Diversity is an asset in any business, but in the business of saving lives it is an imperative. Nowhere is this more true than at the American Red Cross. Our mission is so critical, our presence so pervasive and our need for inclusiveness so profound that any barrier to participation can jeopardize our ability to function.
What resources does it take for the Red Cross to be there for the victims of more than 70,000 disasters every year and provide about half of the nation’s blood supply? To start with, it takes more than 900 locally supported chapters, 35,000 employees, 1.2 million volunteers, sustained partnerships with thousands of charitable, corporate and government entities, 36 blood services regions and annual revenue of $3 billion-the nonprofit equivalent to a major corporation.
For an organization of such breadth, diversity must be more than a series of well-intended outreach programs and hiring policies. It needs to be systemic, a requirement that can be met only if the effort is led from the top.
As a result, we’ve made diversity a key element in our strategic plan. First, we are committed to being America’s partner in mobilizing communities to help prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies; to be successful, we must include every part of every community. We also need to inspire a new generation of volunteers and supporters. And we must strengthen our financial base, infrastructure and support systems to continuously improve our services.
Each of our chapters must show progress toward achieving not only a paid staff that closely matches the community it serves but also a diverse corps of volunteers and directors. Specific diversity strategies-with measurable results-must be part of every chapter’s strategic plan.
We continue to develop tools and resources to help our chapters and blood services regions broaden their approaches to diversity. Recently, for example, we introduced a supplier diversity program to encourage all Red Cross units to identify diverse business enterprises as part of the competitive bidding process.
To achieve diversity, we have created several councils and executive positions to steer efforts and forge partnerships. We work with groups such as the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the umbrella for the nation’s historically black colleges. We are one of the few organizations of our kind to have a high-ranking chief diversity officer who reports directly to me. Our National Diversity Advisory Committee provides input on emerging issues.
Through market research, we identify community trends so we can take proactive steps to improve our services and enhance participation. To attract a new generation of volunteers and supporters, we are doing research on several groups that are underrepresented in the Red Cross. We’re finding out which of our services interest them and how they’d like to participate. We’re also researching the best practices of other organizations.
The business of blood is a life-and-death case for diversity. Even with modern medicine, there is still no substitute for the lifesaving power of blood. When people need blood, it’s often after a terrible accident-and the correct type must be available. Yet certain blood types are more dominant among certain racial and ethnic groups, such as types O and B among African Americans. In a nation where only 5 percent of the eligible population donates blood, this presents a serious challenge of maintaining adequate supplies.
Our disease prevention programs also rely on diversity. Simply translating materials into a foreign language doesn’t constitute effective education, especially with topics involving cultural taboos. For our HIV/AIDS program, we have developed three curriculums: one for the general market, one for African Americans and one for Latinos. And because young people are more comfortable learning about sensitive topics from their peers than from adults, we train youths as peer counselors.
In short, for the Red Cross, or any far-reaching organization, diversity is more than the right thing to do. It’s not a choice, but a must.
Marsha J. Evans is president and chief executive of the American Red Cross.