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Losing the Red Cross Would Be the Real Disaster

November 05, 2014

Headshot_beth_gazleyAs a disaster researcher and scholar of nonprofit management, I've followed the (well publicized) travails and (hardly publicized) successes of the American Red Cross over the years.

I've met its national staff at research conferences and local staff at state and county emergency management meetings, where I've served on the board of my local Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD). I participated with hundreds of other invited experts in the governance audit that resulted in the "American National Red Cross Governance Modernization Act of 2007." I’ve monitored the commentary after a ProPublica/National Public Radio exposé of the Red Cross appeared last week. And based on my observations, I have developed a healthy respect and sympathy for the Red Cross.

Bet you didn't see that coming.

There's no disputing the fact that the public needs better results from the Red Cross. The organization has been essential to our welfare since the day it was chartered by Congress to be our national disaster response agency — primus inter pares among hundreds of agencies known collectively as voluntary organizations active in disaster. In fact, the Red Cross predates the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by seventy-nine years.

Congress has entrusted a good part of disaster-related mass care and sheltering to the Red Cross. Somewhat less rationally, Congress imposed this public mandate on the Red Cross without much aid; the agency is expected to meet our nation's disaster relief needs largely through the philanthropic generosity of Americans.

Further complicating matters, the Red Cross has been plagued for years by leadership issues — issues that aren't easy to resolve because they are rooted in a number of larger, systemic problems:

Greater forces of nature. Climate change makes it harder for all disaster relief agencies to achieve their mission. In the ProPublica/NPR story, a Red Cross executive observes the challenge of "scaling up" for Sandy, a storm that covered an area half the size of Europe. The organization's inability to do that was due to climate change, not internal organizational problems. In 2005, disaster relief agencies reached the same conclusion when they reported that the impact of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina was many times larger than their capacity to deal with back-to-back disasters. The lesson is clear: As disasters get larger and more complex, we all have to work together to scale our disaster response capacity.

Shortage of experienced staff. An increase in "superstorms" demands better frontline staff. However, internal reorganizations and massive layoffs triggered by a drop in donations have increased turnover and demoralized staff at the Red Cross. In my county last week, the national Red Cross laid off three of its four paid staff, including one of the state's most experienced disaster response professionals. That trend must be reversed. This is a unique and challenging profession. There are no easy substitutes. Disaster responders are trained to be flexible and resourceful because, as they often point out, every disaster is unique. Thus, disaster researchers and other observers note the challenge of getting it right every time. It takes training and experience, which depends, in turn, on stable, consistent funding to keep high-quality, experienced chapter staff (one of the Red Cross's most important assets) on the front lines.

National leaders at odds with grassroots base. The Red Cross traditionally has had a strong internal culture that fosters staff commitment ("lifers"). Any organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, that finds itself at odds with its grassroots base is in trouble. There's no denying the impact on morale of the systemic leadership problems at the Red Cross, but they go much further back than the current CEO's tenure. Before Gail McGovern was hired, the Red Cross cycled through more than a half dozen CEOs and interim CEOs in as many years. Friction between national and chapter staff isn't new, and it's clear that, to some degree, the organization's national leadership has been in denial about it. The solution is for the national board to recognize its responsibility to improve the organization's culture and to invest in the base. The board began that process with a governance restructuring six years ago and has followed up with a healthy investment in inter-organizational collaboration and public transparency initiatives. The tone is changing, and I am encouraged by that fact. But more needs to be done.

Shirking our collective responsibility to be prepared. Unfortunately, public criticism of the Red Cross has not been accompanied by an equally vigorous public discussion of our responsibility as citizens to prepare ourselves in advance. Ask any emergency responder what he or she wants from us, and you'll get the same answer: "Make a plan and assemble a kit. We can help you best when you help yourself." One of the most active Red Cross campaigns is about family and workplace emergency preparedness (see also FEMA's excellent resources at www.ready.gov).

I'm a scholar but also a citizen. From a rational point of view, the most dangerous outcome of the ProPublica/NPR story would be a second "disaster" in the form of an escalating public mistrust of the Red Cross, resulting in fewer donations and an even weaker paid and volunteer force that is demoralized by the public's lack of understanding about the good work they do every day. Increased turnover will worsen the kind of staffing issues the organization faces. More political and media scrutiny is likely to result in more, not less, questionable decision making at the top (e.g., diverting assets for public relations junkets).

