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July 30, 2008

Revitalizing the Red Cross

Gail McGovern '87
President and CEO, The American Red Cross
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When I think of the challenges that the Red Cross is facing, they are not dissimilar to what I’ve seen at for-profit organizations: becoming more cost-conscious; streamlining our business practices; thinking of creative ways to revitalize this brand so that it’s a 21st-century brand.

All of these things are surmountable.

There are certain practices that take place in the for-profit world that can benefit us in this sense. For example, strict accountability, transparency and financial purity are the kinds of things that, like it or not, Sarbanes Oxley has taught us. I think a lot of this can be applied to the nonprofit world.

Having said that, for the most part people work here because they believe in a noble cause and want to do good works. As we borrow some of these techniques in the for-profit world, we have to be very mindful of making sure that we don’t turn antiseptic and lose our soul and our heart.

We do amazing things every single day. We’re filled with heroes here, and it’s so easy to feel inspired. In my former life I definitely worked for companies with higher purposes, but at the end of the day you’re counting widgets, you’re counting dollars. Here, we’re counting lives impacted — it’s extraordinarily inspiring.

The conversations at the Red Cross are so different than the conversations that go on in the corporate world. Here, we ask: How do we galvanize people from 42 states to get into Iowa and help people clean up after the flood? How do we get enough emergency response vehicles to drive around with hot meals to keep these people fed? How many people can we shelter in high schools and dormitories?

So when I say we have to revitalize the brand, I don’t mean redo or replace. We don’t want to change what the brand stands for, since it’s such an international treasure. You see that red cross and think: help is on the way. I don’t want to change that. I just want to turn it into something hip and exciting. Part of that involves becoming more consumer-focused. Here, it’s all about putting our brand in front of people so that they donate time, money and blood.

UNICEF is a good example of brand revitalization. And I think when you have a beautiful legacy, it shouldn’t be that hard. Our favorability and affection rating is highest among 18 to 34 year-olds, so we just have to tap into that and make it so that the Red Cross becomes part of the fabric of the way they become philanthropic. That generation is so in tune with community service. They want to change the world, and we just have to let them change it with us.

Gail McGovern ’87 was named President and CEO of the American Red Cross on April 8, 2008. In both 2000 and 2001, Fortune magazine recognized her as one of the 50 most powerful women in business. She is a graduate of the Executive MBA Program at Columbia Business School.