Tzu-Chi is a Buddhist humanitarian aid foundation that has helped the world through many of its greatest hardships since its start in Taiwan in 1966. Its support in some of the U.S.’s most recent tragedies has been vital to our recovery. For example, on Sept. 11, 2001, only three charity organizations were allowed on ground zero: the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and Tzu-Chi.

Tzu-Chi also offered much needed service after Hurricane Katrina, the 2007 California wildfires and many other tragedies.

Tzu-Chi is translated from Chinese as “compassionate relief.” It declares its mission to be to “relieve the suffering of those in need, and create a better world for all.”

The foundation is made up of about 10 million members and 100,000 volunteers. There are very few paid staffers, and many of the volunteers give the majority of their time to the group’s humanitarian efforts, paying all of their own expenses to do so.

The Tzu-Chi Foundation has developed a reputation for its uniquely humble approach to humanitarian aid. The group was founded upon values such as gratitude, respect and love, and these values still remain the driving force in all the volunteers do. Its goal is not only to meet the physical needs of victims, but their emotional needs too.

While they don’t preach their Buddhist beliefs to those they help, the Tzu-Chi volunteers hope their humble examples will spread the values that guide their foundation.

Their distinctive style boils down to the principal of direct giving. Tzu-Chi makes a point to give personalized care to everyone it can. For instance, when volunteers hand out emergency relief supplies, they do it with both hands, looking each person in the eye and bowing to them humbly. I have been moved as Tsu-Chi volunteers have demonstrated to me how they bow and the words they use. They might say to a disaster victim: “I want you to have this gift of food and I want you to know that it is my great privilege to be able to bring this to you.”

After a disaster, the Tzu-Chi Foundation works to provide permanent solutions to communities so recovery can be quicker. In 2008, after Cyclone Nargis left the people of Myanmar in very bad shape; Tzu-Chi brought them food as well as seeds and fertilizer to grow new crops.

Tzu-Chi also tries to provide permanent solutions by building schools. After the 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran, the foundation built five schools for students whose educational institutions were demolished by the quake.

The foundation’s efforts are not limited to disaster relief. It also wants all people to enjoy good health, regardless of their income. It has established eight hospitals and many clinics where low-income members of communities can receive high-quality treatment despite their circumstances. It puts a special emphasis on medical care, dental care, vision care and acupuncture treatment.

About the health care for low-income people, George Perez, director of parent and community involvement for Modesto city schools, said: “When it comes to health, it’s universal, everyone deserves to receive the health care they need, and so the Tzu-Chi Foundation, they are doing just that.”

Tzu-Chi also targets special areas for medical outreach. For example, it has been giving care to California’s Central Valley, where nearly a million farmworkers, many undocumented immigrants, only make $5,000 to $6,000 a year and don’t receive benefits.

Some of its other efforts include empowering and educating women, raising awareness about the importance of recycling and supplying the homeless with basic necessities. It also keep tabs on communities after disasters so that the foundation is more able to continue to help.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.

Laura Steele, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

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