So what can we do? First, get yourself prepared. Second, be generous. This is not the time to withdraw support from the Red Cross. The organization operates like an army but on exponentially less funding. McGovern runs a $3.5 billion enterprise on a fraction of the salary of a college football coach. And she does it with largely volunteer (albeit well-trained) labor. Disaster agency budgets go through "feast" or "famine" periods. Try holding on to a good workforce when faced with that kind of budget uncertainty. An operation with twenty-nine thousand staff and four hundred thousand volunteers needs stable funding if its job is to deploy anywhere in the United States after any disaster and help any citizen, regardless of age, disability, creed, or race, who needs it.

Local Red Cross employees are not only highly respected, they are some of the hardest-working people I know. Sit in an emergency planning meeting with them in any local community, and they will have their phones/radios on, ready to leave for a house fire, flood, ice storm, or tornado on a moment’s notice. Some day that house might be yours.

The Red Cross should be held accountable for problems of its own making. We should hold ourselves accountable for the rest.

Beth Gazley is an associate professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

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Posted by Marie  |   November 06, 2014 at 07:46 AM

The problem with the Red Cross is the inability to treat employees as humans, while calling itself a humanitarian organization. There are too many egos and controlling personalities to make the organization function properly. The biggest mistake was going to a National Red Cross instead of keeping things local. Nothing will change for the Red Cross, its tarnished reputation, its lack of quality services, its deceitful ways will remain the perception until they pay their workers more, CEO's less, and be rid of all the management positions that have no value. Everyone is either a CEO, Director, Administrator, or carry a title that adds nothing to this archaic organization. Cut through and purge all of the managerial positions that are wasteful, abusivd, and bring back the type of people that cared and it meant something to be part of this nce great organization, and the Red Cross will thrive again.

Posted by Dale  |   November 06, 2014 at 08:09 AM

After a 30 year career with Red Cross, that included numerous responses to disasters of all sizes, I was laid off because of downsizing. Since then I have struggled to express my sadness and frustration over the issues you have so eloquently expressed in your article. Thank you; and I will continue to hope the leaders will listen.

Posted by Lee Meyer  |   November 06, 2014 at 09:05 AM

THANK YOU! I'm a Red Cross volunteer who has responded to local and national disasters beginning with Katrina, through Sandy and many more since. We receive a phone call and are usually at our destination within 12-24 hours. 30 deployments later it is still the most rewarding thing I've ever done. It's difficult to read the criticism. We leave our homes and families, often sleep in shelters and work twelve to fourteen hour days, as volunteers. What other volunteer agency could stand up 17,000 volunteers willing to collectively work for more than six months as we did for Sandy? Yes, we have faults, but the good we do far outweighs our mistakes. If the Red Cross were to disappear who would take our place? There are many wonderful agencies that partner with us but none who are large enough to step in and replace us. My fellow Red Crossers are amazing people. Willing to give of themselves to help people they've never met, in places they've never been because their hearts tell them it's the right thing to do. I couldn't be prouder to be counted among them. So the haters need to stop and ask themselves, what do I do to help when disaster strikes? Do I even donate to the agencies trying to help? Or do I sit back and criticize those on the ground, working in horrible conditions, in unfamiliar areas, without infrastructure?

Posted by Roxanne Major  |   November 06, 2014 at 11:31 AM

As with any organization, the employees who think they are the leaders ... keep the good employees down and keep their egos inflated. It's all about their legacy.

Posted by KMacAfee  |   November 06, 2014 at 12:41 PM

The Twin Cities Chapter had a well established and very efficient EMS Team that used to provide low cost EMS support to a number of venues and festivals, including the State Fair. The local chapter used to encourage members to attain and maintain their National Registry EMT designation.

A few years ago, the National organization issued a directive that teams could no longer support the EMT level of care and could only support lower level certifications. Being an EMT, I spoke to people at both the local chapter and at National Headquarters and was told the same thing: "Its not part of our mission".

I know a few members of the local board and while they are well intentioned, none of them have a clue what the mission should be. Their focus does seem to to be raising money (critically important) and padding their community service resumes. The Twin Cities lost a valuable team of dedicated professionals who provided thousands of hours of service per year -- something that should be part of the Red Cross's mission.

