The American Red Cross and effective innovation—these are things that haven’t seemed to go together for the last dozen years, during which news about the American Red Cross was too often about bungles and scandals: donations intended for 9/11 victims redirected to capital investments; volunteers who quit when the Red Cross asked to check their credit scores; theft by Red Cross contractors of funds for Katrina victims; and controversy over its spending of funds raised for Haitian earthquake victims, and similar questions raised over its spending of funds raised for Hurricane Sandy victims.
So it was noteworthy to hear two stories that connected the American Red Cross to innovative approaches in its response to the Typhoon Haiyan disaster.
The first of these is the fundraising solicitation that Facebook volunteered to post on users’ newsfeed for several days last week. Facebook prominently posted a request to donate $10 to the American Red Cross and, perhaps reflecting past controversies about spending of funds, stated that the “full amount of this donation will go to the American Red Cross to help those affected by the typhoon in the Philippines.”
Facebook, not the Red Cross, came up with this idea—and one needs to consider the range of motives that a for-profit company like Facebook would have for this venture, just as one may question why other companies aim to link their products in consumers’ minds with feel-good philanthropy. However, it’s clear why the Red Cross would have “jumped on the opportunity” to try this new approach to fundraising.
The second innovative approach adopted by the American Red Cross in its response to the Typhoon Haiyan disaster is in coordinating with Open Street Map—essentially the Wikipedia of cartography—to make available detailed maps of affected areas in Philippines to relief workers. These maps are an invaluable resource to those trying to figure out how to move about the ravaged country and deliver urgently needed supplies.
Open Street Map is developed by volunteers—who don’t need to be cartographers—and an intense effort among its volunteer community has made a much, much more detailed maps available to relief workers than was available when the typhoon struck—and the Red Cross is taking a role in directing the effort.
Neither the innovative use of Facebook to solicit donations nor Open Street Map’s rapidly created, highly detailed maps were originated by the Red Cross—and but the Red Cross took up the opportunities created for it by Facebook and Open Street Map, both highly entrepreneurial organizations. It’ll be some months—or longer—before there can be a full assessment of the Red Cross’ effectiveness in responding to the Philippine disaster, but its partnership with these entrepreneurial organizations will surely shape that final assessment.