One of the first things that Mimi O'Hagan will tell you is that she enjoys hard work and heavy labor.
And so it was in 2006, in her late 70s, that Ms. O'Hagan found herself in Ethiopia for a month constructing homes. She had already visited dozens of countries—Malawi to Thailand—to volunteer, and no matter where she traveled, she organized a side trip to see a Save the Children project. She's long been a supporter of the Westport, Conn.-based organization with "modest" gifts, she says, but has always enjoyed seeing the nonprofit in action.
Though Ms. O'Hagan was accustomed to seeing extreme poverty, something stopped her on her way to visit a Save the Children school in Ethiopia. A child was crouched near a stream to collect water. The child was alone, wearing tattered clothes and crying. The image haunted her, she says.
When she returned home, she was emboldened with the idea to build a school. She called Save the Children, declared that she was going to build a school in Ethiopia and asked how much it would cost and where it should be located to meet the greatest need. Their response: $50,000 for a school in Tigray, a remote area of Ethiopia near the border with Eritrea.
Ms. O'Hagan made her career in nonprofit public relations and development and has experience in crafting fund-raising solicitations. An early career in advertising at the Schweppes beverage company also taught her to have a clever campaign. She decided to call her fund-raising effort Mimi's Building Blocks.
In fall 2006, she sent out hundreds of letters to friends and family members urging them to contribute to her campaign to build a school. She personalized each note and addressed every envelope by hand. By fall 2007, the school—with four rooms, running water, a latrine and a separate building for administration and supplies—was complete.
That school was only the beginning. To date, Ms. O'Hagan has raised more than $500,000 to build four primary schools, three early-childhood development programs and one middle school. She says that if she can raise that much money, others can "undertake their own fund-raising projects for the needy things they are interested in."
This month, Ms. O'Hagan will sit at the dining room table in her Manhattan apartment and write a letter to raise money for another middle school. She also hopes to expand her efforts to include reading rooms and playgrounds and education programs for adults.
The fund-raising work is a "full-time job" admits Ms. O'Hagan. But, she says, "I find it a miracle in my life to have this incredibly productive, life-changing work."