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#BOSS Emma MacDonald, Send Hope Not Flowers

Canberra is filled with incredible women. Filled with them! And Emma Macdonald, mama and Associate Editor of HerCanberra is one of them. A journalist for more than 20 years, she's won two Walkley Awards and has had worked featured in outlets such as The Times (UK) The Business Standard (India) and Cosmopolitan Magazine as well.

However, it is the work of a maternal health charity, Send Hope Not Flowers that she co-founded that we 'd like to shine a spotlight on today.

Send Hope Not Flowers was a charity she started after the birth of her now seven year old daughter and this week we got to chat to her about how she launched it, why she did, maternal death statistics every body should know and how she's becoming increasingly adept at juggling it all. 

Can you tell us a little bit of background about your career? What are you doing now?

For 23 years I was on the frontline of journalism in Canberra, writing for The Canberra Times, Financial Review, and Sydney Morning Herald. I spent 13 years in the Federal Press Gallery consumed by adrenaline and rising through the ranks to become Canberra Times Bureau Chief. It was wonderful but not without a personal cost, particularly after I had two children. Daily news deadlines don’t tend to accommodate youngsters and some weeks I would really struggle with the demands.

Last year I decided I had to make a change and to follow my heart into a more focussed and creative journalism – through HerCanberra. As a Canberra woman and mother, I had long been a fan of the HerCanberra website and Magazine. It is a community I know and understand and I feel I can engage in more considered writing here. It was so scary to make the leap but I literally have not looked back for a second. I cannot believe how much I am enjoying the new role as Associate Editor. It’s like I was meant to do this all along.

You started a charity called Send Hope Not Flowers can you provide us with a little bit of background on it?

Seven years ago I gave birth to a beautiful daughter Imogen. At the time I got talking to my obstetrician Professor Steve Robson about the terrible loss of life around the world when women die from complications in childbirth. In Australia, childbirth is such a safe proposition. But in the developing world women die from preventable complications. As I cradled my newborn and had this conversation with Steve I felt ashamed of my ignorance. I also knew I could not bury my head in the sand any longer.

Steve was sick of seeing expensive bunches of flowers getting left behind in hospital wards or even thrown in the bin after new mothers went home with their babies. He wanted to see the money spent on flowers channeled into safe birth programs for women who were at an unacceptably high risk.

As a journalist, I used my communication skills to help bring the concept of Send Hope Not Flowers to life. As a new mother, I used my passion to find the hours in the day to make it happen. We are now a successful Australian charity making a huge difference across a number of communities in six countries. Send Hope is my proudest achievement other than my two beautiful children. And for those not familiar with our work - in a nutshell, when someone has a baby in Australia, instead of sending flowers, you jump online at www.sendhope.org and make a donation.

Instead of receiving flowers the new mum gets a personalised card explaining that a donation in her honour has gone to help save the life of another mother somewhere in the world.

Why did you start Send Hope Not Flowers? What were those early days like working in a start-up charity?

It’s fair to say that Steve and I had no idea. In fact, sometimes I look back in wonder that we even got it off the ground. It is one thing to have a simple and transformative idea but it is quite another to jump the considerable hurdles it takes to register as a charity, pass all the probity tests, ensure the money you raise goes towards its intended purpose and get people to donate in the first place. The paperwork has been immense, as has the task of sending out cards across the world instead of bunches of flowers (we sell birthday, Christmas, thank you, Mother’s Day, sympathy and get well cards as well as new birth cards)

We have a team of just four – including our web expert Alex Fahey and my bestie Tara Taubenschlag. Tara runs her own corporate advisory business and approached us five years ago when we wanted to launch to offer her help on a pro bono basis. She took control of the launch, ensured its success and we asked her onto the board within a few weeks because of her energy and tenacity and because we love her. Me in particular!

Image: Karleen Minney


Image: Martin Ollman

Today how many people do you have in your team? Which countries do you provide assistance in?

We have me, Professor Steve Robson, Tara and Alex on the board and have recently appointed a financial oversight committee as we expand our projects and secure tax-deductibility for our donations. The four of us do all the day-to-day tasks, from social media, to mailing out the cards, to vetting safe birth projects, to ensuring our audit and financial reporting requirements are being met. None of us earn a cent. We do it all in our spare time outside our jobs and we do it for mums and babies. And for love! 

Are there any stats or information re. maternal mortality that you think people should be aware of?

So in the two minutes it has taken to read this far, one woman has died in childbirth somewhere in the world. She is probably in the Pacific, Asia, or Africa, and she has probably had minimal access to maternal health assistance during her pregnancy. If she is in some of the most remote parts of PNG where we have tended to concentrate a lot of our attention, she may be one of the one-in-ten women who give birth alone and without any assistance whatsoever. I still to this day find that a difficult concept to get my head around. If anyone reading this wants to help share some of the most important messages about the global toll of maternal mortality they should know:

  • 303,000 women die each year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth
  • 99 per cent of these deaths occur in the developing world and 98 per cent of these deaths are preventable with even the most basic of health care interventions
  • Each mother who dies leaves and average of four orphans behind
  • Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for women 15-19 in the developing world
  • In PNG, which is our closest neighbour, one in 20 women will die in childbirth. 

