Lessons From Working at the American Red Cross
Bill was one of the first people I met when I worked at a local American Red Cross chapter. Now, a decade later, I mention him often when I train nonprofit staff because he taught me an important lesson. Maybe he can help you be successful in your nonprofit career, too.
If you are a development professional, you are likely aware that fundraisers often have a reputation for only interacting with program staff and volunteers when they want something. We are often seen as the people who go out to lunch as a job, while the program staff do all the work. Because of this perception (fair or not), most of the people we called “disaster volunteers” at Red Cross did not venture down the administrative office hallway if it could be avoided, and Bill was no exception.
In 2008 when I started at Red Cross, Bill was in his late 50s. He was a volunteer in our disaster/emergency response department; he was gruff, grumpy (or so I thought) and a self-proclaimed pessimist (which turned out to be greatly exaggerated). I had a lot of learning to do. There were a number of programs and services, as well as a heck of a lot of regulations to follow. I took training webinars, read print materials and tagged along with different staffers to find out about their departments.
As a general rule, I believe development professionals are more genuine in their fundraising efforts when they have a personal connection to the mission. I’d had the good fortune of never having to go to a Red Cross shelter during a hurricane, and I never had to use their services after a house fire. So for me to get a true feel for what the organization did and how lives were changed, I asked if I could ride along in the Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) when volunteers responded after a house fire. Who was the volunteer on call for the very next response? You guessed it: Bill.
He warily agreed to let me ride along. I’d interacted with him a few times and thought him to be a bit acerbic. On the way to the scene of the house fire, he told bad (and inappropriate!) jokes that were akin to the morbid humor that many first responders use as a way to keep from getting overwhelmed with the sadness of some difficult situations. All I could think was, “Oh no! This person’s home just burned beyond recognition, and Bill is going to be rude and gruff and make things even worse for her.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Vietnam and Desert Storm Navy veteran who appeared to never shave and who spoke more in growls than sentences morphed into a quiet-spoken, compassionate and empathic shoulder for the woman to lean on. He brought her into the ERV, explained ways we could potentially be of assistance and commenced asking her the questions necessary to identify what she needed (for example: did she take prescription medications that needed to be refilled that day, did she have friends or family to stay with that night). He gave her some staple supplies like a toothbrush and deodorant. And he rejoiced with her when we learned that a firefighter had revived her cocker spaniel after finding the dog in the house; he’d revived her using pet CPR, which happens to be taught by American Red Cross!
It was awesome. When we left, my face must have shown how kind I thought he’d been and how much he helped the woman in her time of need because Bill gave me a look that seemed to say, “See? You thought I was an a-hole, didn’t you?” I thanked him and told him how I would be a better fundraiser because he’d allowed me to tag along that day.
We talked a few times over the next couple of weeks, mostly about the types of items for which we could potentially secure grant funding and what tracking and follow-up that would entail. When I saw him in the break room, he’d usually say something to try to shock or disgust me. I’d tell him he was a lout, and we’d have a laugh. He still sounded like he was growling when he talked.
A while later, Bill came to my office. Yes… he actually ventured down the dreaded administration hallway. He handed me a sheet of paper with scratchy writing on it and said, “You said that knowing more about disaster responses could help you raise money. This happened today, and I wrote it down for you. I don’t write very well, so you’ll have to make it sound better,” and then he was gone. I looked at the paper, saw past the misspelled words and read the story he was sharing with me. The story was a good one. But what made me want to cry was the trust that this man, 20 years my senior, had put in me by allowing me to see his unpolished writing and by venturing out of his comfort zone to share a mission success with someone he’d originally assumed would be unworthy of trust and confidence.
That was 10 years ago. Bill passed away last week. He was still good friends with some of the Red Cross staff. He and I would periodically share pictures of flowers and dogs on Facebook; and we’d argue about politics.
When a nonprofit organization asks me to deliver training on interdepartmental communication skills, I cover all the standard things, such as: respecting others’ time, not acting like or believing that one’s own job is more important that someone else’s and adjusting ways of speaking and writing to improve the tone of an interaction.
I also tell them about Bill. I tell them that showing up, asking to be involved, and appreciating what another person shares with you are very simple yet effective ways to improve interdepartmental communications. Fundraisers can be more effective when they work well with the staff and volunteers who deliver on the organization’s mission every day, when they show respect and maybe even admiration for the effort people put forth.
Thank you for teaching me this important lesson, Bill. Rest your oars, Sailor.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a Florida-based training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 20 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and a graduate certificate in teaching and learning. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.