CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and Founder of TrustLaw and the Trust Conference, Monique Villa talks to Law Today about the process of launching groundbreaking new initiatives, the importance of telling under-reported stories and the power of partnerships.
LT: I am very interested in how you have channelled your strategic approach to business and management into running the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
MV: When I took up this role as CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, I had twenty years of experience as a journalist and more of the management of Agence France-Presse and the Reuters News Agency. So in many ways it was not a huge step for me. But I did not know the charity world and chose to take an approach which I believe all charities should take: a business approach. What impact do you want to have and
what do you do to deliver it?
I started at the time that Thomson acquired Reuters. Thomson had a portfolio of businesses with no common culture and Reuters had a very strong identity and culture. The Reuters Foundation, as it was at the time, trained journalists – primarily in Africa – and had a small programme focused on humanitarian issues. I wanted to give a clear strategic directive, and asked myself what the company was good at that could be useful in the charity world. Thomson Reuters are good at informing and at connecting people, which works well if you want to help the voiceless and the powerless globally. This is how I came to create a number of programmes which all stemmed from that: free legal assistance to NGOs and social enterprises through TrustLaw, coverage of the world’s underreported
news, media development, and the Trust Conference.
LT: Would you say that this strategic approach came from or was honed through your experience as a journalist?
MV: As a journalist you are curious and you ask questions, which I did for six months when I took over the Foundation. For instance, the idea of TrustLaw came to me after a meeting
in Washington DC and a conversation with a lawyer who told me that he had created The Pro Bono Institute (PBI). He explained that PBI member law firms would spend the
equivalent of 2.5% of their revenue minimum to help people who could not afford a lawyer. When you know the turnover of the big American firms, you think that it is a fantastic proposition. I asked if it worked the same way all over the world and he said: absolutely not. I immediately decided that I would try to spread the practice of pro bono all around the world.
LT: TrustLaw is clearly a huge and ambitious initiative!
MV: It has become very big, and my ambition was always for it to be so. I wanted to have law firms in every country working pro bono for social entrepreneurs and NGOs. We
have a thorough and serious vetting process at the Foundation because the law firms need to be sure that the organisations they are supporting are not a cover for something dodgy, or illegal or socially harmful. Once an NGO is received as a member, we take over all their legal needs. It’s a huge service that has proven to have big impact.
TrustLaw has grown exponentially in the last seven years: we now have more than 4000 social entrepreneurs and NGOs as members and 800 law firms work for free for them. We
also have the general counsels of major corporations with big teams of lawyers, like General Electric, JP Morgan Chase or Nokia.
This is a very professional service. I now have a big team for TrustLaw, with 15 lawyers inside the team because the first person an NGO speaks to after becoming a member is
a lawyer. Our lawyers then decide if their issue is actually a legal one and, if so, how to frame it and explain the issue to our network in order to find a lawyer to deal with it. Every
Monday, we send an email to our 800 law firm members with the summary of new cases. It is very clear so they know exactly what needs to be done, and don’t waste time figuring
out the issue.
We also do big cross-border legal research projects, which have helped to change laws in countries. So there is a big impact which the law firms love and you have the best
lawyers wanting to work on these kinds of challenging research projects.
LT: Was it easy to get it off the ground?
MV: No; it is never easy to create something. Initially I thought it would be relatively easy and then I discovered that NGOs have no idea what a legal issue is. In fact, at the
beginning, my team had no idea what a legal issue was, so I hired my first lawyer three months after creating TrustLaw.
Then I had to literally travel the world to see law firms and convince them to join. At first, in many countries, lawyers were asking me why they should work for no pay. I explained
that it would connect them to and enable them to work with a big network of law firms from the US, the UK and many other countries – and this helped to spark their interest. Crossborder research projects enable law firms from very different geographic areas to work together, so they build relationships that are important for their business. Now they see the value without it needing to be explained, and they love TrustLaw. On top of that, it’s a free service and a very professional one.
LT: Are there other kinds of challenges that TrustLaw has faced over the years?
MV: Many challenges, because when you grow you always face a lot of challenges. The Thomson Reuters Foundation receives funds from Thomson Reuters (the company). The
amount of funding has not increased for years, and every year we need to spend more because we are constantly growing. So I fundraise for all the rest of my funding. Last year, for instance, we spent a total of £14 million and the company gave us £4.5 million of that. It is a challenge but it does give us quite a bit of independence, which is great.
The biggest challenge is how to keep your integrity and the excellence of your service while having this huge growth in the number of organisations you help. This growth affects all four of our programmes (of which TrustLaw is one), and of course as they grow the cost of these services grows too. I now have 22 people working full-time for TrustLaw, 48 staff journalists and so forth. These growth issues are interesting and keep Nick Glicher, the Director of TrustLaw, and myself on our toes.
LT: How do you balance that, the growing and maintaining?
