An Unexpected Journey: Trafficking Prevention in Romania

For Ryan Crozier, four passions remain constant: God, his wife, Romania and trafficking prevention. As a natural-born entrepreneur there have been many other passions and interests that have come and gone, but those are the ones that define his life. At age 12, Ryan fell in love with Romania on a short-term mission trip with his Dad that would change their lives forever. At 18 as a college student, the seeds for anti-trafficking work were sown as he listened to a visiting speaker from India recount the plight of children vulnerable to traffickers. His blood boiled as he listened to the woman tell stories of rescuing children from abuse. She compared their work to standing at the edge of a cliff trying to catch kids as they came off and not being able to catch them all. All Ryan could think about was why there wasn’t someone further back stopping children going anywhere near the cliff edge. It is a question that has helped shape the course of his adult life and it is the reason that today he is leading a company, eLiberare Design – a web design and development agency in Bucharest, Romania.

Although Ryan thought he would be moving to Romania for good when he turned 18, he instead was given some wise advice to get a college education first. From there God led him on a journey of preparation that included meeting his wife Andrea, them together getting jobs and starting businesses which would give them essential experience – and finally establishing the structures and support base they would need behind them to launch an NGO.

In Spring 2012, eight years after they had first met in college, Ryan and Andrea moved to Bucharest, Romania. They knew they wanted to do some kind of trafficking prevention work and spent the first year researching and building good connections with existing anti trafficking organisations. Gradually the door opened for them launch a non-profit in Romania, and their organisation eLiberare was started in April 2013 with a focus on preventing human trafficking.

Soon after its official launch, the journey of eLiberare took an unexpected turn and within 6 months they had launched eLiberare Design – a design agency that takes on commercial clients and uses its design expertise to support the work of trafficking prevention.

They didn’t see it coming, but in some ways it isn’t surprising that the Croziers have started a business in Romania. Although a conventional non-profit was the best way for them to set up in Bucharest, Ryan has a habit of starting businesses – right from age 13 when he hired himself out as a clown for children’s birthday parties! As he began to hire smart, capable Romanians for eLiberare, they found themselves with a stretched budget and a team with some great skills. They started to turn some of their in-house web design experience into a way of covering some of their expenses and the business has grown from there. Romanian legal regulations allow non-profits to engage in a high threshold of commercial activities, with provisions for reporting commercial income and paying tax. The non-profit entity provides a good framework for all they are doing, with eLiberare Design operating essentially as a commercial business, alongside their anti-trafficking campaign and education work. Both sides integrate and support each other, working towards the same purpose: stopping vulnerable communities getting close to the cliff of human slavery.

The seed for their business model came from a failed fundraising idea. A friend with a design agency in the USA wondered how they might have a positive impact and talked to Ryan about recruiting other agencies to sponsor eLiberare. That idea didn’t work out, but the seed was sown for eLiberare to start their own design agency. They already had a competent core team of Romanian staff in place, a great graphic designer, a web developer and a project leader, as well as Ryan in the office. Things came to a crunch when Ryan faced a payroll crisis one month and started sending out messages, reaching out to his network, asking if anyone needed a website or design work. Through a referral they got a website build and the business was off the ground.

In the last two years they have had a wild ride as they’ve bootstrapped their business growth. Through further referrals and hustling for business, the company has grown. Their business model is business-to-business, taking on projects for big design agencies in the USA who outsource work from corporate clients to eLiberare Design. This kind of model enables eLiberare to do a wide variety of projects with relatively few client relationships to manage and means that there is a steady stream of recurring business coming their way. The have gone from just covering a portion of the business expenses, to generating enough profit to fund all of their non-profit work, so that eLiberare is now completely self-sustainable. The team has grown to 18 staff, with some working on the design agency side and others focusing on trafficking education work.

In addition to taking on commercial clients, eLiberare Design leverages their web design and development experience by offering anti-trafficking organisations their services pro bono. They have done design work for Teen Challenge Romania, the European Freedom Network and The No Project Romania, among others.

eLiberare is laser focused on the prevention of human trafficking in Romania. The Trafficking in Persons Report for 2015, produced by the US State Department states:

Romania is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to labor trafficking and women and children subjected to sex trafficking. Romanians represent a significant source of sex and labor trafficking victims in Western Europe (particularly the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and France) and Central and Southern Europe (particularly the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Greece).

Ryan and Andrea’s vision is that over the next two decades they will see a substantial reduction in human trafficking in and from Romania. They want to focus on young people, raising awareness that leads to young Romanians to take action – and then supporting these fledgling leaders with the resources and equipping that they need. To that end they have four main strategies:

1. Providing awareness and education

2. Offering trafficking prevention training

3. Providing restoration assistance

4. Helping develop a movement against trafficking in Romania

Many of their visible projects are campaigns that raise awareness and educate and are delivered in partnership with the Romanian Government, foreign embassies and other NGOs.

