Chair, Board of Governors
American Red Cross
How technology, enhanced governance and engaging businesses and youth are paramount to the evolution and reach of a century old brand
By Stewart McLaurin
Appointed by President George W. Bush and currently serving her third term, Ambassador Bonnie McElveen-Hunter chairs the Board of Governors of The American Red Cross, the nation’s largest humanitarian organization. Every day, the Red Cross provides life-impacting services locally, across the nation, and around the globe. As a successful business owner and CEO of Pace Communications, a diplomat, philanthropist, and woman committed to her faith and family, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter is a visionary and inspirational leader. In this interview she spells out the challenges and opportunities for the future of the American Red Cross.
CSQ: What are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing the Red Cross mission and service delivery today?
BMH: With a mission focused on preventing and alleviating human suffering in the face of emergencies, we have great opportunities, but there are a few challenges. Many are the same as those facing most non-profits and many businesses today: a stagnant economy, rising costs, and donor fatigue. Ensuring the Red Cross is on sound financial footing and will be here for the long haul is always a challenge. But we are on track. Over the past several years we have closed a significant operating deficit (from a $209 million deficit in FY08 to a modest surplus FY10; FY11 is projected to break even). We are making other changes to ensure financial stability . . . New IT systems will improve our biomedical business by ensuring state-of-the-art technology to interface with our customers in a modern and efficient way. New media and social networking present an exciting opportunity. We were able to raise $32 million via text for Haiti earthquake relief . . . $10 at a time. This is an incredible opportunity to reach youth and engage people never before involved with the Red Cross.
CSQ: Volunteerism has historically been the heart of the Red Cross. How does the Red Cross recruit, train, and maintain the volunteers needed to achieve its mission?
BMH: Volunteers from all walks of life are central to fulfilling our mission. Volunteers serve veterans, active duty military, and their families; work at blood drives; respond to large and small disasters; and provide international tracing services. The Red Cross is committed to involving skilled and qualified volunteers who are passionate about the services they provide. We offer meaningful volunteer opportunities and provide clear, responsive volunteer support systems and supervision. We employ a broad range of recruitment strategies including online via www.redcross.org, the Red Cross Youth Facebook page, the Youth Wire Blog, presentations to community groups, newspapers, word of mouth, corporate volunteer programs such as Ready When the Time Comes (sponsored by W. W. Grainger and Sam’s Club), Volunteer Match (which uses the Internet to recruit volunteers), professional associations, Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service, college and high school clubs, and partnerships with service- and faith-based organizations.
CSQ: How does an organization steeped in tradition and history and founded by Clara Barton stay relevant and a first mover, and often the first responder today?
BMH: The Red Cross is not static. While we have stayed true to the original purpose of the early days, we are constantly evolving. We are a non-profit leader in social media and we’ve embraced blogging, tweeting, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and many other forms of social media to engage with people and provide information. Our Twitter followers of @redcross increased 154% this past year and we have 338,000 connected to us on Facebook, an increase of 67% in a year. And we’re embracing all kinds of technology to deliver our mission. For example, we recently developed a mobile app that guides you through an emergency situation. This “SOS” app was developed jointly with Google, Sharecare, and Dr. Oz, and today is available for Droid mobile phones globally. It soon will be available on all smartphones.
CSQ: As chair of the Board, you have led a transformative restructuring of governance as well as national headquarters operations and chapter communication and accountability. What successes from this business would you share with governance chairs or executives in the private sector?
BMH: In 2006, the Board of Governors took decisive action to modernize and strengthen the governance structure of the Red Cross . . . this had not been addressed since 1947. And in 2007, the changes that affected our Congressional Charter were enacted into law and signed by President Bush. The role of the Board changed from being focused on management and operations to governance and strategic oversight of the lines of business, financial stability, fundraising, and compliance. The Board’s committee structure was streamlined to focus on corporate governance areas. The roles of the chairman of the Board and the President and CEO were clearly delineated. An Ombudsman for the organization was introduced and a Chief Audit Executive was hired to report to the Board Audit Committee.
In 2008, we changed the governance structure of the chapters across the country. Where chapters had previously been expected to be self-sustaining in terms of raising revenue, delivering services in their communities, and providing all of the support functions required to run an office, there is now consolidation, collaboration, and partnership. This eliminates redundancies, saves money, and improves our ability to deliver the mission. Chapter Board members are now partners with the chapter CEO, serving as the local face of the Red Cross in the community to raise money and visibility. You can see that happening in Los Angeles and Ventura County today.
CSQ: How do you deal with keeping public attention focused on one disaster as time passes and help is still needed? In other words, how do you keep the public engaged in an enduring problem when a new crisis grabs all the headlines?
BMH: Because the Red Cross is part of the fabric of the community, we never leave after a disaster. When the national media moves on, trained volunteers and relief workers—often locally based--stay behind to ensure the disaster-caused needs are met. And communicators from the Red Cross chapter network remain behind to make sure citizens know where to get shelter, a hot meal, or clean-up supplies. They also make sure the public knows how to support the work of the Red Cross. This system is at work whenever disaster strikes, making sure that those who need our help receive it.
CSQ: The Red Cross is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. How do you see the role of this brand evolving over the next decade? The next century?
BMH: Being a humanitarian isn’t something that’s reserved for some folks–it’s for everyone today. That’s a shift. You can show your humanitarian spirit by giving and by doing. You can give money, time, or blood, or you can advocate for people who need help. People take pride in showing how generous they can be–generous in spirit and generous with their resources.
The Red Cross values of humanity, voluntary spirit, independence, neutrality, and impartiality, to name a few, will not change. They shouldn’t. But the manner in which they are lived out, will. And that’s going to be revolutionary for the brand, moving it forward from a well-known, charitable institution to a progressive, modern, inspired brand that continues to represent the best in all of us.
We saw the start of this remarkably with our Haiti response and the outpouring of support through our text donation program. People wanted to help and gave differently. Also in Haiti, by delivering important public health information via text to displaced people in temporary housing, we responded to need in an efficient and relevant way.
CSQ: American C-Suite executives are busy people. How can they still be valuable to the work of the American Red Cross?
BMH: The Annual Disaster Giving Program is an excellent way for corporations to make a difference. This program provides premiere recognition for companies that make high-value, non-episodic gifts to disaster relief. The Ready Rating Program is a free, self-paced, Web-based membership program that helps a business or school measure how ready they are to deal with emergencies and gives customized feedback on how they can improve their efforts. We’d welcome C-Suite executives to serve on our local boards in their communities. Their real-world business experience would be a tremendous asset in partnership with our hardworking chapter executives. An emergency can happen at any time to anyone and we encourage everyone, even C-Suite executives, to be prepared, have a plan, and be informed.