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Help When You Need It The Most

May 29, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend the National Forum on Disaster sponsored by the American Red Cross in Washington, DC. It’s hard to believe, but the Forum marked the fourth anniversary of the arrival of Gail McGovern, the president and CEO of the Red Cross, after a tumultuous period when the Red Cross had several leaders in a short period of time.

Gail has brought a much-needed measure of stability, strategy, efficiency and warmth to an organization that some say had lost its way. The purpose of this Forum was to report back to the Red Cross’s major donors on its successes to date and its challenges for the future.

The day began with a very personal reflection and report from Gail McGovern. As usual, Gail was forthcoming and gracious, but also brutally honest about the organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

While the American Red Cross is involved in a myriad of activities – collecting and distributing blood, teaching life saving and first aid, aiding members of the military and their families, vaccinating children and providing other health services – it is best known for its response immediately after disasters strike.

In 2011, the American Red Cross responded to over 70,000 disasters in the United States, including 141 large-scale relief efforts across 42 states and Puerto Rico. It deployed the following resources following those disasters:

  • 1,019 shelters opened
  • 6.7 million meals served
  • 2.6 million relief items distributed
  • 27,622 workers deployed (over 20,000 of which were volunteers)

Gail, and Suzy DeFrancis, the chief public affairs officer, talked a lot about social media and how it has changed the way the American Red Cross communicates and does business, but also how its “clients” (that’s what it calls its beneficiaries) communicate with the Red Cross. They told stories about people stranded in their homes after disasters -- like tornadoes -- using Twitter to call for help. Gail also told a story of two young girls stuck in a drain pipe who changed their status on Facebook – using their smart phones -- rather than calling 911 (they were rescued).

Accordingly, the Red Cross has learned to be “proactive, reactive and interactive” in its communications. To the Red Cross, social media fans and friends are not an “audience,” they’re clients – in some cases donors, in others those in need of help, in others cases digital volunteers. Some even serve as writers and reporters after disasters. To aid with this important communications work, the Red Cross has opened the country’s first Digital Operations Center for humanitarian purposes.

Other sessions during the day included discussions on:

  • financial information (in an effort to be more efficient and to bring the Red Cross chapters under one fiscal umbrella, over 4,000 separate bank accounts have been consolidated or eliminated),
  • disaster preparedness and risk reduction ($1 spent on preparedness and risk reduction saves $4 in disaster response as well as thousands of lives)
  • the international work of the American Red Cross (in 2011, the American Red Cross provided assistance to more than 5.3 million outside the United States – from Japan to Tunisia)
  • supply chain management (the Red Cross has embarked on a multi-year plan to completely revitalize its supply chain)

We also participated in a disaster response exercise, received a first-hand look at a number of disaster response vehicles, took a tour of the International Response Operations Center, and received training on “Hands Only” CPR, a new technique for helping people who have suddenly collapsed that does not require mouth-to-mouth contact.

Overall, it was an excellent day of information sharing and training. We learned a lot about the strengths of the American Red Cross as well as the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and we also learned how to save a life. What could be more worthwhile than that?

If you have a comment or question about the American Red Cross, please share it here.

P.S. Did you know that the American Red Cross has over 66,000 trained volunteer disaster workers nationwide? If you would like to learn more about volunteering at the American Red Cross, visit


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