This isn’t my Red Cross

The National Red Cross announced last month another restructuring effort taking place across the country.  It seems every few years the Red Cross attempts to streamline their operations through a similar effort.  What is missing with every restructuring activity is a local perspective, which I think hurts them greatly.  Consider that the Red Cross’ service delivery is mostly local.  Their volunteer base is local.  Their fundraising requests are local.  Yet with each reorganization they draw back further and further from those local roots.

I heard a rather compelling example just this past week of how the Red Cross’ organization has changed in the state of Vermont.  From what I was told, Vermont used to be covered by three chapters.  Reorganization several years ago consolidated those three chapters to one.  This current reorganization effort is now consolidating the Red Cross into one chapter which has responsibility for both Vermont and New Hampshire!  Additionally, they have sold their mobile canteens and have contracted to a restaurant food provider to handle emergency food services.  While this contract does provide for a more sustainable and large scale operation, all these efforts continue to draw the Red Cross out of the community.

I first heard of this most recent reorganization through the blog Disaster Gestalt, written by Joseph Martin who has a long history serving as a Red Cross volunteer.  I shared some of my insights in his blog as I reacted initially to the news he brought me.  Upon hearing more and more about this reorganization and its impacts across the country, I’m really left wondering what happened to my Red Cross.

My involvement with the Red Cross started in high school where our government class required some measure of civic service.  My best friend had gotten some info on the Red Cross and they took us in as volunteer Health and Safety Instructors.  They trained us to teach courses in First Aid and CPR to the community.  We both took to it quickly, finding quite a passion for teaching.  In many ways it began both our careers as instructors and in emergency services.  With this passion, we continued volunteering for our local chapter well beyond our high school requirement.

The staff at the chapter was wonderful and not only helped us grow, but encouraged us to further our involvement.  While we continued to do mostly volunteer work, we also became paid instructors, helping the chapter serve corporate clients and eventually instructor trainers conducting train-the-trainer courses.  I attended community college locally after high school so was able to continue my work for the chapter while also working nearly full time, taking classes full time, and receiving my initial training as a firefighter, EMT, and diver.  I honestly have no idea where that energy came from!

When I left the area to complete my bachelor’s degree and subsequently moved around a bit, I continued teaching for Red Cross chapters around the northeast.  My experience with each of those chapters was very similar to that of my home chapter.  They were all welcoming and thrilled to have help.  Eventually, once I settled into my career I became a board member.  Despite the three hour round trip drive, I served on the board of my home town, where my Red Cross service started.  It was a rewarding experience.  My work and family obligations eventually pulled me away, but I continued to donate and always had a place in my heart for the Red Cross.

In the years since my board service there have been several reorganizations nationally.  Each of these reorganizations worked to centralize chapter activities to regional offices, resulting in layoffs at the chapter level.  While I understand that consolidation can be a cost savings, it decreases the local reach of the chapter.  Additionally, the responsibilities of the chapter executive continued to decrease.  With true management and direction coming from regional offices, there is little left to manage at the chapter level.  Job postings for chapter executives seem to stress fund development more than anything else.  The footprints of chapters continue to expand as chapter consolidations occur.  No longer are chapters community-based as their territories cover many jurisdictions.  It’s all rather impersonal.

In researching this article I was not able to find anything that discussed the national picture of this reorganization.  I found quite a number of stories from local media talking about the impacts of the reorganization on their local chapters, though.  Nearly every article mentioned expanded territory and staff layoffs.  Many also, interestingly enough, mentioned new chapter executives coming on board.  I reached out to the Red Cross to find out more about their current reorganization effort and sent an email through their Public Inquiry function on their website.  I did receive a response back within a few hours.  What they wrote back provided some high level goals but little data on the impacts of the reorganization, which I did request.  Here are some snippets:

The American Red Cross is transforming its operations to meet the growing demand for our services while making the best use of donor dollars.


  • In the past few years, the demand for our services has grown. To meet this demand, we continue to look for ways to touch more lives while keeping our costs low.


  • We have outlined a three year plan to lower the cost of operations by finding more efficient ways to do our work and expanding volunteers in every community.


  • Our goal is to help more people at less cost. We will be even better stewards of our donor dollars because we are an even more cost-conscious organization.

 Guided by recommendations from representatives of local paid and volunteer leadership, we are consolidating Red Cross chapters and putting these savings into serving more people in need.


  • With a consolidated regional structure, we can provide more robust and consistent services across a wider geography. These consolidations enable us to shift donor dollars from costs associated with delivering service to the actual services themselves, enabling us to serve more clients with more direct assistance.


  • We aim to increase both the number of clients served and the resources made available to them – not through the addition of more paid staff – but by adding more volunteer leaders and involving them in more ways.


  • Volunteers have always been and continue to be the backbone of the Red Cross. Their importance will increase as we look to deliver services in more communities across the country. We want to make Red Cross the best place in America to work and volunteer.

