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

“I really believe when we’re all set free from captivity, we are going to be so happy and kind to each other,” Gail McGovern says.

Credit…Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

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By David Gelles

When Gail McGovern took over the American Red Cross in 2008, the organization was running a deficit and tarnished by scandal. Annual budget shortfalls ran into the hundreds of millions, and her predecessor was ousted after having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

“We were in deep financial trouble,” she said.

Ms. McGovern, who held executive roles at AT&T and Fidelity before taking a teaching position at Harvard Business School, brought an executive’s eye to the problems she faced.

Bureaucracy was slashed, decision-making was centralized and layoffs thinned the organization’s ranks. The cuts were painful at times, and Ms. McGovern was criticized for putting public relations ahead of relief work.

But after more than a decade on the job, Ms. McGovern is still C.E.O., and the Red Cross is busier than ever.

While the organization is best known for its large-scale relief efforts after natural disasters, it responds to some 60,000 events a year, including mud slides and house fires. This year, wildfires in the West and a succession of hurricanes has strained the organization, which has had to reinvent its disaster-response protocols during the pandemic.

The organization also supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood. But those efforts were complicated early on when schools and businesses — where most blood drives take place — were closed.

Ms. McGovern said that despite the enormity of the disasters her organization was confronting, she still had hope. “I am the eternal optimist,” she said.

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