The Imago Dei Fund is expanding its grantmaking in Southeast Asia, a region where our grantee partners are already deeply engaged in combating human trafficking.

Despite our eagerness to progress with our three-year strategic plan, we recognized the need for a better understanding of the current landscape and the factors driving human trafficking before diving in. As a U.S.-based foundation, we needed to discern how we could effectively contribute to existing efforts interrupting the cycles of exploitation and the critical work already happening in Southeast Asia.

To that end, in February, we embarked on a learning trip to Cambodia and Thailand to inform our grantmaking now and over the next several years.

With Helen Sworn, founder of Freedom Consulting, as our intrepid guide in Cambodia, we spent ten days meeting with organizations working at different intersections of the human trafficking problem.

Helen has been a long-time friend and thought partner to the Imago Dei Fund and serves as a member of our newly established Advisory Board. She is also the founder and former executive director of Chab Dai, a grantee partner in Cambodia that seeks to end all forms of abuse and modern slavery globally by building a movement to empower communities, strengthen systems, and restore justice and wellbeing with survivors.

The thirteen Cambodian organizations we met ranged from very small grassroots organizations focused on education and prevention to larger organizations focused on investigation, recovery, survivor reintegration and policy reform.

We then joined a donor learning trip in Thailand organized by Freedom Story, a new Imago Dei Fund grantee partner and member of the Chab Dai network. Based in Northern Thailand, Freedom Story works to prevent child trafficking and exploitation through culturally relevant programs for vulnerable children. We met with seven organizations across Thailand as well as with policy experts and peer funders working in the region.

Needless to say, there was enormous learning over the course of our three weeks. Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Grantees and Advisors are critical partners in learning. They are experts in their own work and communities and have a deep understanding of emerging issues and of the interrelated work of other organizations in the sector.
  • Building relationships with organizational leaders is essential and fun. We learned so much during our meetings with organizations and appreciated the depth of knowledge and important insights shared by staff. We also deeply valued the more casual opportunities to engage with leaders and their teams outside of the work setting. The more free-flowing conversations over a meal or social activity offered us greater insights into the culture and the personal motivations that people bring to their work.
  • Collaboration is critical in the anti-trafficking movement. Given the scope and scale of the scourge of human trafficking, no one organization can do it all. It was clear to us that coalitions and networks play an incredible role in strengthening the ecosystems, building collaboration, ensuring appropriate protections and peer support, facilitating learning, and advocating for important policy reforms.
  • This work is urgent but sometimes moves slowly. The harm created by human trafficking is widespread and immense, leading to an urgency to act. We certainly felt that urgency but were also reminded that healing and recovery takes time and can be hard to measure. Survivors and the organizations that support them need the flexibility to move through their complex journeys of recovery and healing at their own pace and in their own way.
  • Take time to walk with the elephants. On our last day in Thailand, we spent the morning learning about and walking with elephants on a reserve near the Golden Triangle. Not only was it incredibly fun, but the experience also highlighted how the natural world and indigenous cultures have much to teach us about relationships and friendships. (Yes, elephants have lifelong friends!)

Reflecting on this learning journey, we both feel very privileged to build relationships with so many amazing and dedicated individuals who are working to defend human dignity and restore wholeness in this world. And despite the challenges of the work, they also find time to share joy. We are looking forward to continuing our learning and to thoughtfully building deeper partnerships in the region in the coming years.