Running companies was his thing. Volunteering was not. Until the tsunami


Picture yourself atop a ski slope in Telluride, Colo., with a day of perfect powder schussing before you. You pause, take it all in—and wish you were helping Hurricane Katrina flood victims dig out of rotting houses. It was an alpine epiphany for David Campbell. The year was 2005, shortly after he founded the nonprofit Hands On Disaster Response, based in Carlisle, Mass. “That’s sick, but that’s what I wanted,” Campbell says. “I wanted to be in Biloxi with the natural disaster relief volunteers on our first mission.”
Campbell’s path to creating and running a volunteer organization began when he heard about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and traveled to Phuket Island in Thailand to help. Not only had he never been to Thailand, but his closest volunteer experience was running a United Way campaign in Buffalo, N.Y. His planned one-week visit turned into a one-month stay, and a new way of life.
At that point, Campbell, now 67, was managing director of a Boston-based investment-banking firm. He cut his teeth at IBM and later served as chief executive of Buffalo-based Computer Task Group. His reaction to the news of the tsunami was something he didn’t see coming. “When I heard about it, I was overwhelmed. It was the major disaster of my lifetime. In my gut, I knew I had to help,” Campbell recalls.
He was confident he could. He knew how to manage people, delegate, and keep projects running and budgets under control. Moreover, he was adept at navigating the Internet. It was while trolling the Web that Campbell stumbled across Michael Ciegielski, an Air Force Academy graduate who was living on Phuket Island. Ciegielski had started a number of volunteer projects in Bang Tao, a tsunami-affected area.
When Campbell arrived, he tracked Ciegielski down. Initially, the organization attracted 12 volunteers. The next week there were 20, and the next, 40. Campbell had a business model in mind. “That should be the new definition of a senior moment. When your experience presents you with a situation that you have the benefit of seeing before and know what might work,” he says.
First, he set up a website to make it easy for newcomers to find the band of volunteers. Then came matching skills with needs. Even better, Campbell brought money. Before he left for Thailand, he sent an E-mail to friends asking if they wanted to contribute. The effort became known as Hands On Thailand and brought more than 200 volunteers and several hundred thousand dollars to assist the rebuilding of five Phuket fishing villages.
Hands-on operation. By the time Campbell headed home, he was hooked on helping. That September, shortly after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, he set up Hands On Disaster Response. Within a week of the storm’s landfall, the organization had an operations center in Biloxi, Miss. More than 1,500 volunteers helped over the next five months. To date, HODR has provided assistance after 11 disasters in seven countries, including a hurricane that hit Gonaives, Haiti, and flooding in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The work can be as labor intensive as rebuilding homes or as simple as stuffing backpacks with school supplies for kids.
Campbell has invested about $100,000 of his own money in his group and doesn’t draw a salary. For now, he can afford that. His wife joins him on the missions. (The couple’s four children are grown.) “If people knew that there was something out there that they could do that would be so fulfilling when they retired, they might be more aggressive in preparing financially for it,” he says.
The fundraising future of HODR is formidable, as the goal is to raise $575,000 this year. Choosing where to send reinforcements is tough. The decision often comes down to whether it’s a domestic or an international crisis. Donors tend to feel more engaged when giving to U.S. relief, Campbell says.
What keeps him going? His club membership, of course. “I jokingly call it the good-for-nothing club,” he says. “We want to do good … for nothing.”
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