The Red Cross’s Real Problem (It’s Not What You Think)

This week’s Stop Sign on the Road to Changing the World comes to us first from the Red Cross, but then also from your own organization. Let’s start with the Red Cross.

In 2001, the Red Cross made headlines the old fashioned way – through scandal. During the height of what could have been the shining moment for a disaster-relief organization – the disaster of 9/11 – their CEO was forced to resign.

Then, post-Katrina, in what could have been the “come-back shining moment” for a disaster-relief organization that had a bit of coming back to do, the Red Cross once again made headlines for messing up.

Now, in what seems mild by comparison, their CEO is resigning in scandal over an “inappropriate relationship” with a coworker.

I wrote about the Red Cross in 2001 – assembled a case study white paper on what I saw to be the real story, the story behind the story. The focus of what I wrote wasn’t bad PR or chain of command or donor intent, as all the other news stories were emphasizing at the time. Those are merely the symptoms we saw on the outside.

The focus of what I wrote was at the very core of the Red Cross’s being – a lack of vision for what they were there to accomplish, a lack of values anchoring their work. And from that, a lack of understanding of how to incorporate the results-focus of vision and values into the heart of everything they do. Because vision and values are all about end results.

Without that core guiding their work, I wrote in 2001, they would continue to flounder. And if they kept focusing on treating the symptoms – a change in governance, a change in policy about this or that – they would continue to flounder.

And so, they floundered.

They floundered despite the fact that their then-board-president agreed with much that I had written (he sent me a personal letter to tell me so). Oh, to dream of what could have been…

But now, here we are. It is 5 years later, 2 more wildly public scandals later, $10million in FDA fines later, and 5 CEOs later (2 real ones, 3 interims). And so, I spent last week taking a second look at that white paper.

In updating that case study, I found the following – a post I had written at Charity Channel, in September of 2005, immediately after Katrina.

“The job of a disaster relief organization is to think of the unthinkable, and to be ready when it happens. And don’t tell me, “Well they can’t think of everything…” because if Hollywood directors can dream it, so can the boards of disaster relief organizations. Or do we need to encourage them all to go to the Ridley Scott school of board training? Just put them in front of a week’s worth of disaster movies and perhaps that will get their planning juices flowing…

“But if the boards of the disaster relief organizations with which I am familiar are any indication, that is the furthest thing from their minds. They are thinking just like any other organization – how will we survive the current round of budget cuts, how can we get our board more engaged, and etc. Walk into the board room of your local Red Cross, and I defy you to judge from what they are discussing that you are in a different place than the board room of your local food bank or hospital or education trust. Are they talking about mission as the first, foremost and ONLY thing that matters?

“When all you think about is organizational survival, that is the best you will achieve. Instead, however, if all you think about is doing an incredible, over the top, amazing job for making your community an incredible place to live – that is the best you will achieve.

“And if yours is a disaster relief organization that is ill-prepared for disaster – well I have no words I can type in public for what I have been feeling this past few days. Perhaps I can use the word “despair” or “frustration.”

And that brings us to what this has to do with your organization. Because it has plenty to do with your organization, not matter how large or small that organization is.

The focus of the white paper I wrote in 2001, and then updated last week, is that it’s not just the Red Cross this happens to. It happens to any and every organization that has been encouraged to build internal capacity in the hopes that perhaps being strong will mean they can achieve more. (If you’re interested, the Introduction to the White Paper is posted at our site, as is a complete outline of the paper.)

Without FIRST focusing on achieving huge and over-the-top results for the people we serve, and only THEN asking what capacity we will need to accomplish THAT, we are building capacity for the sake of building capacity.

Sans vision and values – the focus on creating visionary results through values-based work – the work you do cannot achieve the kinds of great things your community is counting on. That goes for the Red Cross, and it goes for every tiny, all-volunteer, just-us-and-a-truck organization that serves our communities.

As we consider this Stop Signs to Creating a Better World, the Red Cross’s continued fumbles make it so blatantly obvious: Without a core of vision and values guiding our work, we have no ability to provide any more than marginal results. And further, without that core of vision and values, we will continue to problem-solve about our symptoms, while the white-hot-center of our problems is ignored, left to grow even stronger in its power to mess with our lives.

The results for our communities – based on that vision and those values – are truly all that matter.


A first step in avoiding the Red Cross’s disasters is these 11 Ways to Focus on Vision and Values.

(Are you new to this series – Stop Signs Along the Road to Changing the World? The archives may just open your eyes!)

