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Saving the World, One Volunteer at a Time

Business Exec Launches Global Relief Organization

All Hands Volunteers work to assist victims of Hurricane Tomas in Haiti.


Christine Gillette

On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake erupted in the floor of the Indian Ocean. The quake, the third-strongest on record, generated a tsunami that sent waves as tall as 100 feet crashing onto the shores of Indonesia, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Malasia.

Before the day was over, as many as 150,000 people were dead and in the weeks to come, the death toll would climb to more than 230,000. But it was the horror facing those left behind and their struggle to rebuild that called David Campbell to action.

Campbell — a Carlisle resident whose 40-year career in business includes roles as a technology executive, corporate board member and investment banker — recently spoke to about 75 College of Management students and faculty on the invitation of Prof. David Lewis.

Drawn to Thailand

In his quest to help victims of the tsunami, Campbell was drawn to one of the hardest-hit areas of Thailand. In January 2005, he headed for Phuket Island, determined to volunteer, but without an affiliation with a relief organization. Once he arrived, Campbell found himself in the midst of others from around the world who had felt the same call to help in simple ways, from the back-breaking work of clearing rubble to giving their own money to families. Together, the volunteers worked to rebuild fishing villages whose residents had lost everything: homes, shops, fishing boats. 

“We just started doing exactly what needed to be done,” Campbell says, describing how the volunteers lived in humble conditions and developed a simple routine where volunteers would meet every day at the same time to discuss projects in progress and introduce new members.

Campbell’s one-week stay in Thailand stretched to a month and then to three months. By the time he returned home to Massachusetts, Campbell was one of the founders of HandsOn Thailand, which organized volunteers and used the Internet to communicate directly to the public to raise money for the victims of the tsunami. During his three months in Thailand, Campbell had helped bring more than 200 volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars together to help rebuild five Phuket fishing villages.

Transferring Business Skills

Campbell found that the same skills that had helped him succeed in the business world could be applied to humanitarian relief efforts: organizing, delegating and dealing with people from a variety of backgrounds. He said that common sense and trust became the group’s main principles.

He also learned that the same model the group used in Thailand could work in other places. Later in 2005, Campbell’s group, operating as HandsOnUSA, brought more than 1,500 volunteers and financial support to victims of Hurricane Katrina through an operations center set up in Biloxi, Miss.

“You can’t predict where the next disaster will happen, but you can be ready to help,” he says.

All Hands Volunteers in Haiti

Campbell and the group, now known as All Hands Volunteers, have faced perhaps their largest challenge in Haiti, where the organization is continuing relief work on behalf of victims of the earthquake that devastated that nation. Other deployments, as the group calls them, have included relief efforts for victims of flooding in Iowa, Tennessee, New York and Rhode Island; tornadoes in Arkansas and Missouri; and other natural disasters in Peru, the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

“Our family grew from nothing to one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives,” says Campbell, who is executive director of All Hands and continues to lead a technology investment group and serve on the boards of several companies.

Campbell says relief work is eye-opening for many All Hands volunteers because they realized, after shedding their everyday lives in exchange for rudimentary conditions and hard work, that they can live on very little and find more satisfaction.

For more information on the work of All Hands or to find out about how to volunteer, visit

David Campbell speaks to a UMass Lowell student after his recent talk on campus about his relief work in countries including Haiti and Thailand.