Alumni Spotlights

David Campbell, ’63: The Importance of Being There

  • on June 18, 2015
  • by Lisa McMahon, MA'09
David Campbell, '63, back row, center, with family members during the Hurricane Sandy project.

David Campbell, '63, back row, center, with family members during the Hurricane Sandy project.

It all began with the story of a fisherman.

Jan. 21, 2005. David Campbell, ’63, was in Phuket, Thailand, drawn there by an intense desire to help the victims of the tsunami that had ravaged that country a month earlier, and the firm conviction that his knowledge of the Internet could be key to recovery.

“I knew how effective a tool the Internet could be to change the way that things were done,” David explains.

Using a hotel room in the fishing village of Bang Tao as his home base, David spent his first day assessing the damage and connecting with others in the area willing to help. He learned that 43 fishing boats, valued at $5,000 each, had been destroyed in the tsunami. Although the loss was devastating to the villagers who depended on the boats for their livelihood, the need had not been addressed by the large aid organizations that had joined the relief efforts.

With more than 40 years’ experience in leading technology-industry businesses (including positions as president of BBN Technologies and CEO of Computer Task Group), David knew that the Internet could be used to raise money for these fishermen and their families. He captured, through words and pictures, the story of one fisherman and shared it with yacht clubs in London and Amsterdam. As members began hosting cocktail parties to raise funds to build new boats for the villagers, David helped to develop a website for the project and a network of volunteers who began building the boats. His previous service on several corporate boards enabled him to be an effective liaison between the volunteers and potential donors.

“The ability to deal with both sides of the issues was essential,” he says.

What was most important, however, was simply being on the scene. “You can’t establish trust with people you don’t know over the phone,” David writes in his book, Being There. “You have to do it face-to-face. And you have to do it in a language they understand.”

In all, David spent three weeks in Bang Tao and co-founded what became known as HandsOnThailand, which raised more than $100,000, connected more than 200 volunteers, and rebuilt five Phuket fishing villages.

David returned to his Boston home forever changed by the powerful experience he had just had and began to seek other opportunities to help disaster-ridden areas. He set his sights on Darfur, where the genocide and refugee crisis had been ongoing since 2003.

And then Katrina struck.

Using what he calls the “Goldilocks Test” –– selecting an area that was big enough to support an influx of volunteers and small enough that their efforts would make a difference––David and two associates he made through his work in Bang Tao determined that Biloxi, Miss., would serve as the focus of their relief activities. The lessons they learned in Thailand enabled them to quickly update their website, assess the situation to identify the most pressing needs, and connect with individuals who helped them find a place to serve as home base.

Over the next five months, more than 1,500 people assisted the victims of Katrina through dozens of projects, from clearing rubble to replacing street signs.

“In every disaster there are things that aren’t done, that become gaps in service,” David explains. “We would fill those gaps and help things move more smoothly.”

Convinced that this model was an effective way to connect the needs of a community hit by a disaster with people who want to help, David began to concentrate on moving it toward becoming a sustainable disaster response organization. HandsOn Worldwide, the name under which he had incorporated the 501c3 and its HandsOn USA project in Biloxi, became HandsOn Disaster Response, and finally, in 2010, All Hands Volunteers. Over the past decade, more than 50 projects have been executed across the US and overseas, including Cedar Rapids, Iowa, following the flooding in 2008; Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake; and Japan, after the tsunami in 2011. Response to Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan is ongoing. Full-time staff has been hired, and a Southeast Asian base in the Philippines was established.

The April 25, 2015, earthquake in Nepal has triggered a major response from All Hands, with expectations of a multiyear program focused on building homes and schools, in addition to whatever other activities meet the community’s needs.

AHV provides assistance to meet both immediate and long-term needs. The organization often hires local people to augment the work of the volunteers, which infuses cash into the economy, and provides workforce training to develop a corps of residents with appropriate construction skills. In Haiti, AHV launched a series of livelihood programs to help people start and succeed in running small businesses.

“We’re fortunate that we don’t have to restrict ourselves to removing rubble and rebuilding houses,” David writes. “We can also take on projects that rebuild a community’s spirit.”

David ran AHV from his home until 2013, when his role shifted to chairman. Over the years, he spent less time on the ground at disaster sites and more time raising funds for the organization. It’s a considerable challenge, but one he finds fulfilling.

“Although the hardest part for me is the fundraising,” David admits, “when the donors see and appreciate the effectiveness of what we do and know that they’re having a positive impact, that’s a good feeling. It’s been hard and at times scary, but it’s been a very satisfying thing to have done.”