How do you create a sustainable model of doing good? I recently met Christel DeHaan, the millionaire co-founder of Resort Condominiums International(RCI) and CEO of Christel House, an international charity with a major presence in India. The Christel House offers a robust K-12 education structure and a strong character development program, complemented with regular health care, nutritious meals, guidance counseling, career planning, family assistance and work-study support. DeHaan started pledging her wealth to meaningful charitable causes, years before the “Giving Pledge” was born. She co-founded RCI, a pioneer in the vacation exchange business.
“I didn’t have anything to copy from as there were no earlier business models. In a successful business, you have to identify what your business philosophy is, and how you treat your customers and staff,” she said at the launch ceremony for a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative in Phoenix, Arizona led by her friend and business partner, Marcia Rowley, who heads up International Cruise & Excursions (ICE). According to Christel, running a charitable organization is as enterprising as running a business. The models are transferable and you can transfer socially responsible business values and practices into charities. The real difference in running a socially responsible initiative is in finding the “heart” of a charity.
Christel and her husband began building their business out of shoe boxes from their garage. Along the way, they discovered more similarities between businesses and nonprofits. “Charities also need ideas, vision, products, infrastructure, the conditions that allow you to succeed,” she said. During a visit to Mexico, Christel experienced first-hand how children lived in an impoverished community. This led to the creation of Christel House with the strong belief that she wanted to create a sustainable livelihood for these children and not just create a one-time solution. “The creation of human capital is the bottomline in the nonprofit world. Take truly impoverished children, lift them out of poverty and give them a seat at the table of life,” she said.
In India, DeHaan is doing exactly that and her work is yielding rewards. Nearly 86% of children from Christel House schools in India are pursuing higher education. “The children coming out of Christel House are wonderful. They are succeeding in life and I am so proud of them,” she said. Christel House has schools in Bangalore and Lavasa, a planned hill city between Mumbai and Pune. “Poor children rarely have the opportunity to succeed as they face hunger, abuse, neglect and health issues. It is a very difficult environment for them. We want to transform these children into self-sufficient individuals and that is what they are passionate about,” she said.
Lingaraju, a 7th grader of Christel House, Bangalore gives a tour of his school, home and shares his aspirations for the future.
DeHaan opened schools in countries where her business, RCI was very successful. Christel House has transformed the lives of 4,133 students worldwide as of 2013. “We identify the right student, nurture them and give them a solid future. We do not look at where they came from but where they are going,” she said. Christel House has a comprehensive model as it educates children for life and stays with them for a long period from age five to 25, starting from kindergarten until they finish college and find a job. They do not have boarding schools and instead prefer that the children live with their families.
Students in India have gone on to become chemical engineers, actuaries and they have the option to go to a vocational college or join a degree program. “All donations go back into investments in children. We keep strict metrics and this is run like a business with a high degree of accountability and transparency in every country we operate,” she said.