You are a mother of two. Were you a mother before you started this charity? How does working for this charity affect you and motherhood?

I have a son and daughter who are so deeply adored that the thought of me not being on this planet to care for them and love them and prepare them to become independent members of society leaves me with heart palpitations. I had no idea about the dangers of childbirth until I began working with Steve. I had gone through life in a bubble of middle-class privilege and ignorance. Now that I know what I know, I have a burning desire to help more mothers live to raise their babies.

Mothers are the lynchpins of families. In developing countries they are often the ones who ensure children are fed, cared for an educated. We need more mothers in the world, not less. The actual interventions required to ensure more women survive childbirth are not impossible – they are often quite cheap to provide – trained birth attendants, skilled health worker, health facilities within reasonable geographic distance, medical supplies to support health centre births and emergency facilities when things go wrong. If we could put more of a global focus on this problem, I am sure most reasonable people would agree with the need to support these mothers.

How do you find time to juggle between your work as Associate Editor for Her Canberra and your work with Send Hope Not Flowers?

The days are long and the nights are short! All of us devote our time to Send Hope in and around our day jobs. I am grateful that HerCanberra founder Amanda Whitley came on board as one of Send Hope’s very early supporters. She is a mum. She gets it. And HerCanberra is a really flexible and supportive workplace. The Send Hope team tends to meet late at night, or do late phone hook-ups. The logistics of getting four incredibly busy people – with ten kids between us – sometimes becomes almost comedic. Somehow we make it work. 


Image: Karleen Minney

And how do you juggle it all with being a mother? Do you work at home? Late nights? Etc...

My children are 11 and 7, so they are not nearly as dependent on me as they were when we were getting Send Hope off the ground. Honestly, I can’t even remember those days it was a breast-feeding, sleep-deprived haze indeed! Yes I work at home, yes I work late hours and into the night. The phrase of not having enough hours in the day holds very true for me. I try and manage things by not “working” on Fridays, which just means I still work but not normal crazy hours. I try and catch up on all the things that have been swept to one side throughout the week.

I also try and do something for me – a walk, a quiet lunch by myself (not having to share my avocado with my daughter and not having to answer anyone’s questions about where did all the colours in the world come from?) I try to pop into my favourite Lonsdale Street haunts – Rebel Muse and Peachy Keen being two of them! 

What is your perspective re. juggling it all? Can you do it? Do yo do it? How? 

I find this question very political. And I don’t quite know how to answer it. All I can do is speak about my own situation and that is, when we had children, I took the role as the primary caregiver. This meant many things for my career – the interruption of my progression in the Press Gallery because I took two years off in maternity leave, a loss of salary once I returned but on lesser hours, and the less tangible impact of being “the one” who would have to leave work if a child became sick or to collect them after school. My husband was, and remains, the primary wage earner. I think both of us could feel a little resentful about how things have played out in that he would like more flexibility to be with the kids and I would like less pressure to be the primary caregiver while trying to hold down a career of my own. But alternatives, such as getting a nanny or farming out our kids to alternative carers while we worked was not something either of us was prepared to do. Why have children if you can’t be with them?

I prefer to focus on the positives of being able to scale back my work commitments to care for them, and having financial stability through my husband’s continued hard work and long hours. My experience is NO you can’t have it all, and certainly not in those early years when children are so dependent. So motherhood has compromised my career no question. BUT, motherhood trumps my career on every level of enjoyment, fulfilment and purpose. I don’t regret for one millisecond my children. In fact, I feel grateful for them every day. But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have to step back professionally when they arrived.

What does a typical morning look like for you?

Not a word is spoken before I drink a large cup of earl grey tea delivered to me in bed (lucky, hey!) and then I prise my eyes open and check emails and stuff. I am a night owl and often stay up to get things done (this can be a varied exercise comprising of cooking for the week ahead, churning through an endless basket of dirty laundry, writing my stories, catching up on non-essential emails and the usual Send Hope list of to-dos. I also mop my floors a lot because I find it makes me feel calm and in control…?!)

Last week I was on a magazine deadline and didn’t get to bed before 2am on any night. The other side of that equation is that I am hopeless in the morning. Hopeless. My husband may even use the adjective “scary”. One of the many proud achievements I have as a mother is teaching my children the value of sleep. They are great sleepers and we usually have to wake them up in the mornings (plus they sleep in like we do on the weekends!) 

What do you find the most challenging about working for a charity?