Posted by roy Hanson  |   November 06, 2014 at 03:41 PM

I agree with everything Lee Mayer said about Red Cross. Like Lee I have volunteered on numerous disasters including Karina and Sandy. No organization is perfect but Red Cross does a great job without ongoing government financing relying on free will donations and violunteers! The investigative report was submitted was not balanced and objective--it relied on the internal reports Red Cross commissioned to find and fix problems ps--give me a break!

Posted by Terry L Brooks  |   November 06, 2014 at 06:22 PM

Times at at American Red Cross are treacherous. The upper leadership has terminated those with skills to work through a disaster, and retained those that excell driving a desk. Those that will suffer the most, our Clients, will have extreme difficulty getting rapid help and the quality of response they deserve.

Me... I've been a Volunteer for many, many years, and a National Disaster Reserve for a number of years. During this time I've had my bags packed with three weeks of clothing and meds, so I can deploy in minutes when I received a call. Did I mention all National Disaster Reserves are receiving pink-slips ?

Isn't this an outstanding way to reward very experienced staff ?

I can no longer support, much less endorse, the American Red Cross. No longer can I ask, beg, people to open their wallets and hearts to those in need. I'm truly sorry for the Clients we serve, but our upper management in Washington DC is eliminating experience, and rewarding the Client with less qualified staff.

Terry L. Brooks
Evansville, IN

Posted by Ruth Mays  |   November 06, 2014 at 07:12 PM

I started with the Red Cross as a volunteer in the 5th grade, and then continued as a volunteer Health and Safety instructor. Twenty years later, I became a paid staff member, working with databases, Health & Safety instructors, and Blood Volunteers. I saw the planes hit the twin towers one morning as I came in to work. The next weeks were absolutely insane with work. No matter what positions we officially held, we all answered the phones, worked to organize volunteers, and spoke with people who came in to the office to ask how they could help. The next big effort was a large local flood. Because more help was needed, the National Office sent 81volunteers and staff people to organize the effort. Most of these people were wonderful; a few were more interested in talking among themselves than helping people who showed up at the office in need of help. Turns out, we were being used as some kind of test case. After that, Katrina happened; we again ramped up our efforts to get volunteers to Louisiana so they could get to work.
Our chapter was a very active chapter, visible in the community, always ready to help with disasters large and small. Funding was tight. In addition to donations, we had a very active Health & Safety department. We offered classes to the community, with both paid and volunteer instructors. We supported hundreds of authorized providers who taught thousands of people in their classes. We even taught dog and cat first aid. All of these classes brought in money. We even organized a 10 day aquatics and first aid school every year, to train lifeguards, swimming instructors, and first responders.
Then things changed. Decisions were made in Washington to take over all of Health & Safety. They doubled the price of classes to the public because they could. Higher prices would impress people, make them realize the value of the courses they were taking. We used to produce the certification cards within 10 days. They decided that it would be cheaper to outsource all back-office positions. This meant we lost our unpaid volunteer book-keeper. This meant some telemarketing outfit was now to produce the cards. Sometimes this took months, sometimes the people never did get their certs, sometimes authorized providers were billed three or more times, and told that if they did not pay all of those bills, they would not get their cards. Now they don't even make cards, people have to print out their own certificate on a piece of paper, not wallet sized. Most of the authorized providers dropped their Red Cross courses, moving to American Heart. American Heart opened many branch offices to serve their new clients. Now very few people take Red Cross courses In this area because they are so expensive. I can't believe that this was a good move, financially or otherwise.
The final blow was that our chapter was merged with another one. People in this county almost never saw a trace of the Red Cross unless they stumbled over a blood drive. I just heard that yet another chapter will be merged with us. Yes, this saves money, but if people do not see an organization, they will not support it. Out of sight, out of mind.
We used to have a Thanksgiving dinner for all of our volunteers. A former staff member and her family cooked all of the food, which was then served by the board members. Our volunteers really knew that they were valued. No more- now there is a dinner a long way away in some hall, where nobody knows who they are. Our older volunteers just don't want to drive that far to eat a meal of institutional chicken.
The organization has completely lost the personal touch that was so important. If this does not change, Red Cross will only be a memory.

