A decade of impact

Outgoing Freedom Fund chairman Alan McCormick reflects on 10 years of key lessons in the fight against slavery

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Alan McCormick is a Partner of Legatum, a Dubai-based global investment firm, which has set up three distinct philanthropic ventures: the End Fund, to fight Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs); the Luminos Fund to giving out-of-school children a way back into the classroom; and the Freedom Fund, to fight slavery. Alan was Chairman of the Freedom Fund from its inception to 2024. This article is based on a speech delivered by Alan at the 10-year anniversary event for the Freedom Fund.

Slavery is often mistaken for a vanquished problem. In many countries, such is its association with the past, people feel compelled to place the word ‘modern’ ahead of it when discussing it in its current form. Yet, around the world, slavery is still dismayingly common, with more than 50 million people currently estimated to be trapped in situations of bonded and forced labour.

This is a stain on our civilisation: it reduces prosperity, ruins lives, and there is a moral obligation to end it.  

I have felt this keenly from a young age. My interest in the issue was first ignited when I was 12 years old and studied William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade as a special project in my history class.

Slavery was a ubiquitous feature of human history, and Britain, where I am from, one of its biggest beneficiaries. It took a committed community of abolitionists to tirelessly campaign to bring about its demise, first as a trade, and then as a practice.

I remember being fascinated that a culture could shift so completely, challenging the vested economic interests that lost out because of this legislation and enforcement, and this stuck with me, as strongly as my fervour to challenge and abolish slavery in all forms and all places.

Years later, as I helped to build Legatum, it became clear to me that our firm’s investor mentality and skillset could accelerate efforts to end this evil practice, and we began to do our research.

We discovered that measures being taken to fight slavery were not fit for purpose. A fragmented landscape of NGOs meant many organisations were working independently, often at odds with each another.  

Our research unearthed that just US$100 million in philanthropic funds were being spent on tackling slavery each year, and very little of that was making it to the frontlines, where we all know real changes happens. By contrast, the criminal organisations running slavery were worth as much as $32bn.

"We hope other funders can step up to support our work and collaborative philanthropy approach."

Alan McCormick, Chairman, Freedom Fund

To address this, Legatum set about experimenting through trial and error. We started with a theory of change to apply some coherence to the cacophony of competing NGOs, and we forged links and partnerships between partners who previously had little to do with one another.

We also pioneered a proximate funding approach, initially called “Strategic Initiatives”, but which later became the “hotspot” model. This was about ensuring money was directed to the highest concentrations of slavery, and directly to local organisations working on the frontline.

Legatum funded this approach first in the Lake Volta region of Ghana and then later, supported a corridor of more than 40 projects stretching from Kathmandu to Mumbai.

We put metrics at the heart of all our work, because if you can’t measure the impact of what you’re doing, you have no idea whether you are succeeding or failing. Part of this was funding research to substantiate the strategies being used by groups at a local level, and this has been instrumental to successes.

In 2013, to scale our work, we joined with Humanity United and the Walk Free Foundation to create the Freedom Fund, a UK-based nonprofit organisation.

A decade on, we have mobilised more than $225m of philanthropic capital and supported more than 225 front-line community-based organisations to eradicate slavery. Crucially, the Freedom Fund’s activities have impacted 1.5 million lives – and liberated more than 30,000 people.

But we know our work is far from over. We estimate that the amount of money being used to eradicate slavery is currently between $200 and $250m per year. Our research suggests that an end to forced labour won’t happen until that figure reaches at least $500m or more.

We believe the Freedom Fund has created a template for how to alleviate – and ultimately – banish this deplorable practice. The question is whether the will exists to continue to take on this challenge and see it through to completion. We hope other funders can step up to support our work and collaborative philanthropy approach.

A decade of lessons from the Freedom Fund

  1. Articulate a clear vision and problem to solve. Without a target, it is hard to know what you’re aiming at.
  2. Take an investment approach. An investor mindset forces one to think systemically about how to instigate maximum effect with available capital. We ask the question and calculate our “Return on Investment” (ROI).
  3. Set clear goals with accompanying metrics. Ensure you invest in monitoring and evaluation to accompany each programme.
  4. Focus on funding front line organisations with local leadership. These groups know best what is needed at the ground level to tackle slavery and are bravely doing so with minimal resources. This is where you can have the highest return on your investment in terms of impact.
  5. Think systemically. Frontline is important, but it is also important to ensure you link with others, especially survivors whose insights can be so valuable, and also government, the private sector, social movements, the media and others who are key to driving change.
  6. Join with others. The resources are too few and the challenge too great to fund this on your own. Coming together, particularly with other funders through a vehicle like the Freedom Fund, focusses resources and drives greater productivity in the sector.
  7. Leave your ego and agendas at the door. The sector attracts people from many different perspectives. This has the advantage of aggregating resources and driving focus, but it can also be challenging. It is key to leave egos and agendas at the door for an initiative like this to succeed.