The Advocates For Human Rights: Q&A with Jennifer Prestholdt ’89, Deputy Director

Q: What is your mission?

The mission of The Advocates for Human Rights is to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law.  To accomplish this mission, The Advocates works to create systems change, strengthen accountability, raise awareness, foster tolerance, and help individuals more fully realize their inherent rights. The Advocates has a long history of developing innovative and sustainable strategies to hold governments accountable for human rights abuses and to strengthen institutions in the international justice system.

The Advocates’ core programs currently include:

  • International Justice Program partners with diaspora and Global South human rights defenders to provide technical assistance and infrastructure to support human rights documentation and advocacy at national, regional, international and transitional justice mechanisms. We also work to abolish the death penalty worldwide and serve on the steering committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
  • Women’s Human Rights Program changes laws, policies and practices related to violence against women around the world to improve safety for victims and accountability for offenders for their violence against women. We have worked against sex trafficking internationally and led the efforts to end sex trafficking in Minnesota.
  • Our Refugee & Immigrant Program is the primary provider of free legal representation to low-income asylum seekers in the upper Midwest region.
  • Research, Education & Advocacy Program houses the Worker Protection Project to identify barriers to protection of victims of labor trafficking in Minnesota.
  • Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal, founded by The Advocates and operated in partnership with Educate the Children-Nepal, provides a free education to 350 students from grades pre-K through grade 10, offering a genuine alternative to child labor to at-risk children in rural Kathmandu Valley.

Q: What prompted the founding of the organization?

The Advocates’ story is really a great example of Margaret Mead’s quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.” Back in 1983, a small group of lawyers in the Twin Cities wanted to find a way to take action about the human rights violations happening in the world. In particular, the original Advocates volunteers were concerned about the lack of government accountability for suspected unlawful deaths such as the Aquino political assassination in the Philippines.

Their very first project brought together legal and forensics experts to create international standards and guidelines for effective investigations of suspicious deaths. Adopted by the United Nations in 1991, the “Minnesota Protocol” has since guided investigations throughout the world. For the past year, I’ve been working with the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary & arbitrary executions on revising the Minnesota Protocol for the 21st century.

Q: How do you set goals for the organization?

With our Board and staff, we recently completed a really helpful planning process that produced our current three-year organizational strategic plan and targets. Our program directors and staff members develop annual program work plans which are integrated into an annual organizational work plan and budget. Members of our Board’s Missions Committee work in teams with program directors to evaluate and report on progress towards programmatic goals to the full Board.

Q: How do you measure the impact of programs?

We use both quantitative and qualitative measures. With some areas of our work, it is easy to. Each year, we measure impact through the number of clients whose lives were saved through a grant of asylum, the number of teachers using our human rights curricula, the number of volunteers and the value of their in-kind contributions, etc. As with other areas of social sector work, however, the impact of human rights programming can be difficult to measure in the short term. The impact of changing a country’s laws to better protect women from domestic violence has a huge impact on the lives of many, many women but it can also take years. So it is important to use a variety of measures that captures the true impact of programming.

Q: What have been the greatest challenges?

Some of The Advocates’ greatest challenges are those faced by all nonprofits. Nonprofits need long-term funding to be sustainable but most of us face an ebb and flow of funding. Social change funders seem to tend to focus on something for a few years and then move on to something else. In terms of the human rights work itself, the ever-increasing demand for help with human rights matters is definitely a challenge. Requests for assistance come to us every day from individuals and organizations in our own community as well as all over the globe. In our advocacy initiatives here at home, we do face some challenges with “U.S. exceptionalism”, especially when it comes to understanding international human rights institutions and the role that they play.

Q: What fundraising strategies have you used?

The Advocates uses a wide variety of fundraising strategies, including support from foundations, law firms and corporations. Our successful fundraising models also include major donor and individual giving, special events (our annual Human Rights Awards Dinner and small house parties), crowdfunding, matching donations, and study or advocacy tours. We also include in our fundraising strategies in-kind assistance (pro bono legal assistance, volunteer contributions and other in-kind contributions). We also have a small amount of government funding. Diversifying our fundraising strategies has been critical to our long-term success as a nonprofit. Later this year, we will actually be conducting two workshops on our diverse fundraising models to train participants from civil society organizations in Central & Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.

Q: What fundraising strategy has worked the best?

As we know from our daily work at The Advocates, volunteers keep the nonprofit sector thriving in the United States. We think of in-kind assistance as our most effective fundraising strategy because in-kind assistance constitutes approximately 70% of The Advocates’ total annual support and revenue. The Advocates is able to leverage every cash dollar between five and ten times to expand our reach and impact. In-kind contributions, such as pro bono assistance, enable us to fill gaps and reallocate dollars to other needs.

One great example of the power of pro bono is our Liberian Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Diaspora Project. The Advocates coordinated the TRC’s work with the Liberian diaspora, the first transitional justice process to include a diaspora population in the statement-taking and public hearings processes of their home country. With the help of more than 800 volunteers in 10 cities, The Advocates’ took statements from more than 1600 Liberians in the U.S., Europe and a refugee camp in Ghana to document gross violations of human rights between 1979 and 2003. The entire TRC travelled to the U.S. for public hearings, which were recorded by volunteer court reporters and TV crews. The 400-page publication A House with Two Rooms: Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia Diaspora Project ensures that the experiences of those who had to flee the country were included in the historical record. The Advocates’ cash budget for the three-year project was approximately $500,000 but in-kind assistance for the project was more than $10 million.

Q: What are the most critical lessons you’ve learned about nonprofit management?

One of the most critical lessons for any nonprofit is the strategic use of resources. At the core of our work at The Advocates is a model that embraces the strategic benefits of partnerships and collaborations to bring about human rights change. Our partnerships are:

  • Initiated upon request from partners who have determined that there is a benefit in bringing in an outside organization.
  • Based on trust, mutual respect, transparency and recognition of privilege.
  • Long term (we have worked with some partners as long as 20 years).
  • Focused on changing systems/addressing major human rights problems such as ending violence against women.
  • Collaborative, often including diaspora groups doing important work to support human rights advocacy in their home countries as well in-country organizations.
  • Creative, involving multiple human rights tools (remote monitoring, documentation, law reform) and local, national and international advocacy.
  • Another critical lesson is the importance of being both patient and optimistic. I don’t think I could do this work if I were not both.

Q: What changes do you anticipate in the nonprofit landscape over the next 5 to 10 years?

Technology and social media has really changed the way we do our work. It is so much easier to work with our partners in other countries. On any given day, I communicate with partners in countries from Morocco to Liberia to Nepal via Skype and Facebook messenger. We can quickly and easily get electronic resources into their hands. When we didn’t have the funding to fly to Tanzania to do a training on human rights monitoring, we were still able to train our partners in Tanzania via Skype.

Human rights abuses happen when there is no accountability. Technology has made our world smaller, which makes it much harder to hide human rights abuses when they occur. I think that trend will continue.

Q: How can others support The Advocates’ Mission?

We believe everyone has a part to play in making human rights real. Financial support is critical to our work and we appreciate every donation. Individual giving provides The Advocates with the flexibility to meet the varying needs of our partners and to seize opportunities for advocacy.

Engaging volunteers is an integral part of our mission. You can learn more about opportunities to volunteer on our website, from representing asylum seekers to translating documents to hosting a house party.

We’re lucky to have many Yale alumni who volunteer their time and talents for The Advocates for Human Rights. To name just a few, Steve Carlson and Jim O’Neal currently serve on our Board of Directors. Jim Dorsey has been involved since the early days of The Advocates and still serves on our Missions Committee.

You can learn more about The Advocates on our website and subscribe to The Advocates’ newsletter; The Human Rights Observer; monthly e-newsletter; and blog.


To learn more about human rights, you can check out some of The Advocates’ educational resources:

Human Rights Toolkits series:

Discover Human Rights training and manual:

Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation and Advocacy:


Recommended reading and links:

Website: and

The Advocates’ Post:

Human Rights Tools for A Changing World:

Annual report:

Also find us at: