Richard M. Walden
President and CEO
Richard Walden never set out to launch a relief organization. He certainly did not think that 34 years later, the organization he founded almost by accident would have delivered over $350 million in aid to no less than 100 countries.
However, growing from ad hoc and humble beginnings to one of “America’s Top 100 Charities” (Worth Magazine) was no accident. Touched by the suffering of people in need, and fueled by what he learned an ordinary citizen could accomplish with a little chutzpah and a lot of phone calls, Richard founded Operation USA from an unyielding personal passion to bring both attention and resources to appalling scenarios of human misery resulting from disasters and extreme poverty, the world over.
In the summer of 1979, two news stories on one day sparked the inspiration: Vietnamese boat people fleeing their war-torn country in droves, and, following a tragic plane crash, the world’s entire fleet of DC-10s was grounded. The pairing suddenly seem to present an obvious solution…Less than a month later, Walden had a DC-10 loaded with 7 tons of donated medical supplies on the ground in a refugee camp on a remote Malaysian island. And with that, Operation USA was born.
Called a “charity buccaneer” by the Los Angeles Times, Richard has a gift for creating unlikely and creative partnerships—solving problems and doing good by any means necessary. From convincing the occasional celebrity to lend star power to the cause of disaster relief to negotiating access to countries or regions underserved by U.S. relief groups, Walden has yet to find a challenge too steep to tackle.
Operation USA is not your typical relief agency. For one thing, it has managed to assist those in need in close to 100 countries without taking a single cent in government funding. OpUSA relies solely on private donations—thus circumventing the pitfalls and red tape that often accompany those funds.
Walden has occasionally been an outspoken critic of relief work—taking the fearless stance that funds raised should be used to help those in need, not line the coffers of a large organization or pay for expensive fundraising campaigns. As such, his own organization has been lauded for its low overhead and for sticking to its motto, “Give and it gets there.”
Under Richard’s leadership, Operation USA has scored a number of ‘firsts’ among American NGO’s involved in international relief—being first on the ground during or immediately after disasters and/or conflicts from Vietnam to Bosnia, from Iraq to Rwanda, and dozens of other locations along the way. It was one of the first relief agencies into Mexico City after the devastating 1986 earthquake, and it was the first Western group into Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after the overthrow of Pol Pot in 1979. In famine-stricken Ethiopia in 1984, Operation USA innovated the use of 747 cargo jets, doubling the aid delivered to that country in a single shipment.
Operation USA was awarded the President’s Volunteer Action Award by the White House in 1983 for its work as the first U.S. NGO licensed to provide relief to Cambodia and Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War (1979). It shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize as a key member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Walden’s work with UNESCO, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories led to new and faster solutions for recovering and disarming landmines through the use of sensors and robotic technology.
A Los Angeles native, Richard holds a B.A. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts & Sciences (1968) and also attended the Wharton School of Finance (1964-66). He earned a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1972. Walden served as Commissioner of the California Health Facilities Commission for the State of California (1977-82) under Governor Jerry Brown. He has taught conflict resolution at seminars in The Hague and in Prague. He also served on the Advisory Board of The Asia Society and is an elected member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Operation USA was recently named the “#1 Exclusively Privately Funded Charity” by watchdog group Charity Navigator.
Walden lives in Los Angeles with his wife Rosanne Katon and has two children, Jamaica and Adam Mandela.