Systems Change in the Trenches:

How Two Leaders Are Changing the Refugee Sector

After years of working in various capacities in the refugee sector, Sasha Chanoff, RefugePoint Founder & Executive Director, branched off on his own in 2005, joined in 2008 by Amy Slaughter, Chief Strategy Officer, with an idea and a mission: they were going to reshape refugee humanitarian response, particularly by expanding the solutions available to refugees—such as resettlement and self-reliance.

With that ambitious goal, they created RefugePoint. I recently interviewed the pair to find out what they have learned in their 12-year-long journey and what advice they have for those just starting on their own systems-change journey.

Kelly Lyons: Tell us about RefugePoint.

Sasha Chanoff: We see ourselves as innovators in the humanitarian space. We identify gaps and challenges and devise responses that directly impact people’s lives and shape humanitarian response on a broad level. Our work is about enabling refugees in life-threatening situations to survive, support themselves, transition off of humanitarian aid, and ultimately contribute to their new communities.

Amy Slaughter: To build on what Sasha said in terms of innovation, we’re continually looking at the landscape to see what’s working and what’s not, and then we problem solve around it. Our current focus is resettlement—permanently and legally relocating refugees to countries where they can rebuild their lives—and self-reliance—enabling those stuck in their first countries of asylum to support themselves and their families. But that doesn’t mean that’s what we’ll be doing 20 years from now. We’ll remain responsive to the problems that we see with a continued focus on advancing solutions for refugees.

Amy Slaughter and Sasha Chanoff

From left: Amy Slaughter, Chief Strategy Officer; Sasha Chanoff, Founder & Executive Director.


KL: How did you realize that you needed a systems-change approach to solve this problem?

SC: We saw that the global refugee resettlement system was broken to a large degree—or perhaps more accurately, it had never been set up to work effectively. To use the U.S. as an example, every year, the U.S. establishes the number of refugees that the country will accept. That ceiling has usually been around 70,000-75,000 refugees per year, but up until 2014, tens of thousands of those slots were going unused annually.

AS: That gap existed because there was insufficient capacity on the ground to identify the most vulnerable cases and refer them into the system. It’s a resource-intensive process, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) already has its hands full delivering emergency humanitarian aid. Often, their staff doesn’t have time to do the individual casework that’s required to get refugees into the resettlement pipeline. We saw that as one area of opportunity for us to improve the system.

A second major aspect is that the whole refugee field is seen through a legal lens—being a refugee is about losing the rights and protection of one state and trying to regain those rights in a new state. Therefore, this issue is assumed to be under the realm of governments and the UN. NGOs were really minor players in that process.

SC: We realized that there was an opportunity for NGOs to play an important and new role. NGOs could step in to bolster capacity, establish more predictable resettlement infrastructure, and ensure that the most vulnerable people would have access to resettlement.

KL: How do you feel your organization fits into that system? What are those levers that you’re now pulling to do that?

SC: Amy and I had both worked within UNHCR before and closely with the U.S. Department of State and other government agencies. We raised private funds and said to UNHCR, “Listen, we want to help support you to reach your resettlement targets. We have our own staff. We would like to send them where resettlement is needed most to identify refugees for resettlement.”

AS: It was a long process of building credibility and trust with the main players in the system. Sasha and I were both known quantities as people because we worked in the system for a long time, but our agency was new and did not fit the mold. Major actors were thinking, “What is this new organization, and what are its aims?” We had to approach it diplomatically. We had to earn their trust and prove that we could add value for them first. We did this by sharing our knowledge and offering our staff’s expertise for free. That was a process that took about the first five years.

SC: That was the door opening where UNHCR said, “Yes, you should do this, and we’d like you to do more of it.” We found that it worked really well.

We were then invited to train other organizations to do this work. Ultimately, we started to provide information to government and UNHCR decision-makers, specifically drawing their attention to overlooked populations and locations. We gave other organizations guidance, technical assistance, and sometimes financial support as part of our systems-change efforts. We saw the State Department allocate additional funds to support other organizations to do similar work. We began convening government and UN officials, NGOs, funders, and others around common problems. We saw that the outcomes of our convenings led to better results in the field. There were more refugees reached, more resources allocated, more organizations on the same page about what to do and how to do it together.

In this way, we felt like our work was starting to shape and change how funding was being allocated and how resources were being used to make resettlement more accessible. In 2014, the U.S. reached its resettlement quota for the first time, and then again in 2015, and in 2016 was able to raise its quota. Canada, European countries, and others are now increasing their resettlement numbers and other pathways for refugees to legally and permanently relocate to safe countries. We can’t in any way claim responsibility for this—UNHCR, the State Department, and many others made this happen. But I would say we played an important role, particularly in helping resettlement from Africa triple from 2005 to 2016. Globally, over 1.2 million refugees have accessed resettlement since we started.

RefugePoint convening

RefugePoint hosted a workshop with their self-reliance community of practice in Nairobi, Kenya in March 2017.


KL: Can you describe the direct services you provide?

AS: With our resettlement work, we meet face to face with refugees around the world to conduct interviews, document their stories, and submit these to governments. That submission starts the resettlement process, which culminates in a family permanently relocating to another country and starting a new life.

Our direct services around self-reliance are carried out largely in our program for urban refugees in Nairobi. This is where we test new methods of identifying the most vulnerable refugees and helping them stabilize and reach a point of self-reliance.

Our goal is not to scale directly, though. It’s to have a laboratory effect.

We want to have enough of an operational footprint to test new approaches, learn from them, and then export that learning.

There are countless micro-innovations that are happening in our day-to-day fieldwork. We are constantly working to build systems where they didn’t exist before and leave behind better, lasting infrastructure.

