Ten things I didn’t expect when I started a charity

Posted on 20 Jun 2024

By Fiona Luth

Fiji Book Drive 1

Fiona Luth knew little about starting a charity when she founded Fiji Book Drive in 2012. She shares the important lessons she has learned along the way.

I think most people have absolutely no idea what it takes to start a charity.

It’s been almost 13 years now since I founded Fiji Book Drive, a grassroots charity that has sent nearly 300,000 books to underprivileged schools and communities in Fiji.

In the beginning, I didn't know that Fiji Book Drive would even be registered as a charity. All I wanted was for the books to get to Fiji and so my expectations were practically non-existent.

Looking back, here are 10 things I didn’t expect when when I started a charity.

Decision fatigue

When I founded Fiji Book Drive, decision fatigue was not something I thought I would experience.

Fiona Luth
Fifi Book Drive founder Fiona Luth.

I didn’t realise the immense number of decisions I would have to make daily and how that would be unexpectedly exhausting, whether that meant managing partnerships, the logistics of handling tens of thousands of books, managing a board, or simply choosing a colour for a design.

In fact, when I go out to dinner with my friends, I can never choose what I want so I let them order for me just to lighten my mental load!

I didn’t know it in the beginning, but decision fatigue is a natural part of running a charity.

Meeting incredible people

Something I certainly didn't expect when starting a charity was that I would connect with some of the most incredible people who want to do good.

It fills my cup on a daily basis. Sometimes it's the emails people send my way. Last week, I received the most divine email from a lady in New South Wales who is married to a Fijian. She shared how her child, who is Fijian Australian, is eager to raise funds for Fiji Book Drive.

She sought guidance on the best approach and emphasised the importance of our cause. Her email concluded with a beautiful photo of her husband and their daughter, making it a truly heartwarming experience.

Now add the inspiring people on our board, our partners, and the wider people I connect with every day and I often feel like I could overflow with joy.

Becoming leadership-obsessed

I've become kind of leadership-obsessed.

Starting Fiji Book Drive introduced me to the realm of leadership, and I never anticipated becoming so passionate about it.

I find myself constantly reading and reflecting on how to become an effective leader, as well as taking leadership courses both in Australia and with INSEAD Business School in Singapore.

Along with leading the Fiji Book Drive mission and our bigger team, it’s important to me to mentor the young student assistants I've had.

I want to see them grow and be stretched at times, so that once their experience with Fiji Book Drive is finished, they can leap into the next thing with confidence.

That means showing up every day as the best leader I can be and putting in the work needed to be that person.

Fifi Book Drive 3
I didn’t know that the highs and lows of running a charity would be so severe.

The highs and lows

I didn’t know that the highs and lows of running a charity would be so severe.

The lows have been exceptionally tough, leaving me feeling disheartened and broken at times – moments like losing our warehouse and not knowing what to do.

However, the highs have been exhilarating. The very first time books arrived in Fiji was amazing.

When someone who I hadn't seen for 17 years and didn't know well at all donated $25,000, it was incredible.

Managing these extremes is like riding an emotional roller coaster.

Asking people for money

Asking people for money has been a significant learning curve for me.

Initially, I struggled with the idea of it, especially coming from a background where discussing money was considered taboo.

However, over time I've grown more accustomed to it and now understand the necessity of being open about money.

Money is what makes everything in a charity run, so it's been a journey from feeling uncomfortable to confidently emailing potential donors.

The physical challenge of being in the field

When I started Fiji Book Drive, I knew on one level that being in the field wouldn’t be easy. But I didn't expect the wild physical challenges of it.

I've taken a ride in an excavator scoop to get over a deep ditch in a road. I've ridden a horse bareback and walked through a river 26 times to deliver books to remote villages. I've had broken sleep because of roosters in a village crowing from one o'clock in the morning. Sometimes people don’t believe me until I show them photos!

These are the lengths my team and I are willing to go to for our cause.

Fiji Book Drive 4

Knowing about marketing, branding and partnerships

I never anticipated having to know about marketing, branding and media exposure.

I have now been featured on national TV in Fiji, been on podcasts, and prepared banners for a partnership with Melbourne Storm.

This year’s February trip to Fiji had me organising media releases for multiple TV, radio and print appearances in Australia and Fiji.

No one prepared me for these aspects and navigating them has been eye-opening and a significant learning curve.

How books can boost morale

Sometimes I’m amazed by the true impact of this work.

It has been remarkable to see how donating books we’ve curated for each school and community has boosted morale among teachers, students and communities.

Teachers have shared stories of children eagerly knocking on the school library door at 7am, eager for it to be opened.

A story I love is that of a little girl named Melanie from a remote village in Fiji who has become an avid reader. She wants to be a lawyer and I believe she will be.

The early childhood educator in that village, who is the one who approached me for books, said that she has seen Melanie’s leadership capacity and confidence develop.

It is incredible to hear. Not only are the kids now reading books, but they are becoming confident people.

Running a board

As soon as you're registered as a charity, you must have four board meetings a year, which was a shock!

The meetings were initially held in my house, but thankfully now we have a dedicated space.

Managing a board is a responsibility I take very seriously, although learning the dynamics of board management has been a journey.

It’s about so many things, like choosing the right people to join and being an effective leader, but also learning to lean on others and work with people’s strengths to produce better results than if you’d attempted something alone.

Fiji Book Drive 2

Forming deep connections in Fiji

I have made many deep and personal connections during my time in Fiji.

Specifically, I’ve been touched by the warm hospitality extended to me, like an unforgettable cup of tea shared in the home of a teacher's wife whom I had just met the night before.

Immense generosity is a constant as I always find myself frequently welcomed into the homes of strangers who go out of their way to ensure my comfort.

However, the reality of working in a developing country like Fiji can bring heartbreak too.

The compromised health system means that I have experienced heartbreaking losses, with people I cared deeply about passing away.

Forming meaningful connections while dealing with loss is the unexpected nature of my work in running a charity for Fiji.

While there are so many aspects of starting a charity I wasn’t prepared for, it has always been worth it.

I never anticipated the immense growth Fiji Book Drive would achieve.

In the beginning, I was jotting notes on the back of envelopes, so where we stand today is nothing short of astonishing.

The unexpected experiences and achievements are what have helped Fiji Book Drive grow.

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