something larger than ourselves. – Emily Nielsen Jones, Founding Partner & Trustee


“None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.” – Mother Teresa

The Global Learning Community (GLC), started by Chab Dai in 2012, was modelled on years of experience in building a coordinated and informed response to trafficking in and through the Cambodia coalition which has been operating since 2005. The GLC project continued to grow with an increasingly global focus and worked to provide support and services to grassroots organisations with a passion for professional and meaningful interventions and programmes in Asia, Africa and North America. With intentional relational growth, members cultivated a space for honest and safe conversations around the challenges, successes and growing pains of the movement. GLC members valued the opportunities to dig deep into how to build stronger programmes, organisational capacity, create monitoring and evaluation frameworks and work for equitable and ethical research.

Helen Sworn

The movement is truly building the movement. Almost 200 members from 42 countries are working together – devoting time and energy, outside their already busy work, to strengthen and foster a comprehensive, connected and competent anti-trafficking and modern slavery movement.

There have been many changes in the past two years that have led to this. The first few months of the pandemic brought global lockdowns and travel restrictions that appeared to grind the world to a halt. As the systematic fault lines of inequalities and vulnerabilities were deepened, victims of trafficking and vulnerable migrants were left with few options when considering migration or returning home.

Sharon Jacques

These mounting challenges called for further collaboration on a global level in an attempt to meet the complex challenges of disrupting human trafficking.

In 2020, an evaluation collected the experiences and thoughts of GLC members with the specific aim of understanding how the GLC could meet their needs, strengthen network and coalition building and generally, to determine what was needed to meaningfully help and connect grassroots anti-trafficking organisations.

The findings of the evaluation provided key insights into the priorities of the community, which were focused around:

  • a desire to work more closely together to improve systems and practises
  • elevate the collective voice of grassroots anti-trafficking organisations
  • push for rigorous research and monitoring, evaluation and learning

The evaluation highlighted community members’ interest in:

  • building stronger connections with fellow members
  • co-working on projects that would be accessible and beneficial to the broader grassroots anti-trafficking community.

Drawing from the findings of the evaluation and the rich process of taking a sabbatical, we began to work with the community to transition the GLC from a Chab Dai project to a cooperative community project.

Dr. Leah Edwards

This process began with open and dynamic conversations around the vision, mission and core values of the project, further clarifying a project focus on supporting, inspiring and growing one another as the anti-trafficking and modern slavery movement.

A year on from the GLC in its new form, the community has grown to include 192 members from 42 countries. The community has enthusiastically participated in shaping and leading more than half the monthly learning call topics and discussions and contributed subject matter expertise and collaboration to topical calls. GLC members have led Coffee Corner Calls on diverse topics ranging from the intersection of child begging and human trafficking, monitoring and evaluation, decolonising language, the LGBTQ+ community and the need for improved funding structures in the movement.

Beyond the interactive learning conversations, GLC members have connected and begun work on collaborative research and advocacy projects and assisted one another on cross border anti-trafficking cases and the reintegration of survivors of trafficking.

While international insecurity remains, the global grassroots anti-trafficking sector continues to advance leading practices and cultivate an honest community of practice and change.

A full summary of the GLC’s activities can be found in the 2021 Annual Report.

Helen Sworn, Sharon Jacques, and Dr Leah Edwards comprise the GLC Secretariat.

The Devastating Impact of Decriminalizing the Sex Trade

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The Imago Dei Fund is committed to advancing human rights, human dignity, and gender balance. Through our work and partnerships, we seek to mend a broken world where girls and women are too often devalued, oppressed, and denied basic human agency. We also believe that solutions lie in centering the voices of women and girls to direct and drive change. Our partner World Without Exploitation embodies this approach, as you’ll read in WorldWE National Director Lauren Hersh’s story below. ~ Katinka Hakuta, Grants Manager


Lauren Hersh

Bea was 15-years-old when she was first sold in the sex trade. For two years, Bea was passed between pimps and bought by more sex buyers than she could possibly count. I learned about Bea by accident. As a New York City prosecutor, I had been investigating a Brooklyn-based brothel and someone mentioned that there was a “girl being sold out of a neighborhood apartment.”

For weeks, detectives watched the location. Expensive vehicles lined the street. Throughout the day, they observed men going in and out of a brownstone. They witnessed young women exiting the location late at night. Neighbors confirmed the open secret– that the location was a known brothel and was run by a pimp.

Because pimping and sex buying were illegal, we were able to seek a search warrant. When police entered the location, they found a badly beaten Bea and clear signs of sex trafficking.

That was a decade ago.

But in the last few years, instead of paving the way toward progress, we’ve seen society take several steps backward.

Across the country, a well-funded movement to decriminalize the sex trade in its entirety has gained momentum. Proponents of these proposals seek to provide a free pass to sex buyers and make pimps legitimate business owners. In New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and Louisiana, legislation has been introduced to make pimping, sex buying, and brothel owning lawful. Right now in Oregon, there is a pending ballot initiative introduced by an uber-wealthy, self-admitted sex buyer to make the sex trade completely legal. If any of these dangerous measures were to pass, brothels, like the one we investigated in Brooklyn, would be businesses like any other, and search warrants would be nearly impossible to obtain.

If you are outraged, you are not alone. Sex trade survivors, anti-trafficking organizations, and child rights agencies all across America are joining forces and unequivocally opposing these dangerous proposals. Collectively, we are urging lawmakers to examine the devastating harms that plague the sex trade and the drastic racial, gender, and economic disparity between the buyers and those bought.

In jurisdictions throughout the country, research is shining a light on the inherent inequality in the sex trade. Both Seattle and Washington, DC, amassed data that demonstrate that women of color, children, and LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately overrepresented in the sex trade and that their buyers tend to be men–many of whom are white–with privilege and disposable income. In countries where the sex trade is legal, the demand for commercial sex expands and the void is quickly filled by those in society with the least choices. Where there is a legal sex trade, violent crime flourishes nearby.

But a common-sense, survivor-supported solution exists. Known as “The Equality Model,” this solution seeks to hold accountable exploiters–pimps, sex buyers and brothel owners–for the damage they cause. However, this approach also provides exit services, not criminal penalties, for those sold in the sex trade. With survivors at the helm, World Without Exploitation and our two hundred partners are working to bring this human rights model to communities across America. With the support of the Imago Dei Fund, we are meeting with lawmakers, educating leaders, and inspiring the public to join our movement.

A legal sex trade can never be safe, no matter what protections are put in place. It is time to prevent trauma and reduce harm, not create systems that embolden exploitation. For Bea and so many others, it’s time to reject full decriminalization and make The Equality Model a reality.

Lauren Hersh is the National Director of World Without Exploitation and an internationally recognized lawyer, activist, educator and writer working to combat violence against women and girls in schools, online and in the legal arena.

Photos credit: World Without Exploitation

“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing