Dr. Samantha Nutt is the founder of War Child USA and War Child Canada, a charity organization that helps protects and aid children living in the world’s most dangerous war zones from Iraq to Afghanistan, Somalia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone to Darfur, Sudan.
Dr. Nutt is also an award-winning humanitarian, bestselling author and one of the most in-demand public speakers across North America.
With a career in charity that has spanned more than two decades and dozens of conflict zones, her international work has benefited hundreds of thousands of war-affected children globally and has garnered her fans/supporters such as Alicia Keys, Iggy Pop, Chantal Kreviazuk and even Hillary Clinton.
We got to speak with Dr. Nutt about her organization and incredible life experiences…
Why is giving back so important to you? I started working in war zones in my mid-20s, in Somalia during a famine. Living with and seeing firsthand the impact of war profoundly changed the way I view the world and has affected every professional decision I have made since then. Giving back is an innate part of my work with War Child. At times, it has even helped me cope with the loss and the suffering I have witnessed.
How has giving back helped you? Hope is such a cliché, but that’s what giving back is. It’s the opposite of helplessness. For me, it’s the opportunity to do something constructive about some of the injustices and horrors taking place in war torn countries around the world. On bad days, it’s my solace.
How do you incorporate giving back into your life and your work? It is my work and my life. I wake up every day and try to figure out how I can best help War Child achieve its goal of providing relief and promoting opportunity for women and children in some of the most devastated corners of the globe. It can be a daunting task. But it isn’t something I ever turn off. It’s a part of everything I am, every day. I am fortunate, in that sense, that my work is my passion.
Please summarize your organization WarChild for those who may not know it (even though they should!)...
War Child is an internationally acclaimed humanitarian organization that helps children and their families rebuild their lives and withstand the brutal impact of war. We take a long term view of the challenge of war – we are not a “relief” organization. We work exclusively with local partner and community agencies to invest in grassroots, sustainable solutions that protect children, uphold the rule of law, and foster self-sufficiency and economic opportunity. Our work is both complex and holistic, with an emphasis on education, access to justice and skills training (economic development) that over time help to break the cycle of poverty and violence plaguing war torn communities. We also have a longstanding relationship with music and music artists as a way of getting our message out and galvanizing support for our efforts.
Favorite food: homemade pasta anything
Favorite cocktail: the second one
Favorite restaurant: My sister’s house (which, graciously, is always free!)
If you could host a dinner party, who would you invite living or dead? Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, Teju Cole, Mona Eltahawy, George Orwell, Jon Stewart, Oscar Wilde and Christopher Hitchens, because he’d keep the debate going into the next day (even if he was seriously wrong on Iraq).
Favorite vacation spot: anywhere where I can put a canoe into the water, or a kayak into the sea.
Favorite TV show: VEEP. It’s not even a contest.
Favorite movie: Christmas Vacation. Because nothing has ever come as close to capturing life with my family growing up.
Favorite song: Exit Music, Radiohead
Favorite book: Impossible to pick just one! I loved the Wolf Hall series by Hilary Mantel, anything by David Foster Wallace, I’ll read and re-read anything by Orwell, Arthur Miller, JM Coetzee, Joan Didion, Michael Ondaatje or Margaret Atwood. For my nonfiction I like Cheryl Strayed, Caitlin Moran, Jon Ronson, Christopher Hitchens, Chris Hedges, Lewis Lapham, Michael Lewis and my favourite new writers are Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I always have a book in my hand. Sometimes two.
Favorite animal: dogs
Favorite app: Foreign Policy
What experience in your life and charity work are you most proud of? Building War Child was a daunting task, but I am proud of what it has become. I am proud of the way that we are pushing the boundaries of humanitarian aid and focusing not on short term approaches, but on long term changes. I am proud that when we say “local partnerships” we really mean it – we spend years training and investing in enhancing the capacity of our local partners and staff, and we listen to them, and it shows in the quality of the work on the ground. I’m also proud that we are pushing new and innovative models when it comes to protecting and defending the rights of women and children even in places where the rule of law is nonexistent. Twenty years ago, War Child was an idea. But because of the dedication of our staff and our partners, and their courage, we now serve more than 400,000 children and their families in war zones every year.
Was expanding your organization from Canada to the United States difficult? It’s always hard to build something from nothing, especially a charitableorganization because there are so many worthy causes out there. We are much better known in Canada, so I stopped having to hard sell our work and our credibility several years ago. And then you expand to have a greater impact on the lives of children but find yourself back explaining “What is War Child?” and trying to lay out your capacity and experience. But Americans have been amazingly receptive. They understand and recognize why having humanitarian programs that support children in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria – why these are so necessary. They also understand something about these conflicts and many, tragically, know people who lost their lives in war. So I’m not confronting the same questions and obstacles I faced when I started out twenty years ago, which had more to do with general apathy that we had “our own problems here at home” and children in war zones were none of our concern. The response in New York (where our office is) to War Child’s work and mandate, especially, has been incredible.
What advice would you share with those looking at getting into the non-profit field? Be an expert. I mean that. I see so many people who want to start a new nonprofit who have never worked for another agency, have limited experience (especially internationally), think they know how to get it right, but in fact are totally naïve to the realities on the ground. Good intentions aren’t enough to produce good outcomes – you have to know what you are doing, and be trained and qualified for the task.
What one thing would you change in this world if you could? War destroys us. It is still the greatest threat (with 16,000 + nuclear war heads in the world) to our very survival on this planet. We can change that: After all, war is a distinctly human construct. We just don’t always believe it’s possible.