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APF people profile: Thuy Doan-Smith, Chief Operating Officer

Graphic: Thuy Doan-Smith

With 21 years' experience at the APF, Thuy Doan-Smith has moved into a new leadership role as Chief Operating Officer.

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Name and job title:

Thuy Doan-Smith, Chief Operating Officer, Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF).

Could you tell us a bit about your role?

The Chief Operating Officer (COO) is a new role within the APF secretariat, established to provide strategic oversight and ensure operational excellence with an innovative lens to develop, implement and improve systems and infrastructure, including the expansion of funding opportunities.

I will be providing leadership across human resources, finance, fundraising, governance, monitoring and evaluation, communications, information technology and operations.

What do you love about your job?

I’m still very new in this COO role, but I am privileged to be able to continue to work alongside my dedicated colleagues at the APF secretariat, and to continue to support the unwavering efforts of all the individuals working within, and in partnership of, national human rights institutions. I admire and celebrate the efforts of all human rights defenders across our region. 

Strategic partnerships are critical to the success of the APF and I relish the opportunity of meeting new people and getting to know them, in search of cooperation, collaboration, and ways to further engage. I am honoured to work with partners who share our commitment to promoting and protecting human rights.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?

It’s too early to say yet so I’ll reflect on my previous role as the APF’s Development Manager. I will continue to have oversight of fundraising in the new role so this aspect will remain relevant for the APF.

I think the most challenging aspect of the role is the ever-changing and constantly evolving landscape that is fundraising. Those who work in prospect development will know and agree that fundraising is hard work, extremely hard work. 

I’ve seen philanthropic trends move away from supporting global and multilateral outcomes, and especially related to human rights. I’ve seen foreign aid and development budgets heavily reduced over the last decade. In addition to coping with the impacts of the recent global pandemic, it has been a really difficult time for not-for-profit organisations.

I am honoured to work with partners who share our commitment to promoting and protecting human rights.

Thuy Doan-Smith, Chief Operating Officer, APF

Could you tell us a bit about your background/qualifications?

I started as a Projects Officer with the APF secretariat in 2002. I became the fourth member of staff and supported finance and administration, planning, and projects across the organisation. In 2004, I was appointed the APF’s Development Manager overseeing its donor development and fundraising, including strategic partnerships and project management. 

My key responsibilities included managing and growing existing funding relationships with donors and partners, including meeting reporting and compliance obligations; identifying, developing and acquiring new opportunities and relationships with donors and partners to support strategic objectives, including identified thematic human rights issues; and coordinating and overseeing the implementation of programs across the organisation, including budgeting, planning, monitoring, evaluation and reporting.

I hold bachelor’s degrees in Social Sciences and International Studies, both from the University of Technology, Sydney. I majored in Political Science and French Studies, and attended the University of Haute Bretagne in Rennes, France in 2000.

Why did you decide to work in human rights?

Not many people know this about me, but I spent the first five years of my life as a refugee, ‘living’ in an overcrowded camp in Macau. I still vividly remember the smell of the cramped space we shared with the other families, each separated by a piece of cloth as makeshift curtains. There was a single tap at the far end of the shed that occasionally spouted water… and I was always hungry. I later realised that these unremarkable memories of my early childhood paled in comparison to the reality of the despair and desperation my parents had suffered. 

I was lucky to have the opportunity to settle in Australia – but I was treated differently and faced discrimination due to my ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic background. Growing up, I developed a strong sense of social justice and was even convinced that my annual act of fasting for 40 hours (during World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine campaign) would end the hunger crisis for children all around the world!

I want to make a positive impact on people’s lives, I want to help create opportunities and I want to support genuine change.

If we all have compassion and empathy, and we can ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’, we can contribute to societies where each and every individual matters.

Thuy Doan-Smith, Chief Operating Officer, APF

What is your proudest achievement?

Professionally, I’m not sure I can point to just one achievement - there have been so many - and especially after all this time with the APF. More recently though, with the rise of authoritarianism around the globe, constant threats to democracy and fundamental freedoms undermine essential human rights.

Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, we have been providing emergency advice, assistance and support to the staff and senior leadership team of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) as they navigate the political changes and reprisals on the NHRI. 

Our dedicated and determined team worked tirelessly around the clock. By securing urgent donor funding, we were able to facilitate the safe departure of 604 staff members and Commissioners from Afghanistan, including their family members. The substantial levels of coordination, advocacy and mobilisation efforts cannot be underestimated. I am humbled to be part of this outstanding team.

Personally – and although it’s now been a number of years – I still can’t believe I’ve completed a Half Marathon!

What is your favourite book?

'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee. It might seem cliche – or even unoriginal – but I hadn’t realised the lasting impact of this story on my 13-year-old self, when we were made to read the novel as part of English studies at school. I was immediately drawn to the story through the narrator’s eyes, while the themes of prejudice and discrimination resonated deeply. Moreover, the novel also showed me the importance of being brave and to have courage when facing adversity.

I’ve experienced firsthand the harm that prejudice and stereotyping causes, but if we all have compassion and empathy, and we can ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’, we can contribute to societies where each and every individual matters.

Date: 30 November 2023

Image credits

  1. Thuy Doan-Smith - APF/Amy Janowski