In October 2013 they launched a nation-wide platform to promote the annual European Day against Human Trafficking on October 18th. For the 2015 campaign, they partnered with the USA Embassy, the Dutch Embassy, the British Embassy and ANITP, the Anti-trafficking Agency of the Romanian Government. The October 18th campaign has been largely funded by eLiberare from their commercial profits.

In October 2014 they initiated the Freedom Tour, a 37 day tour around Romania, co-sponsored by the USA Embassy, ANITP and corporate sponsors, including Avis and Bancpost, a leading Romanian Bank. The Freedom Tour visited 16 cities around Romania and helped the team establish a strong national network of anti-trafficking advocates.

eLiberare has created videos, taken part in Street Art festivals, set up a fictional facebook-style timeline of girls sharing how they have been exploited, constructed decorated doorways in the city marketplace that explain the subtle lure of traffickers to people looking for a better life – and have started many other creative campaigns that raise awareness about the dangers of trafficking.

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As well as running campaigns, eLiberare has also developed trafficking prevention training for various settings. For example, they have trained those working in orphanages, among some of the most vulnerable children. They recently put together a package for teachers in every county, with curriculum, flyers and resources to use with school children, raising awareness about slavery and human trafficking across Romania.

Many of the anti-trafficking projects they do involved creating websites, designing materials and developing campaign resources. That is largely the reason Ryan hired a great designer and a competent web developer as a first priority and it is what gave them the nucleus for eLiberare Design. However, that is not the only way the for-profit work and the non-profit campaigning are integrated together. As well as one funding the other, Ryan also sees the benefit of the business-mission integration in many other ways.

When Ryan attends meetings with corporate sponsors or visits Embassies in Bucharest, the fact that he runs a business and an NGO that is self-sustainable gives him significant credibility. When they were planning the October 18th initiative, they came to the partner Embassies and Agencies not with their hand out, asking what they could get, but instead asking what they could give. Ryan says that this really gives him the chance to sit at the table and share ideas. The fact that eLiberare has had the resources to initiate many of the campaigns and training initiatives has given them a respectable track-record and a large network of relationships. Instead of being focused on fundraising, Ryan is able to take a more neutral position as a network-builder, able to facilitate relationships, make connections and raise funds for other organisations.

Ryan shakes his head in wonder when he reflects on all that God has done in the last few years. Starting a business was not what he set out to do, but he feels it has helped put him in a unique position, giving eLiberare an open door to serve and initiate in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. At the same time their business clients in the USA are enthusiastic about eLiberare’s CSR and social impact focus. Design agencies want to use them because they get a great product and help fund anti-trafficking work. Clients want to be part of creating that impact in Romania.

It’s also very motivating for the eLiberare staff to be able to combine their creativity, making money and doing the trafficking prevention work that they are passionate about. They are not just writing code, but helping to sustain a movement against slavery.

It’s certainly a faith venture all the way. Ryan shares that one of the lessons he has learned through starting eLiberare is about trusting God. He realised that growing up in a fortunate position in the USA he’d never before been in the position where if God didn’t come through, he was without a backup plan. Now with 18 families and singles depending on eLiberare for their livelihood, he is learning to trust God at a new level! He has discovered that living by faith applies as much to business as it does to fundraising for mission or NGO work. God has faithfully led them to a business-NGO alliance that has put them in a unique position to serve and influence.

Living by faith applies as much to business as it does to fundraising for mission or NGO work.

Ryan is passionate about Romania, but also about Romanian’s rising up and realising that they can bring change in their own generation. eLiberare’s awareness campaigns are about educating Romanians that slavery is something that is happening in their backyard. The next generation are discovering that they can take ownership for issues and make a change. Historically in Romania if there was a problem it was the government’s job to fix it. Then after the Berlin Wall came down and NGOs came in, and it was the agencies job to fix it. eLiberare wants to send the message that is our job together to fix it, and then ask, ‘how can we help you’. As an integrated business and mission team they are producing high quality design work for corporate clients in the USA and anti-trafficking campaigns and agencies in Romania. They are working to change mindsets in Romania about trafficking and helping to empower a generation to bring transformation to their own nation.  

by Jo Plummer

Jo Plummer Jo Plummer is the Co-Chair of the BAM Global Think Tank and co-editor the Lausanne Occasional Paper on Business as Mission. She has been developing resources for BAM since 2001 and currently serves as Editor of the Business as Mission website. 

With thanks to Ryan Crozier.


Photo credit: eLiberare