Journalism in the Public Interest

Internal Survey Shows the Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.

Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern, shown reacting to what she saw in Haiti in 2010, said of the survey, "Candidly, the results could have been stronger." (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washinton Post)

A survey of American Red Cross employees shows a crisis of trust in the charity's leadership and deep internal doubts about the Red Cross' commitment to ethical conduct.

A summary of the survey results, obtained by ProPublica and NPR, was released internally in September. The survey was completed by a bit more than half of the Red Cross' roughly 25,000 employees.

In response to the statement, "I trust the senior leadership of the American Red Cross," just 39 percent responded favorably.

In response to the statement, "The American Red Cross shows a commitment to ethical business decisions and conduct," 61 percent responded favorably. That means about 4 in 10 respondents doubt the ethics of the venerable charity.

"Candidly, the results could have been stronger," Chief Executive Gail McGovern acknowledged in an email to employees. She also called the Red Cross' score on ethics "very high" and identified ethics as one of "our strengths."

During McGovern's six-year tenure, the charity has faced periodic budget deficits and is in the midst of the latest in a series of layoffs. The Red Cross has seen shrinking revenue from its blood business and rising pension costs. In the last year, the charity's fundraising efforts have dwindled without a large national disaster to help bring in donations. The charity finished its last fiscal year with a $70 million deficit and 1,200 workers are expected to lose their jobs over the next year.

Also, ProPublica and NPR reported last month that officials who helped lead the charity's response to Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac believed they were undermined by senior leadership. Resources were diverted for public relations purposes by national headquarters, hurting the relief efforts. Internal assessments concluded the charity wasn't prepared to effectively respond to a large storm.

Current and former officials said the Red Cross' relief efforts also suffered from attrition in its ranks of experienced volunteer disaster responders, many driven away by a series of reorganizations by McGovern, who has moved to centralize decision-making.

The employee survey, which was conducted by IBM, notes that other companies scored better on the questions about trust. About 20 percent of respondents at other companies expressed concern about their organization's ethics, compared with nearly 40 percent for the Red Cross survey.

Asked about the survey, Red Cross spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis said it was the first of its kind for the charity.

"It is regrettable that you are taking work that we are doing to improve employee engagement and using it to criticize us," DeFrancis wrote in an email. DeFrancis' declined to comment on McGovern's characterization of the survey.

The survey suggests that the layoffs and reorganization have taken their toll on the morale of the Red Cross' paid staff. Just 35 percent said they "feel supported during organizational change" at the charity.

The survey also shows that employees are proud to be associated with the Red Cross itself, apart from the current leadership: 83 percent of respondents said they were proud to work at the charity.

But most of the survey respondents do not believe the Red Cross has a bright future.

In response to the statement, "The senior leadership of the American Red Cross has communicated a vision of the future that motivates me," 39 percent responded favorably. That compares with an average 61 percent of respondents from other companies in response to the same question.

And just 42 percent responded favorably to the statement, "I believe the American Red Cross has an outstanding future."

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