When we think about international human rights work, our minds quickly conjure up images of Amal Clooney-like figures arguing before international and regional court systems, fact-finding missions in far away places, and UN meetings full of diplomats in Geneva. While human rights lawyers certainly do this work every day, the job doesn’t stop there. Those at the helm of human rights organizations must spend a great deal (perhaps even the majority) of their time building the organizational infrastructure necessary to enable this work in the first place. And unlike the court appearances or fact-finding missions, this operational work occurs behind the scenes, without glamor or fanfare, in ordinary offices and conference rooms—or in this case, a seminar room at the University of Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.
In October 2019, I was fortunate enough to attend the Guernica Group’s annual meeting in Bilbao. The organization, comprised of international human rights lawyers from around the world, works to ensure accountability and redress for international crimes and human rights violations. During my week with the team, I had the opportunity to partake in discussions on global accountability for grave atrocities. We even traveled to the town of Guernica (from which the group takes its name) for the day, where one cannot help but contemplate the importance of this work in the spot of one of modern history’s most heinous war crimes—the 1937 bombing of the town by German and Italian warplanes resulting in more than 1,600 civilian deaths.
During the week, the team also carved out time to reflect on organizational achievements and challenges, and plan for the upcoming year. To my delight, observing these conversations felt almost as if I was listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, “How I Built This” with Guy Raz, featuring some of the brightest minds in the human rights space. This behind the scenes look was incredibly valuable in understanding just how much operational work must be done to build a strong organization capable of carrying out the international human rights work we all envision. Below are five key takeaways for those entrepreneurial human rights lawyers looking to build an effective and impactful organization:
- Determine your theory of change and stay true to it: Identity is important—an effective organization knows who they are and lets that inform their mandate. It’s no surprise that no one organization can do everything. But it can be a bit painful to actively constrain scope when there is so much work to be done in human rights field. What region(s) and thematic topic(s) will you choose to pursue? Are you going to take an activists’ approach, pledging your loyalty to a cause, or will you instead serve as lawyers whose allegiance always falls with the individual client? When organizations spread themselves too thin, they sacrifice their ability to have a meaningful impact in any one area. Concretely defining your theory of change makes this process a little bit easier, as it then becomes more clear what falls within or outside the organization’s scope.
- Think outside the box and choose a structure fit for purpose: One size does not fit all and human rights organization is not synonymous with non-profit. The Guernica Group for example, comprises both an internationally focused Barrister Chambers (operating under a for-profit business model) in the UK and non-profit organization in the US, which allows them to represent the full range of clients looking to pursue justice and accountability. Other public interest organizations like the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) have similarly developed creative organizational models to better advance their mission. IRAP employs a lean central team and engages a formidable army of volunteer law students and pro bono attorneys to expand their reach around the world.
- Build one team and one vision: With the level of travel inherent in this field of work, decentralized or remote staffing models seem to be relatively commonplace. They allow organizations to cover more regions of the world and also provide flexibility for employees. Yet this set up also provides challenges for organizations as they work to develop strong team dynamics and a cohesive identity. It is important to ensure those working in the field are regularly liaising with central command to make sure they act as one team representing a common vision. Whether this involves regular full team retreats, a video-conferencing policy for meetings, an organization-wide newsletter, or the like, organizations should not skimp on efforts to build staff cohesion around a common vision.
- Strategic communication is key: As discussed in #3, organization-wide communication is crucial in developing a cohesive organizational vision internally. And external messaging is equally important. When I find a cause I care about a cause, I instinctually want to shout about it from the rooftops to any and everyone that will listen. However, external communications should be used strategically, always keeping in mind the audience you intend to reach in order to accomplish your stated mission. This may mean for example, forgoing a large public advocacy campaign to focus efforts on legislative decision-makers, or vice versa. This strategic communications plan should map on to the theory of change mentioned in #1.
- Professionalize processes: Staff in conflict and crisis settings often put their lives at risk to further the work of the organization. But with this risk comes the organization’s obligation to ensure they’ve done everything they can to protect staff safety. It is tempting to get caught up in more exciting, substantive work, especially as organizations are just getting off the ground, but robust standard operating procedures are critical for both protecting staff and putting their minds at ease. Everything from clear reimbursement processes to pre-determined transportation procedures in the field, while seemingly distant from the core mission, help build the foundation for an effective organization.
My week with the Guernica team made it clear that while there is no shortage of important and exciting human rights work to be done, none of it is possible without a strong organizational foundation.