Gail McGovern in her office with a vintage recruitment poster from 1954 by Lawrence Wilbur, hanging behind her.
McGovern distributing food in Houston.
Mementos from the American Red Cross in Gail McGovern's DC office.
Gail McGovern visits Pratt, Alabama, to survey damage from a tornado in 2011.
by annie groer | August 26, 2013 | People
In April 2008, Gail J. McGovern took over the American Red Cross, becoming its seventh president and CEO in seven years. Having honed her corporate chops at Fidelity Investing and AT&T—Forbes twice named her one of America’s most powerful female executives—she jumped to academia to teach marketing at Harvard Business School until deciding to try the nonprofit world. Besting more than 150 applicants, McGovern, now 61, took the helm of the storied aid agency founded by Clara Barton in the late 19th century.
Her current role at the Red Cross includes managing disaster relief, military and veterans’ assistance, first aid, education programs including those on HIV/AIDS and water safety, and the distribution of more than 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply.
Problems were rife at the $3.4-billion-a-year enterprise when she arrived: A $200 million operating deficit and slumping donations that had forced staff layoffs; largely criticized responses to several disasters, including Hurricane Katrina; and federal complaints that the blood collection and distribution methods were tainted enough to warrant huge fines. There was more. Separate systems for personnel, tech, and finances at hundreds of local chapters distracted from the core mission, while the information technology systems at the HQ were “so old I think Clara Barton coded it,” McGovern jokes.
Her plan: Focus on blood quality, improve financial stability, modernize information technology, increase donations and revenue, make governance changes (emphasizing team work), and revitalize the brand overall. She has achieved each of these goals in her five years with the organization, even balancing the budget. She’s also led the organization as it brought aid and comfort to those devastated by fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and armed conflict—here and overseas. For instance, last year’s East Coast storm required a swift response. “Hurricane Sandy affected a 1.8-million-square-mile area, roughly half the size of Europe,” she says. “We gave away 18 million meals and snacks, and don’t forget it was [cold], so we gave away blankets.”
She also touts the Red Cross as a provider of cyber services. “Clearly the number of natural disasters appears to be going up. We need to harness technology to get boots on the ground almost instantly [as well as] faster training,” she says. To help, the organization offers free apps for iPhone and Android devices, including a new Team Red Cross app that allows users to sign up to help, be trained, and receive notifications about local volunteer opportunities. She even wants all Americans to be trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (like she is), citing examples of American heroes: “An 11-year-old kid saving a three-year-old from choking; two grandparents pulling a child from a frozen lake and giving CPR for 20 minutes until he revived.”
She’s also a member of President Obama’s Management Advisory Board that is, as she notes, made up “mostly of former and current CEOs working to find ways to make government more efficient. I am the only one representing a nonprofit.” And as the daughter and wife of vets and stepmother to an active Air Force member, McGovern takes great pride in the 400,000 annual Red Cross services for active duty personnel, veterans, their families, and communities. “Someone might call us to say, ‘My wife in Iraq doesn’t sound good. Can you contact her commanding officer?’ Or we will arrange a flight for a soldier to get home in time to say goodbye to a dying grandparent.”
In 2010, McGovern reluctantly found herself on the receiving end of Red Cross generosity after learning she had breast cancer. Again. The first time, while at Harvard in 2005, she told almost no one and continued teaching. This time, Red Cross chief public affairs officer Suzy DeFrancis told her to go public because of her rigorous travel schedule. (She travels about a third of the year.) A week after her diagnosis, McGovern flew to Haiti to survey the devastation caused by its massive earthquake.
“Here I am in this nurturing role, and now I have to admit—and that’s the word, admit—I have cancer,” she recalls. As word got out, strangers responded. “Someone sent me a Koran. I got rosary beads. I got holy water from Lourdes.” Finally, says this Jewish girl, born Gail Rosenberg in Brooklyn, “I got a call from a rabbi.” People still want to share their own cancer stories with her, especially since her TEDMED talk last year at the Kennedy Center about how she dealt with each diagnosis. “Frankly, I preferred when it was private,” she says. “But the beauty of going public was that I got to experience what it was like to be cared for by the Red Cross, and that was invaluable.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEVEN VOSS (OFFICE); AMERICAN RED CROSS (DISASTER RELIEF); DENNIS DRENNER/AMERICAN RED CROSS (PRATT)
August 29, 2018