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Facing Disaster After Disaster, the American Red Cross C.E.O. Stays Optimistic

It helped me in my career. There were 50 women and 1,900 men. I had a great education there, but what it really also taught me was what it felt like to be the only woman in the room. I don’t remember taking any classes where there were other women. So you learn how to hold your own, because you have no choice.

What did you learn from the corporate world that you’ve been able to apply to your work at the Red Cross?

What is really profoundly different at a nonprofit is that you really have to not only lead with your head, you have to lead with your heart. If you explain the changes you are making through the lens of the mission, people will do anything for you. But they need to know, and understand, how their actions are going to impact the mission.

At AT&T I’d tell people to calm down. “It’s only telecommunications,” I’d say. “We’re not saving lives here. Let’s not panic.” I always was unflappable at Fidelity. “We’re just managing money here,” I’d say. “We’re not saving lives here.” That schtick does not work at the American Red Cross.

But you had to make some painful cuts when you took over.

Part of the reason we had a deficit is there was a lot of duplication. When I walked in the door, there were 720 different chapters, and each chapter had a C.E.O., a local board, their own marketing, their own email platform, their own finances, their own bank accounts, their own treasury, their own purchasing. I had 69 different contracts for T-shirts. So a lot of it was just consolidation and turning to a classic headquarters model. The first year we were able to save $15 million just by managing our purchasing function.

I didn’t hear a lot of complaints about taking all that back-office stuff and centralizing it. We withheld merit increases for a year, and I didn’t hear a peep. We had to do layoffs and I didn’t even hear much squawking about that.

How has the pandemic impacted your ability to operate?

We’re delivering our mission exactly as we should, but the way we’re doing service delivery is different. The first place where we saw the impact of this was in our biomedical organization, which provides 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply. It was kind of stunning how fast that occurred. We watched blood drives start to get canceled rapidly. Schools were closed, businesses were closed. But the team stood up new blood drives in sports arenas and parking lots.

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Insider Q&A: Healthcare Ready director on disaster response

When natural disasters strike, quickly getting the right aid to people is difficult at best. Doing so amid the worst pandemic in a century increases that challenge dramatically.

For thousands of Americans displaced this year by hurricanes, floods and wildfires — plus those trying to avoid COVID-19 — getting their drugs and medical supplies has been critical.

Healthcare Ready, a tiny disaster preparedness and response group, serves as a crucial hub for coordinating donations and shipments of medicines, protective gear and other supplies to those in need.

The Associated Press recently talked with its executive director, Nicolette Louissaint.

Q: What led to your group’s formation in 2005?

A: After Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of frustration. Pharmaceutical companies knew they could do more to help but didn’t know how to get their medicines into shelters, because they didn’t have relationships with law enforcement, public health agencies or the Red Cross. They decided, let’s do this as a coalition.

Q: How do you prepare for disasters?

A: We make sure we’re refreshing our contacts every year, touching every state’s emergency management and health organizations. We work with national groups with a local presence in many communities, like churches and the NAACP. We do preparedness projects to identify populations that would have the greatest medical needs after a disaster.

Q: How has your work evolved since Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit in 2017?

A: The landscape has only gotten more and more difficult. It’s the intensity of the events and the frequency. Being poised to jump in and provide support for multiple intensive events is the hardest challenge, and that’s what COVID has been testing for us.

Q: During the pandemic, medicines largely remained available. What’s been your focus?

A: We continue to work closely with the manufacturers and distributors of personal protective equipment, to have a single clearinghouse for our emergency management agency partners. We worked with the National Governors Association to vet and create a list of credible suppliers of those products. We worked with Project Hope and the Business Roundtable to identify products needed and then distribute their donations to community groups, nursing homes and clinics.

We do a lot of info sharing. We set up our “RX Open” map so people could see where pharmacies were open before leaving home amid stay-at-home orders.

Q: Are you helping with the wildfires?

A: We’re working with pharma and the Red Cross, making sure everyone isn’t sending the same thing. We’re working with pharmacies to be sure they have the medicines they need. We have some partners prepared to provide donations for individuals who’ve lost their homes.

Q: How is Healthcare Ready funded?

A: We receive contributions from the associations for drug manufacturers, distributors, chain pharmacies and other companies, plus other grants and donations.

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