In 1998, recently retired multimillionaire Christel DeHaan flew to Mexico City to meet a nun who was running an orphanage in need of financial assistance. The facility had no generator or clean water, a Forbes story reported. Some children walked six miles to the school because the broken-down bus was stranded in the orphanage’s yard.
DeHaan could have easily signed a check, boarded a plane back to Indianapolis, and patted herself on the back. It wouldn’t have made a dent in her net worth. Two years earlier, she had sold her company, Resort Condominiums International, for $825 million. But covering immediate maintenance needs wasn’t going to change the future for these orphans. DeHaan knew that, and she wanted to do more. So one of the richest self-made businesswomen in the world came out of retirement to build Christel House.
The mission of the nonprofit organization was and still is to break the cycle of poverty around the world through education, in conjunction with other services provided through its schools. Today, Christel House operates two charter schools in Indianapolis and private schools on three continents. In October 2020, its newest school opened in Jamaica, serving children in the second-poorest country in the Caribbean. This was the first Christel House school opening without its ambitious founder, though. DeHaan died four months earlier. By the time of her death last June at the age of 77, she had donated $174 million to the organization.
In the nonprofit world, a visionary founder’s death can be devastating, especially if that person micromanaged the organization. There’s even a name for it: “founder’s syndrome,” when a nonprofit team behaves more according to what they think the founder will approve of, as opposed to focusing on a mission.
DeHaan was certainly a big part of the brand at Christel House, but she never fell into that trap. She prepared the nonprofit for the day when she would be gone. That planning went far beyond making sure it was well funded. By putting in place many of the same policies and organizational structures that made her business so successful, she gave Christel House the fighting chance she always wanted for at-risk students.
To understand what motivated DeHaan to dedicate her last years to poor kids, consider where she came from. In 1942, in the depths of World War II, she was born in Nördlingen, Germany. Her father, German soldier Adolf Stark, died when she was 3. Germany’s economy was in ruins, and food was scarce. Christel’s mother, Anna, was left to fend for herself and her daughters on her own. She started an ironing business and taught Christel how to haul coal and forage for food. Despite their own hardships, the girls watched their mom help neighbors in need. DeHaan said later in life, “Our mother instilled in me the philosophy of giving that has guided my actions throughout my life.”
After high school, DeHaan spent a year as a nanny in England before returning to Nördlingen and taking a job as a secretary at a U.S. Army base. There, she met a medic from Indiana. They married and moved with their first son to Indianapolis. By the early 1970s, though, she and her first husband had divorced. She attended what is now known as the University of Indianapolis while raising two sons and working as a secretary. She married Jon DeHaan in 1973, and they began developing RCI.
To support causes they cared about, the DeHaans established the RCI Foundation. Two years after they divorced in 1987, Christel bought Jon’s half of the company for $67.5 million. She continued to expand RCI, which at its peak employed 4,000 people across 38 countries. Cheryl Wendling, a former colleague there, says DeHaan demanded excellence from everyone, and modeled the hard work she expected of others. It wasn’t unusual to get emails from her in the middle of the night. It paid off when she sold the company, profiting an estimated $550 million.
When DeHaan retired, she reorganized the RCI Foundation into a private family fund, the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation. She now had the means to carry out her mother’s philosophy of giving on a grand scale. DeHaan could dole out grants and enjoy her retirement. The foundation was supposed to be her sole philanthropic vehicle when she retired from RCI, but things didn’t work out that way. When she decided to found Christel House after that trip to Mexico in 1998, DeHaan asked herself if there was a practical way to change the life course of children trapped in deep poverty. She decided there was, but it was going to involve a more holistic approach than just opening a standard school.
“She had an unreasonable belief in the ability to get things done,” says former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, who now serves as president and CEO of Christel House International. “She was totally dismissive of barriers and obstacles, and that’s how she has been able to achieve the impossible. Normal people don’t have that. That’s how the world changes.”
For example, people told her that locating schools in places like Tacubaya, one of the poorest sections of Mexico City, was too dangerous. There were more promising spots for a safe school. But she continued to choose communities where danger was an obstacle. Peterson tells the story of a young boy who was absent from class two days in a row at the first Christel House location. On the third day, a representative from the school went to the child’s home. His mother said her son would be in school the next day, but there had been a dead body on the apartment stairs the last two days. She wasn’t going to ask her son to use the stairs until someone removed the body. From the beginning of Christel House, DeHaan put in place safety measures such as 24-hour-a-day security guards so employees could more safely look after students like that in risky neighborhoods.
