THE BLOG
04/08/2013 01:05 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2013

Sharing Oxygen

If you're like me, you enjoy giving back and volunteering in your community. Your donation of either money or time might not be a grand gesture or something you're able to offer consistently, but you'd like to believe what you give actually counts for something. What constitutes that 'something' has been under question lately. Funding guru Dan Pallotta put forward a very eloquent argument in his recent TED Talk that charities and nonprofits should not be criticized for how they spend money and instead, conversation should center on their achievements. He is absolutely right in theory; however at the moment, the majority of people don't seem to want to see their donations reflected in charity overheads and employee salaries. In the U.S., and similarly in Australia and New Zealand (where I live), the media is calling foul those charities spending as much as 60 percent of donations they receive on expensive campaigns, telemarketers and black tie balls. The American Institute of Philanthropy boasts their own charity rating guide to advise whether they believe charities are spending enough on programs vs. their own fundraising and administration. There are also organizations which roundly criticize philanthropy in general, seeing charitable giving as wasteful and failing to change society. Now that we are hotwired to everyone else's opinions online, perception usually trumps reality. So what do those of us who work in this sector do to change others' opinions on charitable spending?

I'd hazard a guess that there are few charities in the world that do not absorb any part of donations made to fund their own administrative costs, though I'm counting my lucky stars that I work for one of them. Social Angels has the full sponsorship of a large non-profit organization behind us so every cent people choose to donate goes directly to charitable causes and programs. They even bear the cost of credit card fees for donations.

We're a young charity, but fortunate to have support like this, which will be helpful as we grow and try to complete causes without worrying we are disappointing our donors in any way. Our parent organization is also non-profit, working to help people living with daily challenges while they recover from mental illness. Our organizational leadership saw the need to reach further into communities and created Social Angels as a crowd funding website set up to help New Zealanders. As 'Head Angel,' I share stories of very simple things needed to make a real difference in the life of a person or a community. We promote a number of good causes and also other charities in New Zealand that struggle to find support. Our goal is to help as many people and organizations as possible who must, in turn, pledge to use the funds as promised. That makes us fully accountable and assures our donors that 100 percent of their money will go to fund a cause they choose.

Millions of other charities around the world only know the struggle of setting up a cause from scratch, trying to build a community and having to claw back some of the funds raised in order to sustain the charity itself. Within all of that, donors are expecting to see marked results. I liken the need for charities to fund themselves to what we are told in preparing for an emergency on an airplane: We know we must don our own oxygen masks before anything else because caring for our basic needs allows us to survive to care for others.

Regardless of what some charities spend on self-preservation, we sometimes only realize the value of their work when we are forced into a state of an unexpected and desperate need at the mercy of a natural disaster. Going about your everyday life, you might believe yourself safe and secure in matters of health and finance, but give a thought to how Mother Nature has been wreaking havoc around the world with both fierce intensity and growing frequency. In the first moments after a disaster has occurred, we are more likely to see charitable groups and a legion of volunteers assembling to help long before governments can begin to get organized and mobilized to take action. These charities play a critical role in assisting when other means of help fail. Think back to the rate of response by the government to Hurricane Katrina and the frustration for victims that ensued. Natural disasters can devastate a community, while also taking a huge toll on survivors' souls. The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 killed over 200,000 people. Seven years later, people who managed to survive that incredibly traumatic event still had not found it easy to move on with their lives. Almost like survivors of war, once people have overcome tremendous odds and managed to live through a catastrophic event, they cannot afford to ignore a path to healing that usually requires professional intervention. And medical professionals believe the years that follow a disaster are when people need help most.

And so it is in the little country of New Zealand where I live. Just over two years ago, in February of 2011, a massive earthquake virtually destroyed the center of Christchurch. This small city of approximately 370,000 people has always been considered one of the most beautiful places in the country to live and raise a family. There had been a smaller quake the year before which took everyone by surprise, but the feeling was the worst was over... until February 22. After that day, its survivors became determined to remain strong and help rebuild their city, while dying a little more in their hearts as time marched on and conditions were slow to improve. Still today, post-traumatic stress is rampant. As thousands of aftershocks continue to ripple across the region, people are using portable toilets outside their homes - and some continue living in their condemned houses, with no other place to go. So many have lost loved ones, their homes, their jobs. Some schools have been permanently closed and many have compressed their calendars to share campuses from morning until night. And now, as winter approaches with its cold, wet darkness, people still don't have adequate housing. Men and women of all ages and their children continue to feel they have been left to fend for themselves.

There is a place doing all it can to care for the hearts and minds of people from Christchurch. It's called The Monastery. Set on the banks of New Zealand's Waikato River in the North Island, it is a place of healing and respite, offered solely for people who have been directly affected by the Christchurch earthquakes. Some of the guests have been working or volunteering on the front line for two years now; others are just regular folks who simply need a break from their daily struggles. These special guests arrive at an elegant 100-year-old villa to beautiful, welcoming rooms and views of a tranquil country setting. Throughout the week the chef prepares healthy organic meals, with most food grown on the property. Healing physical therapies and counseling sessions make the week-long visit especially valuable for guests.

Feedback from people of Christchurch who come to The Monastery is always positive. Most all have said their week-long visit will enable them to go back to their community with renewed vigor, as a result of this intervention. The best thing about this service is that it is offered at no cost to those who have been affected by the earthquakes.

There must be thousands of charities around the world addressing the needs of victims of disaster. One can only hope they gain support for their good work. In New Zealand, one seemingly small cause which gives desperately needed oxygen back to Christchurch's earthquake victims is vital to us. And it needs support for it to continue. If you'd like to know more about The Monastery and might want to help, knowing every dollar donated goes directly to fund this service, I'd be grateful if you would visit http://www.socialangels.org.nz/causes/view/people-of-christchurch-still-need-our-help.