KL: How do you share this learning?

AS: Maybe the most important aspect of our self-reliance work specifically is creating opportunities for collective learning, which can pave the way for collective action.

Our self-reliance work with the Women’s Refugee Commission is a great example of that. The State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration funded the Women’s Refugee Commission with the goal of creating a wellbeing index, which happened to be similar to what we were doing in Nairobi with our self-reliance measurement tool. With the IKEA Foundation, UNHCR, the State Department among others coming together as partners and the Women’s Refugee Commission acting as a co-leader, we built this platform to promote self-reliance and created a measurement tool called the Self Reliance Index. It wasn’t just us; it was about engaging a broader group of organizations and interested parties to do this collectively.

For resettlement, it’s more about setting a precedent that other NGOs can follow. For instance, we were the first NGO to approach UNHCR offering to loan our staff to increase their capacity in Africa. Now, other NGOs are doing the same in Africa and beyond.

Congolese refugee

A Congolese refugee who now earns money through selling fabric.


KL: We typically think of a systems entrepreneur as being successful because they are a neutral entity. Yet, you operate as a systems entrepreneur and provide direct services, too. Have you found that challenging?

SC: Actually, we’ve found that the direct-service aspect of our work gives us the credibility, the relationships, and the knowledge necessary to be a systems entrepreneur. We don’t seek out government grants, so that helps preserve our neutrality. The way we’ve positioned ourselves—in terms of being eager collaborators and non-competitors—has provided a platform for us to be a non-threatening convener.

A number of the organizations in our community of practice have budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars and reach millions of refugees with their direct programming with funding largely from the UN and governments. Our budget is about $6 million in 2018 and mostly comes from private funding. Our primary interest is to have enough of a direct impact to learn and to give us the credibility as thought leaders that will help us convene, identify collective goals for our field, and influence thinking and humanitarian response. So far we’ve found that it’s a unique role and one that others seem to value.

KL: We know from firsthand experience, as well as from talking to other systems entrepreneurs, that there’s often a disconnect in how foundations and other funders give to and measure the work. What’s been your experience in talking to donors and what have you found works in communicating your vision and approach?

SC: Early on, we had success with innovative foundations, but many of those funders had specific guidelines around what they wanted to see. Many of them wanted to see rapid and exponential scale, but we recognized that our aim was to shape and improve humanitarian response, specifically with resettlement and self-reliance. That didn’t necessarily mean scaling our own direct services. There are already organizations doing that, and we wanted our work to support and amplify their efforts.

With time, we were able to get funders on board with our thinking as we had more success to point to as thought leaders and innovators. Today, we can show how we’ve addressed systemic gaps through direct service, field building, and our systems-change approach, which has led to the improvement of tens of thousands of lives directly and even more indirectly.

AS: Many donors’ search for scale compels us to present our partners’ direct impact as our indirect impact since we’ve had a role in training, technical assistance, policy change, or leading by example. That can be challenging to communicate and can jeopardize relationships with partners. We’re still trying to figure out how to appropriately message it to donors, and find the donors who resonate with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

Luckily, many donors recognize that systems change is difficult to measure, and ultimately may not be perfectly quantifiable. It requires patience to see change over time. You also have to have some appetite for complexity. I sense that some would-be donors want the refugee crisis to be a simple problem to solve or want it to be similar to other fields that they’re more familiar with. That’s just not the reality.

Amy Slaughter collaborating

Amy Slaughter collaborating with colleagues at RefugePoint’s self-reliance workshop in Nairobi, Kenya in March 2017.


KL: What advice would you give to others who are earlier in their journey in systems change?

SC: Start off by listening to others and finding ways to support them. This has been crucial for us in building relationships with other NGOs and funders. When we know what other NGOs are doing, we can direct appropriate funders to them. When we can listen to a funder and understand her interests and direct her to the right NGO, that strengthens our relationship with that funder.

Because of this, we are now in a position as a locus of interconnection among funders and NGOs in the refugee space. That basic stance of listening to others and introducing the right people to one another has been fundamental to our success.

AS: In addition, it’s important to take the time to get to know your landscape before you stick your neck out too far. You need to really know the sensitivities and the levers for change. We’ve seen some startups try to start work without taking these factors into account. That was an advantage that Sasha and I had from having worked in the field for so long. We knew that we needed to approach this cautiously and humbly.

KL: What’s one thing you wish you would have known when you started this 12 years ago?

AS: I think it’s important to be true to your vision and not to feel limited to where funding might come from. I’d like to think that the right partners—not only funding partners but also thought and operational partners—will eventually find you and resonate with your vision. I think it’s easier to move forward quickly with like-minded partners who believe in your approach rather than trying to convince those who are not on board.

I would also say document everything as you go, so you can report your impact in before and after terms. We’re having to go back and reconstruct some of that history now.

KL: What’s been the most difficult part of this journey?

AS: An ongoing difficulty is the need for nonstop fundraising. We’ve stayed away from government funds in order to remain independent, nimble, and innovative. So continual fundraising just goes with the territory, but it does take away time from addressing the needs that we see and carrying out our mission.

KL: What’s been the most fulfilling part of the journey?

SC: We are motivated by knowing, meeting, and seeing people who are just like us, but, through no fault of their own, have been chased from their homes, brutalized, lost family members, and are in the most desperate situations in their lives. Moments worth celebrating come all the time when we see those same people rebuild their lives and contribute to their new communities when they get on their own two feet. When people are supporting themselves, you see the transformation in them. That’s what RefugePoint means—that moment of transformation in someone’s life when we meet them and help put them on a better path. It’s a turning point in their lives. That’s what motivates us to do this work.