How the Red Cross is Adapting to New Demands — and Getting More Digital

May 21, 2020

If you’ve ever donated blood in the US, then you have likely interacted with the American Red Cross — a nonprofit responsible for 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply.  Across the pond in the UK, where healthcare is provided by government entities, it’s a different story. The British Red Cross focuses more on emergency response and refugee services. For example, the British Red Cross’s fleet of ambulances assisted with patient transportation during the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. 

In fact, the International Committee of the Red Cross is the world’s largest humanitarian network. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the ICRC consists of delegation offices in eight different countries. Beyond these delegations, the Red Cross has a prescence in almost every country in the world. According to Jessica Ferguson, Head of Innovation at the British Red Cross, each group has its own specialty to meet the needs of that region. 

“We also have international services where we provide services to other Red Crosses, like now we are providing help in the Bahamas for people who are impacted by [Hurricane] Dorian,” Sajit Joseph, Chief Innovation Officer of the American Red Cross, added. 

One of the biggest challenges for Red Crosses across the board is balancing their coronavirus-related efforts with ongoing services, as well as relief related to natural disasters. 

“Disasters don’t wait for…pandemics. We had a few smaller disasters a few weeks ago, and we’ve had to figure out how…you do sheltering…in a social distancing kind of format. We’ve been doing a lot of internal changes to make sure that we can provide relief for people,” Joseph said. 

Ferguson and Joseph also covered:

  • Expanding and adapting services in order to meet new demands. 

    • For America, this means working with blood banks across the nation to collect convalescent plasma — a blood product collected from those who have recovered from COVID-19. This plasma contains antibodies, which could potentially expedite the recovery for people with severe cases of the disease. The American Red Cross has been facilitating communication with blood banks and hospitals in order to boost the convalescent plasma supply, while also ensuring that there is no national blood shortage, Joseph said.

    • In the UK, Ferguson said that current offerings — like free wheelchairs for those in need, housing for refugees, and loneliness and isolation help — have had to be reworked in order to limit the spread of the virus. Typically, this work is accomplished by on-the-ground volunteers, but has since been completely redesigned to keep in line with social distancing. Services that were historically done in-person have been done via phone — the British Red Cross set up a national hotline — or video, while volunteers have been protected with PPE. 

  • Transitioning from the for-profit to non-profit sector. Joseph and Ferguson, who both have backgrounds in for-profit companies, agree that the driving forces and motivations are very different within a nonprofit. 

    • However, Joseph said that he doesn’t always see a lot of difference when it comes to his role. “[At Fortune 500 companies,] it’s about maximizing shareholder value. The way I look at it from a nonprofit, it’s maximizing donor value,” he said. Innovation in this context is about investing funds to get the most return — even if that return isn’t measured monetarily, but rather by how many people are helped. 

    • For Ferguson, one of the challenges has been prioritizing resources when commercial concerns are not the top factor, and ultimately making difficult decisions that impact the lives of many. “We talk a lot about income, but we don’t always talk about profit, and that’s what I’m used to,” she said. 

  • Innovating while undergoing digital transformations and shifting to remote work. 

    • There were remote work operations already in place in the US, according to Joseph, but many large programs relied on in-person interactions — like a summer door-to-door campaign in which Red Cross representatives install smoke alarms in the homes of Americans. A new focus of Joseph’s team is turning this into an experience that works virtually, with smart phone applications and video conferencing. 

    • The British Red Cross is also trying to decide which services need to be digitized and in what order, Ferguson said. Another priority is changing how the organization does volunteer outreach, as the majority of its volunteers are above the age of 60 and thus more vulnerable to the coronavirus. One new way the British Red Cross is engaging with new audiences is by posting on TikTok, where its posts have accumulated over five million likes and engagements. “We’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but sometimes it takes a crisis for the culture shift for your organization to actually happen,” she said.