 The public can continue to count on the Red Cross to be there to serve the needs of their communities.

 Our goal is to:

  • Increase the number of home fires we respond to. Home fires impact more people across the county each year than all other natural disasters combined.
  • Increase by 10 percent the financial support we give to individual disaster clients. The average amount we give to families affected by home fires has not changed in 10 years.
  • Develop a local structure that allows us to deliver services more efficiently and be in even more local communities. Currently, Red Cross is present in more than 2,000 U.S. communities and military facilities worldwide.

I am still left with many questions about their implementation.  It doesn’t seem to make much sense to expect higher donations and increased service delivery when their physical presence in communities has decreased.  They want to do more with less by increasing chapter territories but decreasing staff.  They say they can fill the gap cost effectively through volunteers.  While the Red Cross has a long history of service delivery through volunteers, the foundation of that is staff who manages and coordinates the activities of volunteers.  While volunteer leaders can certainly help meet needs, paid staff are still the ones ultimately accountable.  Volunteers also like to have connections to paid staff and with the decrease in paid staff and the larger territories it feels more and more impersonal.  Given the operations of the Red Cross, while volunteers are important and certainly critical to the success of the organization, the important role of paid staff and a physical presence in the communities they serve is extremely important.

I’m sure that many folks at national headquarters work very hard on trying to determine how to maximize their funding and the services they provide.  Nearly every organization, be it non-profit, for profit, or government, strives to strike the right balance.  In my opinion, however, this continued trend of regionalization will only continue to hurt the Red Cross.  Their community presence decreases more and more.  When community members don’t see and feel that presence they are less compelled to donate much less volunteer.

To be clear, I still support the mission of the Red Cross.  I am very much a proponent of the Red Cross and the services they provide.  They provide important services to communities and are a critical partner in preparedness and emergency management.  While there is always room for improvement, however, their serial reorganization efforts through the last 15 years or so have achieved a level that is sadly comical.  There must be a better way.  The organization has become so impersonal I no longer feel that they are my Red Cross.

I’m very interested in the opinions of others on this matter.  Do you feel the Red Cross is improving through these reorganization efforts?  If so, how?  Do you feel more or less compelled to donate or volunteer?  Am I missing something?

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker

7 thoughts on “This isn’t my Red Cross

  1. I have to agree with you. I started out as a volunteer with ARC then moved into a paid position in emergency response. It seemed like every year a new director moved in and a new “restructuring” would take place. They tried several version of territorial offices to take some of the financial and manpower away from National headquarters and they said “to make local responses more effective.” That didn’t work AT ALL. The first big disaster and National jumped in because the local chapter was part of the disaster and they needed help but much of the paid staff had been let go and many volunteers left mad because of the paid staff being let go. They also took away some responsibilities from local volunteers and gave those jobs to the regional people which made the locals mad. I saw many local chapters close leaving communities without those all important DAT teams for those house fires they say they want to respond to. I no longer work or volunteer with the Red Cross and I miss it but they seem very disjointed and unorganized to me and until they figure things out I’m staying away.

  2. Tim, I have to say it is refreshing to see this recent reorganization outlined so plainly. I am not hearing criticism as much as I am hearing your questions and I hope that the National office responds to this.

    Recently I was asked to join the board by my regions new director. When the reorganization came about, after almost 35 years with the Red Cross he decided to step aside and let them do the reorganization without him. If this reorganization was just the first or the second over many years it might be understandable, but as you put it the “serial reorganization” is troubling to say the least. I decided to stay with the board through my commitment if only to see where this would all lead and because I am a person that honors my word. The job of our board however is simply to raise money for the local organization and I have no idea at this point how we can go about that when things are in a constant state of flux. More than 80% of fundraising is because of the relationships that you build with people. The Red Cross might be serving more people but they are losing their relationships and thus funding and volunteers etc. When I questioned this I was told they were following the latest model of service. Our executive director has been told that 80% of the job will now be finding volunteers, not funds and I’m very curious to see how this works. The Red Cross has been good to many of us, in fact to all of us, for over 130 years, let’s hope and pray that this continues.

    1. Hi Michelle. Thanks for the feedback and your experiences with the Red Cross. While a big part of board membership is fund development, local governance has always been their primary purpose. That model, though, seems less necessary as the organization has been consolidating power and using the local chapters to take on the work (volunteer recruitment and fund development) at the very point of the stick. Perhaps it’s under the intentions of quality control, cost minimization, or task consolidation, but no matter how you cut it, these reorganiations keep pulling the local chapters out of the communities.

      Perhaps it’s time for a CEO that examines this from a community level instead of a top down model?

      1. Tim, The Grand Rapids branch went to a development only (no local governance) as their board model about three years ago. It would be very interesting if the community level and top leaders got together on this. I think they would come up with a very different result.

  3. they closed the local food pantry in my town, not that it is not needed,it was just considered not an emergency, they are cutting staff and closing the branch in our town, they also have stopped responding to smaller fires

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