Posted by Paul Roberts  |   November 09, 2014 at 11:51 AM

I was a volunteer for the Red Cross for over 5 (five) years. I received the Paula Harbor and the Volunteer of the Year awards. I was up for promotion to manager in the area that I did most of the volunteering in. But some how all the paper work seemed to have disappeared. I completely set up the local chapter's EOC to include the computers in it. (The computers were completely wiped. They didn't even have an operating system on them. I got the company that put out the computers to donate an operating system for the computers.) I got the computers (12 in all) to communicate with each other and the printers that were used at the chapter. I kept the computers up and running for several years. The EOC was used as a base of operations for several disasters in the area. Then they tell me that I could no longer have anything to do with the computers. Then they wonder why I quit.

Posted by Laura I. Shaw-Van Zandt (retired teacher, scout leader, camp director and naturalist)  |   November 13, 2014 at 05:01 AM

My mother taught swimming through the red cross after having had polio as a teen from swimming in lakes and ponds near her farm near Gowanda, N.Y..
She and her cousins who got polio from swimming areas were part of Joseph P. Saulk's research and that research helped to later cure polio. As she relearned to move her right leg* that polio got*) she would walk in therapy pools and later learned to swim all over again. She wanted to be a physical therapist, but she couldn't be on her feet all day. (the world before the Fair treatment of the disabled acts) So... She Taught swimming the the red cross. She taught first aid to adults, to girl scouts, to me her daughter. I became a G.S. Leader three times and(thought I had no boys), I was a volunteer and a scout leader as she was. I have taught first aid to adults and children,taken advanced first aid, and became an EMT to lead or cook Sierra Club service trips. I give blood. My husband and sons give blood. We supprt the red cross because they have trained us to take care of ourselvees and our communities. Be a volunteer. Its the best and least you can do for your community.

Posted by Jada Meyer  |   March 21, 2015 at 03:05 PM

I am a former Red Cross Volunteer and Employee. I love the article above and it has very well stated the issues. One issue that bears more focus is the fact that the "ARC" has recently engaged in the hiring of senior leadership staff who do not seem to understand or endorse the mission with their management philosophy or style. Appearances and donor dollars are the most important thing but what they seem to miss is that as a humanitarian org, their staff deserves humane, dignified and respectful treatment as well. Screaming, cursing, corporate cut throat behavior is not how they will retain the best skills... Especially when working for the Red Cross means, less money, more work, fewer resources... The reward is amazing because it is such a noble cause... They would be well served to do what they can to make it a great working environment. The employees and volunteers then become "feet on the street" to increase awareness and donations. As it stands, too many of my family and friends have heard my experiences... Do you think they will think well of the ARC? Probably not... I personally (as do other employees) feels a little isolated because I don't want to speak ill of such a noble cause, I don't want to damage perceptions...at the end of the day talking to them directly only gets retaliation, head nodding and not much else. I pray for the ARC to get its butt in gear, their clients will be the ones to suffer if they don't.

Posted by James Abruzzo  |   June 06, 2015 at 08:07 AM

There are similarities between the financial institutions that are too big to fail and the Red Cross. After almost two decades of scandals, weak or unethical leadership, bad press and activities harmful to human life (its infamous blood bank scandals) the Red Cross remains one of the largest charities in the United States.

Remarkably, the way the “brand” of JP Morgan or B of A seems to keep the institutions and their stock prices growing, so too does the brand of Red Cross continue to maintain its credibility among the general public. And when a national disaster hits, the Red Cross (actually its volunteers, not its administration or board) further burnish the brand. But what can be done about an organization that proves time and again that it has more regard for its senior employees and board then the public it serves? The agencies that can do something the AG and IRS can use mostly the cudgel of penalty or sanction. And the prominence of the board members of the Red Cross, and its government affiliation, make singling out an individual impractical. The three rating agencies are impotent in these situations. So what can be done? I offer two suggestions: First, just as corporations proven to or admitting to breaking the law are subject to federal intervention and even on the ground oversight, so too should the government intervene directly with Red Cross operations and install monitors; and more importantly. Much of the Red Cross’s problems can be traced to an unethical culture. Management and board training to change the culture of the organization is the only way that long-term change can be affected.

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