Who's Giving Millions to Fight Sex Trafficking in the United States? We Don't Always Know

Sex trafficking is a deeply disturbing problem, and one closely linked to international criminal syndicates, so it may be no surprise that some of the donors tackling this challenge would rather remain anonymous. 

Within the last couple of months, several big gifts have landed on the desks of U.S. nonprofits working to help victims of the slave trade, but with no donor to claim credit.

In a philanthropic sector rife with "naming opportunities," press releases, and charity galas, large anonymous donations are a curious phenomenon. Usually the motive is that donors don't want a line forming outside their door. But in this case, we think something else is going on. Possibly fear, as I mentioned, or maybe donors avoiding linking the image of this heinous netherworld to their brand identities. 

In any case, three anonymous gifts have been announced within the last 60 days, all to assist sex trafficking survivors.

In New York, the Covenant House and LifeWay Network received a million dollars in October from an unidentified benefactor to establish Aspire Home, a safe house in New York for trafficked youth. Aspire Home will house young women, ages 18 to 24, who are survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and labor and sex trafficking. The organizations will offer comprehensive, wrap-around supports including mental health and casework services, job training, employment opportunities, and counseling to promote long-term economic self-sufficiency. Survivors can live in Aspire Home for up to 18 months.

Also last month, an anonymous donor gave a million dollars to the Jewish Women's Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County for general grantmaking and charitable expenditures. JWF focuses its spending especially on stopping the sale of women and children as sex slaves, internationally and in the United States—most notably in the organization's native Florida. Earlier this year, JWF hosted a regional “Out of Bondage” symposium on domestic sex-trafficking, which some 400 community leaders and activists attented to confront and address the human slave trade's impact on the southern, coastal state.

Presumably at smaller expense, a third anonymous donation relating to sex trafficking appeared at North Central Michigan College this fall. For several days, a nameless backer paid for an award-winning art exhibit called "The Scarlet Cord," previously displayed at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, to be shown at the midwestern campus. The mixed-media exhibit visually conveys the tortured world of children who are coerced into the sex trade, and calls for compassionate action to end the inhumane practice.

Of course, not all funders taking on sex trafficking prefer to stay in the shadows. Many are quite out front on this issue, starting with the NoVo Foundation, which has given heavily to combat human slavery. Last year, its co-president Peter Buffett even debuted a new song he had written on this issue at the Global Philanthropy Forum conference in Silicon Valley. 

Funders who have made public grants to curb trafficking in the past year or two include the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the New York Foundation, the Greenbaum Foundation, the Arizona Community Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and many more. 

The Gates Foundation made a $5 million grant in this area a few years back, but didn't go further. 

It's an interesting mix of grantmaking happening. Some of these funders have backed globally focused NGOs like the Polaris Project. Others have tackled this problem closer to home, as we've seen, with grants to shelters and networks that help women who've been trafficked rebuild their lives. 

One trend, though, is crystal clear: This is an issue that commands a lot more attention and donor support today than it did just a few years go.