Hands-on humanitarian Ken Isaacs delivers aid worldwide

Ken Isaacs was a water-well driller and businessman in North Carolina when he volunteered in 1985 to lend his expertise on a water project in the West African nation of Togo.

“I found it exhilarating, exciting and challenging,” Isaacs says. “To be frank, after that month, I felt like God called me to the world.”

Today Isaacs, 65, vice president of the faith-based charity Samaritan’s Purse, is a veteran of three decades’ work responding to humanitarian crises in scores of countries afflicted by conflicts, famines and natural disasters. He’s also the U.S. candidate to run for election as the next director-general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Geneva-based, intergovernmental organization of 169 member countries that works to ensure migration is safe, orderly and humane.

“I’ve always felt the most important thing was to do a good job,” he says. “Not everybody is going to agree with my faith. I always wanted to know, ‘What do you think about what we are doing? Is that water clean? Is that medical treatment good? Is that food distributed equitably?’ I am faith-blind and color-blind.”

Ken Isaacs standing under hut, with men standing and seated around him (Samaritan's Purse)
Ken Isaacs presides at an aid distribution meeting in famine-stricken Yida, South Sudan. (Samaritan’s Purse)

Isaacs has directed relief efforts in Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines and beyond. He also headed the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance in 2004 and 2005. Along the way, he says, he has worked with some great people, governments and communities to tackle some tremendously complex humanitarian issues.

Isaacs went to work drilling wells straight out of high school. He never stopped to get a college degree, but eventually jumped into the complicated business of helping masses of people in dire straits half a world away.

Even when responsible for multimillion-dollar budgets, he has headed out to personally direct aid distribution and provision of medical care for those whose lives have been upended by tsunamis, earthquakes or wars. “I like to do things and get stuff done,” he says.

Before starting humanitarian work, “I’d never heard the word NGO [nongovernment organization],” he admits. But the well-drilling business was good preparation for the logistical demands of getting workers and supplies into position in situations where delays and red tape can mean life or death.

Franklin Graham, president of the Samaritan’s Purse charity and son of the late Reverend Billy Graham, asked Isaacs to troubleshoot a project in Ethiopia. Eventually Isaacs became project director for Samaritan’s Purse, a sister organization to an association founded by Billy Graham himself, who was famed for preaching worldwide.

Isaacs and his family lived in Ethiopia for three years during two conflicts. “That was the first time I saw sudden, massive displacements. When the government fell in 1991, hundreds of thousands of [displaced] people were moving around,” he recalls.

Samaritan’s Purse provides spiritual and physical assistance to victims of war, poverty, disasters, disease and famines. It takes its name from the Gospel verse about the Samaritan who assists someone in distress whom others ignored.

With a $600 million budget, Samaritan’s Purse mobilizes volunteers after U.S. disasters — Vice President Pence helped it distribute aid in Houston after Hurricane Harvey — packs shoeboxes with Christmas gifts for needy children and works internationally with NGOs, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme and other helping agencies. It has its own planes to move relief supplies and emergency personnel.

When a crisis strikes, Isaacs says, NGOs like his with existing networks in stricken areas often can deliver help more swiftly and do things government alone cannot.

Isaacs believes charities, secular or religious, should be judged on results.

He relishes the opportunity the IOM opening offers to help even more people. “This is in my wheelhouse. It’s what I’ve been doing.” The election, which requires a two-thirds vote, is in June.

This story was updated on June 28.