How does a high-flying marketer end up starting a charity to support Cambodian orphans?
It started with a feeling that something wasn’t quite right…
Marijke Timmers, a 32 year old New Zealander, had spent her 20s marketing investment banks in London. When she sensed it was time to move home she began reflecting on her life, all the amazing opportunities she had had, and what she wanted to do next. Her career had taken her around the world but she had always had a niggling feeling that something was missing – “I knew I was blessed with this life and I wanted it to have more purpose,” says Marijke.
So she dipped out of the “rat race” for a few months to volunteer in an orphanage in Cambodia… and life would never be the same again. The Cooperation for Peace Organisation (CPO) orphanage, where Marijke volunteered, is situated in a small village just out of Phnom Penh and is home to around 30 orphans and vulnerable children. Life is difficult in the village: the HIV rate is high and education low; there is no sanitation, no running water, and no work. Unfortunately, the cost to travel to the city for work is higher than the wages most people can earn there so families struggle to feed, clothe, educate and maintain the health of their children. Some of the children that the CPO orphanage helps are orphans in the true sense of the word, while others are what Marijke calls “economic orphans”, because their parents simply do not have the means to satisfactorily care for them. Because most aid organisations prioritise orphanages in the city, CPO had been overlooked, so when Marijke’s volunteer service finished she couldn’t simply walk away. She explains, “After my volunteering, I couldn’t just leave the orphanage with memories. With the experience I had gained in my profession, I knew I had the skills to make a difference to these very special children.”
On her return to New Zealand, Marijke set up a charity to fundraise for the orphanage. She named the charity Dara Children’s Trust, because Dara means star in the Cambodian language and she wants to help these children to shine like the stars they are. Marijke still works full-time (in Melbourne, Australia where she is now based) and she volunteers the time necessary to run Dara Children’s Trust, which supports the orphanage by fundraising for food, education and essential healthcare.
I asked Marijke how she went about starting the charity (it seems like a big endeavour to me). Dara Children’s Trust is registered in New Zealand, and here’s what she said about the process there: “To set up a charity in NZ you need to determine what you stand for and how you will operate by creating the charitable deeds and registering them with the charities commission. All charitable deeds are available on their website so the easiest thing to do is to follow the lay-out of a similar organisation and have a lawyer check them before registering. The rest is management and marketing and annual accounting!” That sounds simple enough, although I imagine being sure of what you stand for and how you will operate would take some serious thought. It will also be important to make sure your charity has some points of difference from other organisations operating in your field, as this will make the marketing and fundraising part so much easier. Marijke also emphasises this point: “There are so many charitable organisations out there; you need to know what you stand for and how you will differentiate yourself. Dara is different because we’re small and nimble. I can make promises to a donor that a lot of larger organisations can’t – we pride ourselves on a zero cost-to-donor model and our donors know that their money is going straight to where they expect it to go.”
(If you’re thinking of starting a charity, and you’re not based in New Zealand, I suggest you do a google search with the key words “start a charity” and the name of your country and you should find some guidance. Just to be helpful, I have found you the websites for the equivalent of the charities commission in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. In Australia you must register at the State level. This wikipedia entry also provides a nice summary for anyone wanting to get a charity started.)
18 months since founding Dara Children, Marijke has been on a massive learning curve but feels like she is starting to get traction. She gives the following advice to anyone who would like to follow in her footsteps and start a charity or fundraise for an existing organisation in a foreign country:
- Spend plenty of time with the beneficiaries and local management of the organisation you want to partner with. Build strong relationships. If you are working with an organisation in another country, be prepared that things will be done differently than you are used to (and not always how you would like). Culture, experience, education, time, climate, local infrastructure, and available resources are all factors that can influence how things are done (or not done, as the case may be). It takes time to build mutual trust and respect and to understand the cultural nuances – be patient.
- Start small and grow organically. Starting a charity is a massive task and it can be overwhelming, especially if you have a strong desire to help. Marijke says, “You need to have a long-term strategy with short-term goals that you can be proud of – it’s an up-hill battle in the early years so you need those short-term achievements to keep you going!”
- Be resilient. If something doesn’t work one way, try something else – “The journey is not a straight line, it’s a zig-zag.”
- Cultivate good support. You’ll need all the help you can get.
Despite frustrations and the difficulty of running a New Zealand registered charity which supports a Cambodian orphanage from Australia, Marijke has an eternal source of encouragement from the children themselves: “I get my inspiration from these amazing little people who, despite all the hardship, always have a smile and laugh and wouldn’t think twice about sharing the few worldly goods they own with you.”
It’s certainly not always easy, but Marijke stresses how rewarding the experience has been and how much balance the charity she runs ‘on the side’ has brought to her life. She wouldn’t give it up for the world.
If you’d like to know more about Marijke and Dara Children’s Trust, you can visit their website or become a fan of ‘Cherish the Children of Cambodia’ on facebook.