Anatomy of a start-up antigenocide charity

Once dissed as naive, a college kid builds a nonprofit into an influential force for Darfur in Washington.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

There's disagreement about how often Mark Hanis wore the powder-blue United Nations peacekeeping beret around campus.

It may have happened, he concedes. But only once or twice.

His colleague and erstwhile Swarthmore College classmate Sam Bell argues differently. Mr. Bell knew about Mr. Hanis – about that hat, really – before the two met. "He'd be riding his bicycle around campus with his peacekeeping beret," Bell says. "Not, like, on Halloween. Like it's part of the common American wardrobe."

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Hanis isn't prone to fashion statements – he went seven years until his first new suit, bought in a three-for-one deal at an outlet store – but peacekeeping has taken over his life. He's the 25-year-old executive director of an antigenocide organization he never expected to found. "At every step, we thought we would hand it off to experts or other people who must be doing this already. But every time, there wasn't someone there to pick up the ball," Hanis says. "So we just kept doing it."

Now, his job is to make a permanent fixture inside the Beltway out of a grass-roots group that wants to end genocide. It's too early to know whether he'll succeed in the long haul, but Hanis has shepherded his group through a nonprofit's shakiest years, with a mission most people said was impossible.

In the fall of his senior year, when the first African Union soldiers arrived in Sudan's Darfur to protect civilians fleeing violence, Hanis read that they traveled from aid group to aid group, hats in hand, asking for help to buy boots. Appalled, he started the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net) to raise money for the soldiers – something like the notion of holding a bake sale for NATO.

Hanis promised donors that their money would help the good guys (the African Union soldiers) protect the innocent from the bad guys (the janjaweed militias, allied to the Sudanese government, who burned homes and killed villagers). This moral discernment makes GI-Net different from traditional humanitarian organizations, which feed and clothe people caught up in conflict, without judging any side as wrong. Hanis thinks that misses the point in cases like Darfur, which the US has labeled genocide. "Genocide is not a humanitarian crisis," he says. "You can't throw rice at gunships bombing villages."

Many told Hanis his idea was naive. But in just four months, he'd raised a quarter of a million dollars. This was in the spring of 2005, before Darfur became a cause du jour – before George Clooney and Mia Farrow, before Panties for Peace or Timberland boots with "Stomp Out Genocide" soles. This was before Hanis himself imagined his idea going national, with 10,000 members and a $3 million budget.

His first challenge: If you have $250,000 to spend on an army, what do you buy?

***

The unmanned drone might have been the best idea. True, it was pricey even to lease, and if it were shot down, the Sudanese could steal it. On the other hand, it was the right symbol. That kind of aerial intelligence would extend the protective power of the AU troops, exposing dangers before Darfurians were ambushed.

Expanding protection was precisely what Hanis and Bell moved to Washington, D.C. after graduation to do. They squeezed "survival stipends" from what remained of a Swarthmore grant for the project, shared a basement apartment, ate peanut butter sandwiches, and drank lattes only when others offered to buy. They worked 70-hour weeks in a borrowed office near the White House and wore the same suit to every meeting, which they often had to beg to get. They worked so closely that, if asked who was in charge, someone would invariably pipe up, "Smark."

Untangling themselves has been tricky for an office that, before it grew to 15, was managed by consensus. The new staff tree puts Hanis at the top, but the graceful give-and-take makes it difficult to tell where credit belongs. Hanis, though, attracts attention: He's charming, funny, and talks in sound bites. So he takes the spotlight – but speaks of GI-Net as an entity, rather than of himself as founder.

Helping the good guys, though, turned out to be harder than Hanis thought. You can't just give money to men with guns, even if they're soldiers mandated to do good. Finding was both legal and wise to share the windfall took time.

GI-Net eventually focused on rape as a weapon of war. Darfurian women collecting firewood outside camps were often attacked; many wouldn't report rape to the mostly male AU soldiers. GI-Net researched recruiting more female African soldiers, but no country agreed to spare them. Besides, as symbols went, it was all wrong: GI-Net was about prevention. Reporting rape seemed less useful than thwarting it.

So the group talked with the AU for nearly a year about how to prevent rape. In south Darfur, AU soldiers escorted women gathering firewood. There wasn't money for this in the northern camps, where the scarcity of wood forced women to travel greater distances, so GI-Net proposed funding patrols in 11 camps there. In March, a GI-Net staffer visited Darfur for the first time, to finalize lingering details.

The staffer came back with bad news: Most of north Darfur had run out of firewood.

***

When GI-Net opened an office in Washington in 2005, nearly half of the nonprofits registered in the previous 10 years had effectively ceased to operate. Those still around are small: Most have just $250,000 in revenue.

Lara Galinsky, vice president of strategy for the Echoing Greene Foundation, says GI-Net's vitals are good: the staff has grown; grass-roots groups stay involved; and, of course, there's the group's $3 million. In an industry where viability is often measured by dollars raised, she says, "that's a big deal." A GI-Net board member says Hanis is among the youngest people she's seen "take an idea and [make] it into an organization."

He's made it more than an organization. It's also his literal home. His D.C. roommates have been GI-Net staffers, his bedroom furniture comes from a board member, and his first real bed was a birthday present from an employee.

Though Hanis hasn't been to Sudan, he finds what's happening there personal. Growing up Jewish in Roman-Catholic Ecuador, he developed sympathy for outsiders. With four grandparents who fled the Nazis, his worldview was shaped by the Holocaust. "As a kid, I was held accountable for not doing something," he says. "My dad always pointed out that the Americans knew [about the Nazi death camps] ... and didn't bomb the railroad tracks" leading to them. This inspires much of what he does for Darfur. But it also troubles him.

"Where does that responsibility stop?'" he asks. "You're willing to help someone if they're in the same room as you. Why does 3,000 miles remove ... that responsibility? And there must be that balance or else you might as well not wake up in the morning."

The balance, he thinks, lies in strategy. He could measure his work by the number of Darfurians who, in spite of all his calls and e-mails, couldn't be saved. Instead, he looks at GI-Net's domestic achievements: Its antigenocide hot line that connects citizens to their representatives, a website grading politicians for their Darfur efforts, and the Sudan Divestment Task Force that has helped pass divestment legislation in 19 states and the US House of Representatives. This traditional grassroots work has ripple effects, observers say.

"What these kids have done is something unique, something that opens the door for this kind of campaign ... for the next Darfur," says Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service. He credits the group with helping successfully pressure the president to name a special envoy to the region and Congress to commit more funds to the African Union. "Even now, their continued engagement really has influenced our politicians, our teachers, our community leaders, our churches.... That means a lot, even though it probably doesn't end it."

This, though, nags Hanis. "Obviously, it's frustrating that our work here isn't translating on the ground," he says. GI-Net is still debating the best thing to do in Darfur: Maybe subsidize firewood sold in small markets in the north, maybe invest in regionally appropriate alternative fuel sources.

Ultimately, ending genocide may best be measured with a simple scale, Hanis says. "I am here today because my grandparents were able to survive a genocide that was supposed to exterminate them. That, I think, is success."

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