Real Life

12 life lessons from a charity founder that will make you want to volunteer and help others

We chat to the Tauranga lawyer who has poured her heart and soul into the Cambodia Charitable Trust.

Hours of voluntary work go into the running of the Cambodia Charitable Trust (CCT), but founder Denise Arnold doesn’t complain.

The charity provides free, quality education to vulnerable Cambodian children, especially girls, who might otherwise be forced into sex work or slave labour.

CCT supplies essential resources, funds and support to 23 of the country’s poorest schools and 17 teacher training colleges, and works with Cambodia’s Ministries of Education,Youth and Sport to improve the nation’s education system, which was devastated under the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s.

The hard work is paying off – the trust has recently shown that kids from CCT-supported schools are “head and shoulders” above other students.

Denise’s passion is matched by her 11 Cambodian staff and the trust’s dedicated volunteers, who include CCT ambassador Nadia and patron Theresa Gattung. Nadia’s mum, Julie, regularly travels to Cambodia with Denise and her team, which counts many of Denise’s family, friends and colleagues from Tauranga law firm Lyon O’Neale Arnold (where she is a co-director) among its ranks.

Here Denise reflects on the trust’s first 10 years and what they have taught her.


I’m so grateful to work alongside the Cambodian people. They’re very kind-hearted and trying hard to make their country a better place. They’re very much focused on the next generation and doing their best by them.

The long game

I’m in it for the long term. Playing the long game involves developing the human capital of the entire country and to do that you have to work on education.

Make that change

It’s important to be clear about what you can change and what you can’t, and also what you will do to bring about change and what you won’t. It’s easy to want to make a difference and do good but it’s more important to do no harm.

Back yourself

I did worry that I wasn’t the right person to be doing this, but if not me, who? There wasn’t anyone else. I went back to Massey University and studied international development to ensure I wasn’t making enormous mistakes by not understanding the complex geopolitical influences.

Lend a hand

There are imbalances in the world that cannot be justified, between rich and poor, and between people who live in countries that are war-torn as opposed to countries like New Zealand where we enjoy peace. I believe I have an obligation to my brothers and sisters to help them.

Belly laughs

Across culture, across language, when something funny happens the sheer humour of it is such an uplifting and binding thing. It brings you together despite the lack of a shared language.

Child care

As a parent, when I think about how much care and attention my children received as youngsters, it makes me feel sad about other children who didn’t have anyone looking out for them or whose parents were disempowered and didn’t have the means to care for them.


I’ve always been made very welcome, probably because my core philosophy is to work alongside the people in Cambodia to bring about the changes they want – it’s very much a supportive role – rather than telling them what to do.

Teach them well

I hold dear the moment I walked into a classroom at one of our sponsored schools and saw the teacher teaching. As a non-teacher even I could see the difference was transformative!

The children were engaged; they were listening. It’s a tiny thing that can bring about that difference. It’s just letting teachers know what they should be teaching and giving the school resources.

How to help

Don’t be overwhelmed by the size of the problem. Feeling overwhelmed and paralysed are the biggest threats in the beginning. It seems as though you can’t make a difference when there’s just one of you, but you can.

Be clear about how you’ll be most effective. It may not be the glory job, but it’s delivering to wherever the need is – not as perceived by you but by the people who are looking for help.

Do no harm

Voluntourism‘ has a lot of challenges. I’m not a fan of people going over and taking wonderful photos in an orphanage for a day. I think that’s quite damaging; it’s turning the children into consumer products.

Anyone who wants to make a difference has to put their own desires in the background and think about what’s best for the people on the ground.

Keep growing

You’ve got to constantly learn and be on your game the whole time. And think: how can we do this better?

CCT needs donations and volunteers to continue its valuable work. Visit to find out more

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