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Our History

December 13, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Dan O'Neill (left) stands with Ells Culver at a refugee camp in Honduras in the early 1980s. Photo: Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Ben Depp for Mercy Corps  </span>
    In the months since Haiti's devastating earthquake, Mercy Corps staff like Lisa Hoashi (middle) have been giving displaced children and their families the help they need to gain relief, start to recover and begin rebuilding. Photo: Ben Depp for Mercy Corps

Throughout its history, Mercy Corps has demonstrated innovation, timeliness and the ability to quickly adapt to changing realities.

The organization was founded in 1979 as Save the Refugees Fund, a task force organized by Dan O'Neill in response to the plight of Cambodian refugees fleeing the famine, war and genocide of the "Killing Fields." This fledgling organization helped focus America's attention on the humanitarian crisis and provided lifesaving aid to hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.

In 1980, Dan O'Neill had a serendipitous meeting that would change his life and shape his future. At a relief and development conference, he sat in front of a man named Ellsworth ("Ells") Culver, who would become his collaborator in founding Mercy Corps.

"I looked behind me and saw a very elegant looking man with reading glasses, wearing a blue blazer, blue pinstripe shirt and red tie," O'Neill said. "I remember thinking ‘this man must be a senator.' He was very impressive."

The two men immediately struck up a strong, enduring friendship. They had a common bond: Dan's Save the Refugees Fund had provided grants to Food for the Hungry, the organization that Ells served as Vice-President.

However, it was a much stronger bond — a commitment to provide more innovative, sustainable aid and development to poor communities — that united the two men in a singular purpose.

After sharing their visions and continuing fruitful discussions for two years, Ells and Dan O'Neill formed Mercy Corps in 1982, quickly shifting from simply providing relief assistance to focusing on long-term solutions to hunger and poverty. Our first development project began in Honduras in 1982.

Since then, Mercy Corps has grown and evolved, gaining national and international recognition for quick-response, high-impact, cost-effective programs around the globe.

Over the years, our work has touched families and communities in more than 107 nations across the world. We have delivered more than $1.95 billion in relief and development assistance, including food, shelter, health care, agriculture, water and sanitation, education and small business loans.

Today, Mercy Corps helps more than 16.7 million people each year recover from disasters, build stronger communities and find their own solutions to poverty. We have been an international leader in responding to the massive tragedy of the Indian Ocean tsunami, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, food crisis in Niger, displacement in Congo and earthquakes from China to Haiti.

Mercy Corps was among the first humanitarian groups to use relief and development programs to strengthen civil society. Simply handing out food, building a school or immunizing a child is not enough — especially in countries torn by ethnic conflict and economic transition. Just a few weeks of armed conflict can destroy roads, schools, businesses and health systems that took years of traditional development work to build. Working side by side with the poor but hard-working families, we bring diverse groups together to create societies that are more peaceful, open, democratic and economically strong.

Since our founding, Mercy Corps has been committed to good stewardship of the gifts entrusted to us. Our work is made possible through the generosity of thousands of caring individuals, corporations, foundations and other donors.

Mercy Corps consistently ranks as one of America's most effective and efficient charitable organizations. Over the last five years, more than 88 percent of resources have been allocated directly to programs that help families turn crisis into opportunity in some of the world's most challenging places.