The American Red Cross, We Can and Should Do Better : An Insiders Perspective

I recently came across the 2018 article on the website entitled, The Untold Truth of the American Red Cross. I can attest to the truth of much in her article.  I was an active volunteer in the Red Cross from 2004 to the present.

The Red Cross does a lot of good. The Disaster Action Team (DAT) is a faithful and welcomed partner at most local incidents such as house fires.  They have given comfort to several in the midst of despair.  The Blood program has its issues, yet it remains a premier partner in blood collection and distribution.  The American Red Cross, in major disasters, has all of the tools it needs to provide an excellent response.  They have a command post in their national headquarters, Washington DC, that rivals the command posts on active duty Air Force installations. Finally, they have a warehouse in suburban Atlanta, Georgia which stores their computer technology, Internet, and communication equipment.  This warehouse is more than impressive.

Given all of this one has to wonder why the American Red Cross has such an unfavorable reputation and losing supporters.  They are also experiencing the exodus of several long-term volunteers. This author recently had dinner with an Executive of the Red Cross Massachusetts Region. She was sharing they were getting volunteers, but they clearly are not representative of their client population.  In addition, they are at a loss as to how to become more representative.

This has been a long-term problem for the American Red Cross.  They are getting volunteers but not enough volunteers representative of the client population in most locations.

In defense of the American Red Cross, they are about 90% volunteer staffed.  They could not do what they do without their volunteers.  Serving with the American Red Cross means committing to extensive training and demands that most cannot do. How many can leave their jobs and families on 24hr notice, travel to blighted areas, shelter in sometimes very inhospitable arrangements, and remain there for at least two weeks?  Most volunteers are to be commended.  However, volunteers also pose a great weakness for the Red Cross.  They have to take what they get.

The typical volunteer can be profiled.  They are typically retired people who are seeking to do something meaningful in their retirement.  They are typically financially secure and can afford this absence from their employment.  Finally, they are overwhelmingly white.  This profile is what causes the greatest weakness for the American Red Cross.

Historically, The American Red Cross has been plagued with racial problems.  There are countless references to such on the Internet.  The US Congress has investigated the American Red Cross as a result of their Katrina insensitivities.

There were problems present in New Orleans during the Katrina response.  The bias and discriminatory treatment were widely condemned.  Reports were the African American population was receiving less support than others.  Most disturbing, reportedly there were both public and private disparages made about the clients by Red Cross personnel.

The American Red Cross knew they had a problem after Katrina.  Shortly after the Katrina response they recruited a group of volunteers and sent them to Houston Texas where they were to form a nucleus to discuss racial diversity.  A year later they were sent to Washington DC where they would form the beginning of what the Red Cross now calls the Community Partnership.  Unfortunately, this Community Partnership has morphed away from its original purpose and is now not focused on building goodwill in the communities on the grassroots level.

Several Katrina survivors were received in Philadelphia under the invitation of then-Mayor John Steet.  Many of these survivors arrived with only the clothes on their backs.  They were largely African American.  The Red Cross volunteers were largely from the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia.  There were several complaints about by the way these survivors were being treated by the Red Cross volunteers.  In many cases, survivors were flatly denied any casework assistance from The Red Cross because they could not produce the proper identification.  They, many, were rescued from the roofs of their flooded homes, flown to Philadelphia, and then subjected to exclusionary conduct by the Red Cross.

Conversely, survivors of Hurricane Sandy were brought to Cheltenham Pennsylvania, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia.  These survivors were largely from the New Jersey shore and largely white.  These survivors were more than accommodated with all that they asked.

In Hammond County, Louisiana, during Hurricane Issac, a Supervisor for the Disaster Mental Services had a volunteer who refused their directions. The worker told the Supervisor she did not feel obliged to respond to directions from an African American (her language was reportedly a bit more colorful).  This incident went unaddressed.

There was a response in Philadelphia when the Goodwill building collapsed.  A woman from Liberia was killed in this accident.  A group of Disaster Mental Health workers went to the family home in West Philadelphia to see what assistance could be provided.  Reportedly, the white volunteers asked inappropriate questions and made inappropriate statements about the family structure and immigration.   This incident was reported to the Executive Director of the Southeast Pennsylvania Region.  Eventually, this matter was sent to the Office of the Ombudsman in Washington DC.

The reports are that during The President Obama era the racism was largely contained and not as frequent.  However, the tone of the nation would change with a new President in office after the 2016 elections.  This new tone had a direct effect on the American Red Cross.

During the Hurricane Lane response, in Hawaii, again reportedly the tone of the Red Cross volunteers was disgusting.  There were several incidents of conflict including reports of physical threats.

During Imelda, southeast Texas, the tone was also very hostile.  Red Cross volunteers were refusing to share a room with minority volunteers.  A minority volunteer was left, by her white co-workers, on the side of a highway and had to find her way from the hotel to her worksite, which was a substantial distance.  An African American caseworker was called a racial slur by a client in front of the caseworker’s supervisor.  Nothing was done!  Several racial incidents occurred at Client Service Centers which went unaddressed.  Even the hotel staff complained about the inappropriate behavior and conversations in the hotel lobby.  Again, this went unaddressed.