It is not challenging to work for Send Hope, it is a privilege. On an internal level there is something deeply satisfying, and humbling, to be in a position to affect change and assist others. It makes me feel good every single day. You can’t buy that feeling, it is priceless. On an external level I am constantly buoyed by the compassionate support and kindness of the community. From the people who contact us to thank us for our work, to those who make constant generous donations to ensure we can keep doing it, this job shows me the best of humanity.

Then there is our team – I love those guys – and also our partners. We work with some of THE most selfless humans on the planet. Take Dr Barry Kirby, a man who has devoted his life to ensuring more women in the most remote parts of Milne Bay in PNG have access to support and healthcare. If anyone has time, I encourage you to watch a Foreign Correspondent report on Barry HERE. The man is a saint.

Do you find it hard to get funding? How can people donate?

We have been constantly amazed at the level of financial support for Send Hope since we started. We get people from all walks wanting to pitch in. Every single dollar counts. And it is so easy to make a donation! Our website, www.sendhope.org allows you to donate directly, or you can choose a country, or a specific program. If you want to donate and get a card for someone, you fill out what you want the card to say, and put in the recipient’s address and choose the amount you want to pay.

We have tried to make it as easy as possible and are happy to report that it is a pretty user-friendly experience. Also, quick plug: we have NO OVERHEADS and NO ADMINISTRATION COSTS and we even pay for stamps on our cards out of our own money. I can promise our donors that every dollar of their donation goes towards our projects. Not many charities can make such a claim. 

What type of assistance does money donated to your charity provide to women?

We do so many things. In terms of PNG, we have been running a hugely successful partnership with Dr Kirby that provides mother and baby gift incentives to any mother who travels to her nearest health centre across the Milne Bay Province. The gift includes basic supplies such as clothes, soap, nappies, baby clothes, plus the money to cover the few dollars it costs to attend the health centre and money for food while the mum is away from her village.

These cost $28 each to supply, and since we have been supporting Dr Kirby to roll out more than 4000 of these incentive gifts, the number of supervised births has risen by 80 per cent and the maternal death rate has dropped by 78 per cent (according to a peer reviewed study published in the June 2015 edition of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology) This shows how a relatively cheap and simple intervention can actually save lives. It was hard not to cry tears of joy when these statistics came through.

In other projects we provide emergency medical supplies – in PNG, Indonesia, and when the tropical Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu we helped re-establish maternity facilities there. We are currently waiting for a shipment of donated hospital beds to arrive at a new maternity hospital we are supporting in Ethiopia run by Australian doctor Andrew Browning.

We have also provided ongoing support to a number of selfless and dedicated Australian midwives who travel to PNG regularly to provide training and support for local health workforces. This sort of training not only saves lives when a woman has experiences a complication in labour but also empowers communities and local workforces. It is a win-win for everyone.

Have there been any eye opening experiences or moments from travelling to these countries that have stuck with you? Can you describe one please?

Last Mother’s Day (may 2016) Tara and I and our wonderful photographer Karleen Minney travelled to Port Moresby. We went to the Australian High Commission to accept $80,000 for our work in PNG from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Direct Aid Program. That was exciting enough it its own right, but the highlight of the trip for me was spending time at the Port Morseby General Hospital Maternity Ward talking to the health workers and the mums about birth in PNG.The women who were in labour were so calm, collected and brave. The staff were professional and compassionate and happy. While the hospital was a world away from Australian standards of healthcare, it was a positive place with proud mamas clutching perfect and beautiful babies as they gingerly stepped out into the courtyard within hours of delivery.

One of the things that struck me to my core were some of the mothers who were completely and utterly impoverished. They walked out with babies wrapped in old bits of sheet donated by the nurses in the hospital. They had no clothes or nappies for their newborns. We gave them some of our own baby bundles we brought from Australia. They looked in wonder at the baby clothes, washers, wraps and soap supplies we gave them. It was a tiny gesture from three visiting Australian mothers, but it also kind of symbolised how Australian can channel some of its incredible wealth to make a difference to its near neighbour. We have so much here and we can’t conceive of how hard life is for some of our PNG sisters. I cannot wait to go back and to keep contributing to this beautiful country.

What message do you want to provide not only to Australian women, but the world in general re. Send Hope Not Flowers? What is the one takeaway? I.e what do you want people to know?

Women die in childbirth. It is not expensive, nor complicated to help them survive so they can care for their newborns and raise their children to adulthood. By Sending Hope Not Flowers you can help save the life of a mother somewhere in the developing world. Because flowers die, and women giving birth should not. It is that simple.

Please feel free to add in anything else you want to add. 

I'd like to finish by saying to anyone reading this that we can all make a difference if we put our minds to it. Be informed, be engaged, be educated. And if it needs to change, change it. And if you want to help us, spread the word about Send Hope!

To donate visit: Sendhope.org

Images: Emma MacDonald, Feature Image Martin Ollman; Words: Yadira Galarza Cauchi

Tell us, what did you think of these birthing statistics? 

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