- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2011

For the American Red Cross, it has been a doubly challenging year.

While coping with a relentless series of natural disasters, the organization has carried out a nationwide overhaul that slashed more than 1,500 jobs, pared down many local offices and left some former loyalists with badly bruised feelings.

President Gail McGovern says the 130-year-old Red Cross had little choice in order to ward off a projected deficit. It has merged and consolidated many chapters to reduce duplication, while giving the national office control over local fundraising.

“We have remarkably loyal donors, and they’re also demanding,” Ms. McGovern said in an interview. “They want to be sure their hard-earned dollars are being used to optimize the mission and are going to help the people we serve.”

During the year, Ms. McGovern said, the Red Cross has eliminated roughly 1,000 positions at its local and regional chapters and about 170 positions at its Washington headquarters — in each case about 10 percent of the workforce. In addition, about 400 posts out of roughly 20,000 were eliminated in the biomedical and blood-services division.

Ms. McGovern insists that the core missions — notably disaster relief, blood banks and assistance to military families — will not be impaired. She said the Red Cross responded vigorously to this year’s nationwide onslaught of tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and wildfires.

The network of chapters is still large — about 600 nationwide, compared with more than 800 five years ago.

The chapters operate with a core of paid staffers and many volunteers, and some have more than one office location in their service area. Ms. McGovern said only about 20 of the 1,200 locations nationwide will be closed completely, but many will have reduced staffs and functions.

Such is the case in far-western Nebraska, where the overhaul became acrimonious.

Plans to downgrade the nearly century-old Greater Nebraska Panhandle Chapter into a service center prompted volunteer board members to resign in protest, and its executive director was fired and escorted from the chapter’s office in tears.

Changes have been felt in most states. In Ohio, the Red Cross merged its Dayton and Cincinnati regions, and laid off at least 29 people — 15 percent of the workforce.

In southern Virginia, eight chapters were consolidated into one new administrative region.

In Western Massachusetts, the overhaul was complicated by a decision to cut several programs deemed to be outside the core Red Cross mission. An HIV/AIDS support program was shifted to a regional hospital, but there were hitches finding new agencies to provide non-emergency medical transport.

Richard Lee, executive director of the Pioneer Valley chapter, said about 15 staffers in Western Massachusetts were laid off.

“None of them deserved to lose their jobs,” he said. “That’s what made it harder.”

Paul Light, a specialist on nonprofits and professor of public service at New York University, said the Red Cross deserved plaudits for undertaking a necessary but difficult task.

“It’s exactly the right thing to do, but it is extremely controversial,” he said. “Each one of these chapters has its own identity. Closing one is like closing the local library.”

He said the consolidation should improve disaster response by reducing disparities that sometimes surfaced between relatively strong and relatively weak chapters.

It’s the second major Red Cross overhaul in recent years. In 2008, faced with a deficit of about $210 million, it laid off one-third of the 3,000 employees at its Washington headquarters.

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