There were problems in Puerto Rico, during the recent earthquake response, as well. Red Cross Supervisors from the mainland clashed with management personnel from the island.  White supervisors were disregarding the island chain of command and frustrating volunteers from working.  White volunteers were demanding not to share a hotel room with minorities.  Frivolous reports were made about the minority volunteers.  This is especially remarkable as there were only four African American volunteers on the entire deployment.

This lack of appreciation for diversity is not new.  In 2007, the US Congress amended the Congressional charter of the American Red Cross and directed it to be inclusive and diverse. Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) implored the Red Cross to establish a Chief Diversity Officer and a National Diversity Council. This change in structure has not made a significant difference. Shortly thereafter the Red Cross issued a “Be Cool, Follow the Rules” poster that created a national uproar.  This led Representative Thompson to conclude, “this nation’s largest charity organization remains oblivious to cultural sensitivities and how these issues have had and will have a direct impact on its mission.

One of the personnel tools the American Red Cross employs is the Staff Advocate.  The Staff Advocate is reportedly to help distressed volunteers to have successful deployments.  The Staff Advocate functions very much like a Human Resource representative including the split loyalties.  The reality is as a volunteer themselves the greater loyalty is to the American Red Cross.  The distressed volunteer is frequently left to themselves in difficult situations.  The result is the distressed volunteer returns home early at the expense of their tenure as a volunteer.

During what the Red Cross “Steady State,” where there are no major contingencies, the experience is not much better.  There is still a dearth in upper leadership.  Minorities experience slow promotions and often have to struggle to receive those in many chapters.  Recently a Red Cross employee posted on the Internet, “My experience with the Red Cross was the worst.  Very racist environment. I had to laugh to keep from crying. I hope the Red Cross starts implementing classes for Diversity, it is much needed.”  All of this is very sad when one considers the role the Red Cross has to fill. It is puzzling in fact.  Why would someone leave the comfort of their home to do humanitarian work only to bring their sordid attitudes with them?

The Red Cross does have a few classes that must be completed annually.  Volunteers must take a Business Ethics class and a Code of Conduct refresher.  In addition, they are expected to know and practice the Red Cross policy on social media.  The volunteer is also given the Code of Conduct Handbook.which includes the Red Cross Vision on Diversity.  This vision provides;

The American Red Cross aspires to be an organization fully committed to diversity and inclusion by creating and maintaining a diverse, high-performing workforce of employees and volunteers who reflect all communities we serve; by cultivating a collaborative, inclusive and respectful work environment that empowers all contributors; and by leveraging diverse partnerships – all of which helps to ensure culturally competent service delivery supported by effective community leadership and engagement.

Despite this grand vision statement, there are no classes required annually that offer training in diversity or cultural awareness.  Nor is there any annual requirement that one review the Diversity statement.  In short, there are no organizational requirements that one even be aware of the Diversity Statement. The statement becomes form over substance. One has to wonder how does this remains the case? What has been the result of adding a Chief Diversity Officer?  According to social media, there has been a Chief Diversity Officer at the American Red Cross for the past or 11 years and 8 months.  That Vision Statement is nowhere on the horizon.

We know Vision Statements are aspirational in nature.  This is what they hope to reach as implausible as it may appear.  However, their Mission Statement is operational in nature meaning this is how they will conduct their operations.  The Diversity Mission Statement provides;

The American Red Cross will consistently deliver its products, goods, and services in a culturally competent manner.

The term “culturally competent” is the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures. The fact that all these problems continue to exist at the American Red Cross evidence there is a real problem at the American Red Cross.  These problems frustrate the ability of the Red Cross to achieve their humanitarian purpose and they know this.

There are some steps the American Red Cross can take to correct their sordid position with Diversity.  First, they should require that every employee and volunteer review the Diversity statements on an annual basis.  There should be training on cultural awareness and sensitivity with scored examinations and mandatory scores for passing.  In addition, there should be in residence courses for all supervisory personnel.

The current model of a Staff Advocate should be abandoned.  The Staff Advocate should not be a volunteer subject to evaluations from the same actors that lack cultural competence.  The Advocate should be modeled along the lines of an Inspector General where they enjoy functional autonomy.  The Staff Advocate should be competent in the use of such tools as mediation or negotiation for the resolution of conflict.  Finally, the Staff Advocate should be well versed in the Diversity mission of the Red Cross and able to utilize personal skills to advance the cultural mission.

There should be a functional National Diversity Council with the powers necessary to investigate any allegations of cultural incompetence.  They should have the power to compel staff and volunteers to appear before them and to cooperate in any investigation of cultural incompetence.  This council should also review all corporate policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the Diversity mission of the Red Cross.  Lastly, this council should have the power to recommend personnel actions against culturally incompetent staff and/or volunteers.

The American Red Cross has impressive technology and professional expertise.  Their impediment towards remaining a giant in disaster relief services is their lack of cultural competence and often blatant racism.  Until they successfully address these issues they risk becoming rendered insignificant.  Disaster relief organizations like Team Rubicon, the Salvation Army Disaster Relief, and Red, White, and Blue are fast approaching the prominence of the American Red Cross. In addition, groups like the Southern Baptist and other faith-based organizations are nipping at the heel of the American Red Cross.  It will not be long before The American Red Cross becomes yesterday’s news.