What Libby Hoffman Learned Giving Away $9 Million

Waging peace is not for Cold Warriors these days. Libby Hoffman knows this. The world has changed and philanthropy has to change with it. But in the arena of peacebuilding, and especially for those handing out money to support it, change has been incremental at best, and in some cases, misguided.

"The success of peacebuilding suffers from a lack of the ability to be strategic and long-term," Hoffman says. "A lot of peacebuilding focuses on bringing in outside experts and, even when there's lip service given to consulting locals, very rarely does peacebuilding focus on building local capacity and letting locals own and lead the process.

"That is the missing dimension in peacebuilding today," she says. "You have to be heavily committed to process, and simply creating space for facilitating process. A lot of funders don't seem to know how to do that."

Hoffman, 49, is the founder and president of Catalyst for Peace, a private foundation based in Portland, Maine that mobilizes locally owned peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts in conflict and post-conflict settings, and that uses storytelling to share the lessons of this work with the wider world.

After working in Uganda and Ethiopia with Catalyst, Hoffman met John Caulker, a human rights activist in Sierra Leone, and she became deeply interested in that West African nation, which had been ravaged by a civil war from 1991 to 2002 that left more than 50,000 dead and two million more displaced. With Caulker, Hoffman founded Fambul Tok, or Family Talk, which brings together victims and perpetrators from the war in village-level, tradition-based ceremonies of truth-telling and forgiveness to try to repair the shattered community.

In 2009, Catalyst shifted its entire focus to Fambul Tok, and Hoffman has since produced an award-winning film and authored a book of the same name about the process. For her, it was the culmination of interests she developed at Williams College in a student-run course on nonviolence and through reading Gene Sharp, the founder of the Albert Einstein Institute, which is dedicated to the study of nonviolent action.

Catalyst's original endowment was $20 million, funded by the sale of stock in her father's former land development and homebuilding company in Florida, and is now at about $11 million with annual grantmaking of about $1 million. The foundation is due to sunset in about a decade, and Hoffman is $9 million smarter than when she began.

"Our assumption is that the communities themselves have the power," she says, so Catalyst for Peace "accompanies," as they like to say, local populations to enable them to achieve goals of reconciliation and peacebuilding. By committing long-term and in-depth, they have more scope and sustainability. Storytelling, she says, "maximizes the impact."

Libby started working as a teacher and sees herself returning to that role, albeit not in a formal, university setting. My advice? Take the course. "I want to share the lessons of Fambul Tok with the both practitioners and funders, to mobilize the potential for peace that has been untapped."