Dan O'Neill | University of Portland

Dan O'Neill

Dan O'Neill is the co-founder of Mercy Corps, an organization which has raised nearly $2 billion to help some 17 million children and families in more than one hundred countries since it began, as the Save the Refugees Fund, in 1979. Today Mercy Corps, with offices in North America, Europe, and Asia, has more than 3,000 staffers working in nearly forty countries, and the organization adheres, more than ever before, to the three goals O'Neill and co-founder Ellsworth Culver set thirty years ago: to provide emergency relief, offer long-term economic opportunities, and foment civil society, all of which promote democratization; to observe and respect laws and human rights; and to create conditions for peaceful change.

O'Neill, a devout Catholic, is articulate about the spiritual nature of the work. "We're not a religious organization," he has said, "but there is a powerful sense of the spiritual in what we do. I was raised in an evangelical Protestant family, but eventually I became very interested in Catholicism's very strong emphasis on the poor, on paying attention and assisting the poor. And I was inspired by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a tiny nun who without large resources had made such a difference. If someone so seemingly obscure and without stature can put this sort of faith to work, I thought, maybe I can do something."

Born and raised in Washington state, O'Neill was finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Washington when he "sort of abandoned myself to divine providence," as he says. He sold what little he owned, moved overseas to join the volunteer organization Youth With a Mission, and "lived day to day, on what you could call a faith pilgrimage."

Working in East Africa, Europe and the Middle East, he saw poverty, famine and war — terrorism at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the Middle East war of October 1973, Idi Amin's murderous war on his fellow Ugandans. O'Neill also worked in the orchards on a kibbutz in Israel. Returning home, he fell in love (he and his wife Cherry have four daughters and a son) and began to dream "about doing more global-oriented things," he says. Shocked by the murders of millions of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge and the refugee crisis of the late 1970s, O'Neill co-founded the Save the Refugees Fund in 1979, in part with the help of O'Neill¹s father-in-law, singer Pat Boone, who opened his home to host the Fund's first meeting, and of then-First Lady Rosalynn Carter, whom O'Neill cold-called at the White House. "Against all odds, she promptly called me back, and she was a tremendous help," says O'Neill.

Two years later, in 1981, the Fund became Mercy Corps, and it has grown, says O'Neill, to be an organization wholly dependent on the creativity, self-motivation, and social entrepreneurship of its staff and supporters. "Thinking very creatively, employing very bright and innovative and educated people, and being able to say that we reach, in some way, some 10 million people a year — that's significant to me. Mercy Corps' future, I think, will include ever more entrepreneurial creativity, avoiding bureaucracy as far as possible, and trying ever harder to make a difference in the world when tensions seem so high. As for me, I continue to be inspired by Mother Teresa. Such a frail, diminutive woman — but she was strong and resolute in making a difference for those in extreme poverty. She's a model of faith in action, of a faith that matters.