9 Responses to The Red Cross’s Real Problem (It’s Not What You Think)

  1. If only the problem were that simple. The Red Cross has a pretty good grip on mission vision and values. Their problem is the same one that is in the White House, a bunch of Republicans out for themselves. Look at their board and especially their chairlady. Look at the guy they bounced.

  2. Instead of focusing on the problem,it appears to me that looking at possible solutions would be more productive.The human condition is what it is and their is nothing we can do about it,however we can pay attention and not allow our emotions be our guide. I salute you Hildy for your focus on the importance of looking at the core and values of any given organization. To do that,self interest has to be totally eliminated or the wisdom required to be able and focus on core and values wil not be discovered due to what is motivating any given organization other than the wisdom that is obviously being ignored, though every organization has plenty of. What does this mean? We humans have incredible minds that are capable of being curious and creative and accepting and compassionate. Without complaining. In doing so, we would be more aware of the core and values that exist.

  3. Anonymous:
    I wish we saw evidence of mission, vision and values in the actions of the Red Cross. They may think they have a good grip on those guiding principles, but they sure have not evidenced that they have a clue how to incorporate same into their work. The only thing we can judge is by their results.

    I have also found there is not a lot of upside in blame. Instead, I have found that blame gives away our control to the thing we are blaming. The more we blame whoever happens to be in the White House at the time (or lack of money, or whatever an organization might blame things on), the less control we take to actually do something about the thing we are blaming about in the first place. (Is that sentence convoluted enough?)

  4. Ernesto:
    Your last few sentences just made me smile. We have the potential all the time, to choose whether we will short-sightedly look at our immediate self-interest, vs. acknowledging that our collective self-interest is also our personal self-interest. Thanks for the great reminder!

    To me, it’s not a matter of self-vs-collective interest, but a matter of short-vs-long-term. In the big-picture of the long term, what’s good for all of us is, by definition, good for me as an individual. In that big picture, as an individual, I will get to live in a healthy, vibrant, safe, resilient community. That is absolutely in my self-interest. I just may not get to drive my car as fast as I want to in the short term! HG

  5. Hildy,I think we are both saying the same thing,only different. To be able to see the big picture of the long term is usually the challenge for an organization due to the shortsightedness of those that make the long term decisions.

  6. I am not surprised to hear news of the Red Cross layoffs and recent fumblings. Consider the salary the CEO gets. Alot of medium to large sized nonprofits have forgotten their mission, squandered donations in irrelevant projects, fail to collaborate with other nonprofits, have become and maintain a meaningless vision over time. As a nurse I run a small nonprofit out of my studio apartment in NYC without a paid staff or office space. Everything I do is focused on patient care and education as realistically a cure for the disorder, dystonia, that I serve won’t occur in my lifetime. My Laptop is my best friend.
    Let’s be realistic about science today as well. Many high-end nonprofits tout endlessly the Hope for a Cure about any disease. Hei-I just want to be able to cross the street and ride a bicycle. So, lets get real. Where is that cure for diabetes, cancer , AIDS that has been talked about for the past 20 years ? The diseases are still occuring as do Hurricanes and other disasters. More often than not, some nonprofits are bought out by pharma, biotech companies in order to unsuspiciously sell-promote-market their products.
    With the Red Cross, there has not been enough accountability and investment record keeping regarding given donations.
    Time for nonprofits to change. Time for donors to ASK “Where and How is my money being used ?”. If the nonprofit can’t produce, you just gave to the wrong organization.
    Alter and Avoid the Status Quo. It’s Time.

    Beka ,RN, MS, NP

  7. Thanks, Beka, for such an impassioned plea! I just came across a wonderful Peter Drucker quote – “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” The work we are all doing to make people’s lives better today is one of many steps towards creating a better future tomorrow. So thank you for that reminder!

  8. The American Red Cross treats it volunteers with abuse, and disdain.
    They practice injustice to volunteers in a way that is totally without excuse. Their management is self aggrandizing, and easily steps on everyone lower than their position. They waste more dollars due to politics than can be believed. The response in Atlanta for a tornado could have handle 10 tornados. The response for the latest hurricane could have handled many more. They spend and spend, and then wonder why they are broke. I will never donate another dime to the organization.

  9. Red Cross at it again in Orange County Ca flood 12/10. Meeting behind locked doors with local developer allies and more worried about not being ripped off than quickly helping. How long will they be allowed to do this?