The Johnstown flood of 1889 was one of the earliest major American Red Cross disaster relief efforts, and also one of its most widely praised. But soon after Clara Barton returned from Johnstown to Washington, D.C., she began receiving letters complaining about drunken brawls and excessive fees at three "hotels" the Red Cross had built in Johnstown to serve as temporary housing for homeless flood victims.
Beverly Ortega Babers, Patte Noriega, Daniel T. Riordan
Prior to departing Johnstown, Barton had made agreements with private landladies to manage the hotels, so she felt the Red Cross had effectively severed its ties to the buildings. She understood, however, that the organization could ill afford any damage to its public image, especially at such an early stage in its life. Reluctantly, she gave the order to dismantle the buildings and ship the lumber and furniture to Washington.
An "Ear" at the Red Cross
In the nearly 120 years since the Johnstown flood, the Red Cross has become one of the largest and most respected charities in the United States, yet it remains attentive to even minor complaints from the public. Few people today, however, would consider writing a letter to the president of the American Red Cross, much less expect him or her to read it personally. In fact, many people probably wouldn't know where to turn if they wanted to express a concern or offer a suggestion.
Starting later this month, however, they'll have an "ear" at Red Cross national headquarters—an ombudsman.
Common in Europe, where they frequently serve as public representatives to government agencies, ombudsmen are emerging as a best practice in the United States, where they are often found in corporations and universities. In these settings, the ombudsman discusses possible solutions with employees who have ethics concerns, helps mediate conflicts, tracks problem areas, and recommends changes in policies or procedures.
Although the American Red Cross has never had an ombudsman until this month, the organization's role in society makes it a natural fit for one. Clara Barton spoke of the "sacred trust" between the American people and the Red Cross, and an ombudsman, by representing the interests of fairness and promoting corporate integrity, can strengthen that trust.
An Honest Broker for Feedback
Beverly Ortega Babers intends to do just that—and more. Babers is the new ombudsman for the American Red Cross, and she comes to the job with high hopes and expectations.
"The expectation I have for the office is that we become a collaborative resource within the organization," she says. "I say 'collaborative' as opposed to 'adversarial' because when you have an independent entity within an organization that is responsible for looking into the practices of the organization, there's the possibility that the relationship will be adversarial. That's not how I intend to operate. My intention is that my office will be a broker for honest feedback and positive change that might not occur absent a confidential and independent third party."
Babers owes her new position to legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in May 2007. Under this legislation, the American Red Cross—which is not a government agency, but operates under a congressional charter—must establish a new office for an ombudsman, who is required to submit an annual report to Congress on trends and systemic matters confronting the corporation.
As ombudsman, Babers will serve all parties with an interest in the Red Cross. These include not just stakeholders—employees and volunteers, blood donors, financial donors, disaster victims, people who take health and safety courses, and so on—but anyone with a complaint or concern about the organization and its operations.
"There aren't very many ombudsmen who provide services both internally and externally, so it's hard for me to specifically project the concerns of people outside the organization," she says. "One thing I do know is that external audiences are harder to reach, so I'll have to make a concentrated effort to make sure the external folks know I'm here. I can't expect them to come to me; I'll have to reach out to them."
Helping Bring Concerns to Light
Critical to the success of an ombudsman is the perception of neutrality, which is created by placing the office outside ordinary line and staff structures. Equally critical is confidentiality, which an ombudsman typically ensures by keeping no case records and protecting the identity of those who seek services.
Most ombudsmen do not wield any power in the traditional sense; instead, through persuasion and publicity, they help bring concerns to light. They are not a substitute for ethics hotlines, dispute resolution procedures, or other established mechanisms for addressing problems, but a complement to them.
Though Babers has never served as an ombudsman, she believes her background has equipped her well for her new job.
"Most of my career has been in tax litigation and administration, and I'm pleased to have solid experience that is very relevant to my new role," she says. "At the Justice Department, my job was to advocate for justice, even if that resulted in a government concession. Later, I helped run the part of the Internal Revenue Service that hears administrative appeals from taxpayers and small businesses, and I headed the human resources function. In roles like these you deal with a lot of equity concerns and 'people issues,' and I think I'll see a fair amount of those kinds of things as an ombudsman."
Scheduling an Appointment
Fore more information about the Office of the Ombudsman, see the section on RedCross.org. To schedule an appointment, call (202) 303-5399 or 1-866-667-9331 (toll free). To ensure confidentiality, do not contact the Office of the Ombudsman by e-mail or other forms of written communication.
The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.