I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to communicate this, and there’s no easy way to do it.
My job at the American Red Cross has been eliminated.
I’m one of more than 1,000 people being let go as part of a major layoff at the Red Cross. (Reduction in Force, Restructuring? It’s a layoff.) I work in the regional office in Birmingham, serving more than 100 chapters in five states. My entire office, and the seven others just like it, are effectively closing down by the middle of May — and that only accounts for a fraction of the cuts.
No mismanagement, no performance issues, no internal politics. It’s about balancing the bottom line, and doing it in a way that will have the most minimal impact on the front line. Jobs at local chapters are unaffected.
So — how did we get to this point? It’s a three-pronged story. It’s the truth as I see it. The following is my opinion, and isn’t from any list of talking points or key messages.
1. Fallout from 9/11
Back in late 2001, patriotic Americans were throwing money hand-over-fist at the American Red Cross. The donations were pouring in, and they were adding up to a (then) record sum. At the same time, weeks and months into the aftermath, the number of victims started going down. (If you recall, early accounts listed more than 8,000 casualties, where the final numbers dropped below 4,000.) Faced with the prospect of more money than we could feasibly use, then Red Cross CEO Dr. Bernadine Healy proposed stashing some of that extra for preparation, and for bankrolling a response to what might be an imminent second-wave attack.
Needless to say, that idea wasn’t very popular.
Instead, the resultant outcry and furor over the proposal led the Red Cross to adopt some of the strictest donor language in the non-profit world. Nearly every dollar that came in for any reason was tagged with a purpose, with strings attached. You can spend it on this, you can spend it here, but you can’t do anything else. We also pledged to shut down fundraising when we’d reached the projected cost of a project. Again, great in theory, but completely unsustainable in the long run. We’ve got visible disasters where people want to give, and we have to turn them away. Then we have other disasters that don’t come near attracting enough attention to raise the associated costs. It’s a perpetual deficit machine. (Not just my opinion. Stephanie Strom of the New York Times reported on it back in January.)
2. Katrina-size Me
Hurricane Katrina blew through, and challenged the Red Cross both during and after. Eventually, a congressional inquiry into the response praised the work of the American Red Cross while adding some suggestions for improvement. The biggest ones? Work smarter with partnerships, work smarter with technology, and build up capacity.
Prior to the 2005 hurricane season, we were preparing for the time when we might be doing casework on as many as 10,000 families a day. That expectation grew an order of magnitude, as Katrina showed we needed to be ready to do 100,000 families in a day. That’s a tall order, but we rose to that occasion. We tripled our warehouse space, expanded our cooperative agreements with vendors and with other disaster relief agencies, closed the loop on other projects like the Safe and Well website. We helped chapters with the expertise and funding to greatly expand their base of local volunteers, so we could start local everywhere with a good first reponse.
We made strides in addressing the technology barrier, helping small chapters with the access and training that would get all our casework on a single platform, a single network. (Charges of fraud were overblown during Katrina. Through the courts, we’ve recovered most of the fraudulent claims, but now have the technology to prevent people from filing multiple claims to begin with.)
3. The Calm After The Storm
Despite predictions of the coming Apocalypse and destruction, the 2006 and 2007 hurricane seasons were light. The Yucatan got nailed, but the impact on the U.S. mainland was negligible. In fact, I remember one aggressive reporter writing a story about how we supposedly “kicked homeless people out of a shelter during Tropical Storm Humberto, while the winds reached their height of 25 miles per hour.” I kid you not. No one was left, so we closed the shelter. Non-event. And we took a beating from a Florida newspaper that thought we were inhumane for closing the doors during an almost-but-not-quite-stiff breeze.
Anyway, there were plenty of disasters. Ice storms, and floods, and mudslides, and fires. Many, many, many fires. Single-family house fires, which number over 70,000 annually. And big wildfires, that hit nearly every county in Florida, some in Georgia, southern California, and a good piece of the West. We were all over the place, helping families evacuate to a safe place and making sure people had the necessities. What we didn’t have was the Comparative Storm. We didn’t have the chance to show the American people, our government partners, and our supporters and donors exactly how we had morphed and evolved since Katrina. We came out of it smarter, and more flexible, and with better capacity. Our efforts in the past couple of years have helped bridge relationships with other disaster-focused organizations, where in the past we had a reputation for being “arrogant.”
With little opportunity to show what we’d done, we lost many chances to tell the Red Cross story, and help would-be supporters make that link between their donation and the meals that serve the newly-homeless. Or the link between their generosity and the training that makes a community stronger and more resilient. We weren’t hoping or praying for another big disaster — just hoping and praying that if we did have one, we’d rise to the challenge.
So, you put a slow leak in the balloon, expand it beyond reason, then stop blowing air into it. That’s what happened to the American Red Cross. And now my balloon has burst. (Note: Posts like this tend to attract cranks who like to dredge up some scandal or another and use that as proof positive of criminal wrongdoing. To them, I say find me $200-million/year in fraud and abuse. There are the occasional problems or bad decisions, but they don’t add up to the deficit. We’d still be in the same exact shape without adding them in, so save us the links. This is not going to become a Red Cross gripevine.)
I’m not sure where I’m going to wind up. There’s a chance I might stay on in some capacity, but there are a lot of people competing for a tiny pool of jobs. I’ve got some options: my bread-and-butter is Crisis Communications, but I can also dabble in New Media/Social Media. I’ve got the skill sets to be a corporate trainer. I have at least one colleague that wants me to help him set up a consultancy of some type. He says I have a knack for helping others see talents and skills of which they aren’t aware. Maybe he’s right.
I called this piece A New Beginning, because that’s the way I’m looking at it. I’ll continue to support the Red Cross, even if my new job isn’t flexible enough for me to deploy on disasters. They need people who can train volunteers and staff on the finer points of telling the story — and that I can do.
I’m still going to keep writing, though. I can’t express enough how well this site brings my wandering thoughts into focus. The clarity is addictive. I’ll update as I can on the search for a new perch, and I look forward to sharing those perspectives with you soon.
For those of you going through an unexpected job change (or who have gone through one), what did you do to keep pushing forward? Faith? Routine? Breaking routine? Share in the comments…
[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR[/tags]