After I published my post last week on the American Red Cross (ARC), a few people have asked me what I would do if put in charge of it. Given all of the bad publicity that they have generated with their response to each major disaster, they certainly need to change their approach and to rebuild trust. The ARC plays a critical role in disaster response. They have an incredible ability to raise funds and are part of a broad international organization that has branches in nearly every country. They are perfectly placed to provide leadership on disasters all over the world.
So how do they pull themselves out of their deep hole and reestablish their leadership? I would suggest focusing on the following three areas:
- Figure out what they are best in the world at doing and focus on it: The ARC seems to try to be all things to all people. They provide emergency kits, build shelters, feed people, finance grants, rebuild communities, and on and on. Sometimes they work through the local Red Cross, sometimes they set up their own organization and work around the local partner. Instead, I would have the ARC keep only a small number of high level experts who would implement only through the local Red Crosses and other partner organizations. The role of the ARC team members would be similar to the role of the OFDA staff. They would provide technical assistance to their partners and review grant requests. By being in the field and focused on implementation, they could help their partners be flexible in their approach. Given that the ARC is an NGO, they ought to be the most flexible of the funding organizations. By having highly trained people in the field, these experts could be trusted to guide the funding decisions.
- Embrace Radical Transparency: Since the ARC will be subcontracting out most of the work, it will be easier for them to be very transparent. Their management costs should be around 10-20% of the donations that they receive. This would cover all of their home office costs and the costs for their field teams. The rest would be given out in grants. They can require that all funded proposals are published and have an open database that tracks the results. Financial data should only be published at the line item level (showing for example how much goes into all salaries but not showing how much an individual is paid). In this way, it will be clear not only what the ARC is doing but how their money is spread around. After all, the money being spent isn’t really the ARC’s money—it is money donated through the ARC to help the disaster victims. By having the funded proposals published, other organizations can see what is being done and better understand both how to coordinate with the implementer and how to learn from the funded approaches. This would encourage learning by doing and improve the quality of proposals over time.
- Publish Evaluations Consistently: Because the ARC is focused on being the best in the world at what they do and on being radically transparent, it only makes sense that they conduct thorough evaluations and publish the results. Yes, these will highlight mistakes and shortcomings and will sometimes be embarrassing both for the ARC and for their partners. Implementing projects in a disaster or post-disaster environment is tough. You have to move fast which means making mistakes. But we shouldn’t be repeating the same mistakes. If the ARC committed to conducting thorough evaluations and publishing the results, the ARC could help share best practices and prevent repeated mistakes. Besides, as most politicians have learned, the best way to avoid a public scandal is to own up to your shortcomings.
The ARC ought to be a very powerful force for good and a key actor in every major disaster. Instead, their brand seems to be continually weakening. Each scandal hurts not only the ARC but every NGO who ends up painted with the same brush.