MV: By hiring the right people. You don’t run these kinds of programs without a fantastic team. Most of the TrustLaw team, who are based all around the world, are ex-lawyers who
worked for years on things like mergers and acquisitions in big law firms. They really love what they do now, so they work hard and it grows. The team of the Foundation are my
Last year, in 2017, the law firms told us that in the first six years of TrustLaw they spent US $109 million of their lawyers’ brain time on our beneficiaries. I would not be surprised if
this sum is considerably more in 2018, because it grows every year. It is relatively easy to quantify the service being offered by the lawyers because they count their hours so you know how much they spend. It is much harder to quantify the value of the service being received, but if you take the benefits for the NGOs and social entrepreneurs it seems almost certain that they will be much greater than this US $109 million.
One way of quantifying impact is by, for example, noting when a law has changed in a country. In the Philippines, for instance, the law on domestic workers was finally
discussed and voted upon after we did a big piece of legal research comparing the laws on domestic workers in different countries, west and east, for one of the big NGOs there. The
law was voted upon and it has changed the lives of two million people. How do you put a price on that? You don’t. But it is very important.
LT: Can you tell me a little more about the Foundation’s focus on under-reported news?
You have to shed light on issues if you want to provoke action. We decided very quickly after I took over to cover what I call the under-reported stories, which then become
more prominent. For instance, in 2010 nobody was speaking of modern slavery when we started to cover it. Today there are articles about it every day – which is a good thing.
So we have looked at modern slavery and human trafficking, women’s rights, the human impact of climate change. We always try to cover these stories from the human angle.
Most recently we have started to focus on access to land and property, which is a huge issue that nobody writes about. Omidyar Network has given us a big grant, enabling me to
hire ten journalists around the world to cover this issue from many angles. We hope to do the same as we did for slavery – to really bring it into the public eye. Newspapers all around the world publish us because we are free and distributed on the Reuters wire, so we have a big audience of potentially one billion readers a day. Little by little you will have the New York Times, Al Ahram, Le Figaro and many others becoming interested and investigating these issues around property, as they did with slavery.
Even with news, which is totally unbiased because we are Reuters, our goal is still to shed light on these issues so that people will react. For example, we published an investigation into the mica mines in India, reporting that not only were children working as slaves, but dying in these mines. It was circulated everywhere. Three months later, Volkswagen
announced that they were suspending and reviewing all their contracts with the mica providers in India. News can have an impact.
We also have teams of journalists who train and mentor other journalists around the world on how to cover corruption, human trafficking, slavery and all kinds of important issues.
LT: What about the Trust Conference?
The Trust Conference is now the biggest forum on slavery and women’s rights in the world. Ever since I created it, in 2012, we have dedicated one day to issues related to human
trafficking and one day to women’s empowerment. This is not a red carpet conference: it’s a place where you have big players discussing and deciding what action to take. It’s
a huge amount of work to prepare but it’s good and it has impact.
Two years ago we launched the Stop Slavery Award, which we give at the Trust Conference to corporations that have made outstanding efforts to clean their supply chain from
forced labour. No corporation can say it is completely free of slavery, but this helps to create a culture of accountability. Corporations wishing to be considered for this award have to fill in a questionnaire that takes a week for their Chief Procurements Officer to complete. These are thoroughly reviewed and then an independent jury, which includes
Nobel Prize winners and other illustrious people, such as Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Prize Laureate, or Ken Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, decides who
wins. One really interesting thing is that all of the corporations that have started to do big things to reduce the forced labour in their supply chain had received media attention at some point. This is what triggered their very quick reaction. Journalism does a lot and investigative journalism is not dead.
LT: I’ve seen the Trust Conference grow every year. How do you balance the huge aims and ambitions of the conference with the self-stated directive to achieve
MV: It’s a conference that is very special, as you have seen, because it’s a conference where the sponsors don’t speak. Usually, you pay – you speak. With me, it’s just the opposite: you pay but you’re not guaranteed a speaking slot, rather the opposite. It is a challenge every year. It is not that I don’t have respect for my sponsors – I love them! Rather, it is because I think that a good conference is a place where you have the
most interesting people speaking, who most of the time are people in the front lines or change makers who have real stories to tell. On human trafficking, we always listen first to
Every year I speak to many survivors. Those who are able to analyse what happened to them and discuss it at the conference are the ones invited to speak there because they
have already started to overcome their trauma. I also speak to many corporations about their work on cleaning the supply chain before deciding which of them should participate. In 2012, when we started, nobody wanted to come – now they love to. Demand to participate has grown every year with the reputation of the conference. It’s complicated, because of course companies know that speaking publicly about issues of accountability can backfire on them, so you have to build trust so they know that the discussion will be fair and open. Yes there will be hard questions asked, but it will be fair.
You build all that and as a team we all learn, so every year it’s getting better. But of course the process of growing the conference, and growing the Foundation generally, is a tough
job. It entails a lot of research, will and convincing funders. Over half the journalists I have are funded by external funders so you have to convince them that you are going to spend
their money wisely.