Peterson says many schools like Christel House feel a temptation to admit children from slightly better backgrounds or those who are gifted and talented. They would perform better on standardized tests and make the schools look better relative to applicable benchmarks. But that was not DeHaan’s vision or the resulting education model. Instead, the consistent focus was on children who came from very deep poverty. They were the customers.
“Christel House is a very businesslike organization, structured by Christel to operate like a business where the ultimate goal is not profits for shareholders but high-quality education for impoverished kids,” Peterson says. He equates how she ran Christel House to his experience working at Eli Lilly and Company, with rigorous business plans and processes, clear revenue and expenditure targets, and accountability measures. Among other practices that are unusual for a nonprofit, financial incentives are offered up and down the organizational chart when goals are exceeded.
DeHaan also wrote a detailed operations manual, which has been guiding the organization since at least 2001, when the second and third locations opened in India and South Africa. The lengthy document focuses heavily on data collection and analysis. “Christel always said, ‘What gets measured gets done,’” Wendling says. What’s more, Christel House entities were set up to be governed mostly by local boards, minimizing the impact of changes in leadership at the corporate level.
The non-academic programming that Christel House offered from the beginning also made it unique. Each of the schools provided healthcare, character development, meals, family assistance, and college and career support. When a student graduated from high school, Christel House stayed in touch for at least five years. This, of course, took money. DeHaan set up Christel House to operate in perpetuity. A significant portion of her estate—still in the process of being adjudicated by the courts and last estimated to be $950 million—will go to support Christel House and cover 100 percent of its administrative, capital, and fundraising costs.
By the time she passed away, DeHaan had set a focused mission for her nonprofit, drawn up some unique policies to ensure its survival, and established a large endowment. But Christel House was about to face an immediate test of its ability to succeed without its founder: the takeover of troubled Manual High School.
When former Indianapolis Star columnist Matt Tully wrote a series of columns on Manual in 2009, the southside school had a graduation rate of 39 percent. Only 32 percent of its students were passing the English and math portions of the ISTEP exam. A few years later, a private takeover of the school failed, and Indianapolis Public Schools was at a loss for what to do with the institution. IPS officials began to have conversations with Christel House about helping to save the failing school.
Anne DePrez, a close friend of DeHaan’s and chair of the board of directors of Christel House, recalls those conversations and says it felt like teetering at the top of a roller coaster that was about to plunge into new territory. Nevertheless, in 2020, Christel House agreed to a five-year partnership with IPS to operate Manual. The agreement allows existing Manual students to graduate as Manual students, and gives Christel House Academy South and Christel House Academy West in Indianapolis more room to grow. And because Manual is a public school, Christel House can use property tax funds from local taxpayers, which will free up general fund money for facilities. The organization hired its first Manual staff member last March and took over operations of the high school program last July.
Although she’s not around to see the ongoing transformation of Manual, DeHaan seems to have prepared the nonprofit for this challenge as well. She resigned from the Christel House board a few years ago, which allowed its local leaders to acclimate to life without her. When it came to building the board, DePrez says DeHaan valued diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, background, expertise, and skill sets. “She wanted people who were not afraid to speak their minds and challenge the status quo,” she says.
Like the board, the new leadership at Manual has felt empowered to try new things. In addition to serving traditional students, the building will soon house a Drop Out Recovery School run by Christel House for adults going back to earn their degree. Manual now has a relationship with the University of Indianapolis and Ivy Tech that provides dual credit for some classes. The school provides childcare for parents taking classes there. And they’re exploring the idea of an Early Childhood Center at Manual that would provide a pre-K program to get southside kids started on the right foot. It all adds up to a multigenerational campus where there was once just a failing high school.
Whatever happens with these new programs at Manual, the larger Christel House organization will continue to operate much as it has for the last 23 years. Peterson recalls discussing its future with DeHaan before she got sick. “She said, ‘I want the organization to evolve. I want it to change. You’re going to have ideas that are different from mine, and that’s good. I don’t want to control things from the great beyond,’” he says. What was nonnegotiable was sticking to the core mission: transforming the lives of impoverished children.
DeHaan’s hometown of Nördlingen was built in a massive crater formed by a meteor millennia ago. As a result, its stone buildings are studded with diamonds. Perhaps as a child in post-war Germany, DeHaan admired those tiny gems trapped inside the rock. As an adult, she certainly had a talent for seeing diamonds in the rough—people who needed help breaking free from poverty—and she began to pluck them out.