A Life in Social Impact
Tim Hanstad recalls his journey from law student to leading Landesa, and shares his focus as the Chandler Foundation’s new CEO.
You were only a few years out of law school when you co-founded Landesa with Roy Prosterman. What made you decide to leave a career in law to pursue one in social change?
Tim Hanstad: The inspiration behind Landesa was to build and broaden prosperity for the world’s poorest citizens and to do so at scale. Roy Prosterman was one of my professors in law school at the University of Washington. He was the world’s foremost expert on land rights and had already worked for almost two decades with governments in developing countries, helping them develop policies and laws that provided poor people with formal ownership rights to their land.
Professor Prosterman’s insight was that 80% of the world’s poorest people were farmers and depended on land to survive, and that most of them lacked legal rights to the land on which they depended. This was largely because their governments had not yet built the legal, policy, and institutional framework to define and protect property rights. The result was a lack of prosperity and an abundance of conflict.
In countries where the government was interested in addressing the problem, Professor Prosterman would conduct field research, then work with the government to craft and advocate for specific law and policy solutions. His first breakthrough testimony was in Vietnam, where a law he helped the government craft, adopt, and implement provided legal ownership rights to 1 million farmers.
As a law student, I worked with Professor Prosterman, travelling to countries such as Egypt, Guatemala, and the Philippines. Much of that time was spent engaging with poor families and communities to understand their challenges, and then using that information in partnership with governments to help them develop policy and legislative solutions.
Shortly after graduating from law school, I faced the choice of continuing to work at a corporate law firm or taking a one-year position on the law faculty to work with Professor Prosterman. It was a choice between higher pay or higher purpose.
A few years later, we founded Landesa and our two-person start-up eventually grew to more than 250 staff and 25 offices around the world. More importantly, it helped provide legal land rights to more than 130 million poor families.