Disaster Relief with Erik Dyson – All Hands Volunteers

SFGC: Tell us where you’re from and about a few of the steps you’ve taken en route to your current position as the head of All Hands?

ERIK: I’m currently from the Boston, Massachusetts area. About two years ago our founder, David Campbell, decided that he was ready to step back and be the Chairman of the Board and was looking for someone to take over as Executive Director. So, I made the decision to move from the corporate sector back into the non-profit sector. Since David and I both had similar backgrounds coming from the business world, we really connected, and it’s been exciting so far.

SFGC: Have you always had an interest in working in the non-profit sector? Was there a specific time or event in your life that triggered this desire?

ERIK: I had taken a mission trip down to Trinidad with my daughter, Jackie, and a few other fathers from our hometown. We went and worked in an orphanage and helped them paint and do things like that. It was shocking to me because when I started talking to friends in the community about who would like to go, of the nineteen people who joined, over half of them got a passport for the first time. These were well-educated people, and I was shocked they had never been overseas. And then when we were there and I saw the impact it had on their outlook and perspective, it really struck me that this whole idea of volunteering and seeing directly how you’re helping is really impactful. That was sort of a water shed moment for me. And then when I came back and met David and heard about All Hands, I knew it was the type of organization I wanted to work with.

SFGC: Was there anything difficult about moving from the corporate sector back to the non-profit sector?

ERIK: It was more of an adjustment just going from a large corporation to a
small organization. We’ve been around for ten years, but are really just now scaling up past that start-up phase. When I joined I had a bit of a culture shock about the kinds of people who were coming to join us, and who did what. Everyone did everything. We set up our first office, and there were days when I literally had to clean out the office. Anyone who was around had to pitch in. I was used to world where I had an assistant, and there were lots of things I never had to think about or deal with.

SFGC: Since joining All Hands, what has been the best part? Maybe you can recap a single event that was particularly memorable?

ERIK: What’s best for me is when I get the chance to come out to projects like this [Philippines], and see the passion and the desire to help. I think there’s misconception sometimes about our organization. They think we just give people a chance to hang out and have a good time. Now clearly our volunteers have a good time, but when you come to a project and see how hard they work and the level of passion and commitment they have for these communities, it’s really inspiring. I’m typically twice as old as all of them, but you get there and just see these people from all over the world – in Tacloban right now we have probably twenty-five to thirty different countries represented – and they’re just there to help. So, to me, that’s the most exciting thing.

SFGC: All Hands is often one of the first disaster relief responders. What’s the most challenging part about coordinating and organizing these responses?

ERIK: It’s all of the logistics. It’s called a disaster because it’s chaos. The local community is overwhelmed. So we are landing there, and we are very careful not to create more stress. So we don’t want to show up and make life worse for the people on the ground in our desire to help. In the early days of a disaster there’s literally a shortage of everything - water, food, electricity, phones. etc... The strength of our team is the ability to go into a disaster situation quickly and to be extremely flexible and creative. It’s all about attracting people who are there for the right reasons, and we try to always initially do the work that no one wants to do.

SFGC: How do you go about getting funding for all of this?

ERIK: In a lot of ways, our business model makes no sense – go to a disaster, bring in people from all over the world, but don’t charge them. It also costs us to provide food, accommodation, and tools. When you look at it, the first thing someone would tell me to do is, “Don’t do that anymore.” But, we’ve been doing it for ten years, and we’ve found that that model accomplishes what we want to accomplish. So as a result, we have to find creative ways to fund that approach. Right after a major disaster, we’ll get a level of spontaneous support, and those are projects we can launch and raise money behind. We have faith based on our experience that it will happen. But, once it goes two to three months after the disaster, then that changes from random people sending us support, to having to go out and work closely with foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals. It’s challenging.

SFGC: How do you think Pandoo Foundation and its connection to socially minded children playing a game could potentially impact All Hands?

ERIK: First of all, it sounds like from the business side you guys have a very creative and innovative concept. You’ve seen other video games that have been successful. But I think what is exciting is you’re taking it to the next level from just pure fun - children can also have an impact in the world around them. And just like we say all the time with our volunteers- we’re not going to save the world, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t engage in the world. And I think what you all are doing is you’re going down a few age levels and having that same message to the eight to twelve year olds. You want to do something that’s entertaining and fun, but why not also have an impact in the world around you? And that’s pretty exciting. Quite honestly, those are our volunteers in ten years. And if you get them engaged in the idea of having an impact in society at eight and twelve, it’s likely that when they’re twenty, they’re going to want to come and do the kinds of things we do. I can see a natural synergy between what you’re doing and what we’re doing. And the fact that it opens up children’s minds to the direct impact of what they can do. Hopefully that ignites a passion in them.

SFGC: We always love to hear from our featured global citizens about who inspires them personally. Who would you look to as your “Global Citizen Crush?”

ERIK: I spent a year, when I was 18, living in India and was amazed to see the work that Mother Teresa had done there. She was someone who purely lived her beliefs everyday. To me that’s an amazing demonstration of who you are. She really inspired me at a young age.