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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 Jina MooreContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 2007



Washington

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

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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."

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.

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