Organizational effectiveness/Benchmarking/Individual report on IFRC

TCC Group Benchmarking Report to the Wikimedia Foundation

Individual Report: International Federation of the Red Cross (Interview: Matthias Schmale, Under Secretary General, National Society and Knowledge Development)


Founded in 1919, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, providing assistance without discriminating based on nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. The IFRC is part of the overarching International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, network with approximately 17 million volunteers, half a million paid staff and several million members worldwide. The mission of the organization is to “alleviate human suffering, protect life and health, and uphold human dignity especially during armed conflicts and other emergencies.” The IFRC espouses seven “fundamental” principles:

Humanity: The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavors, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.

Impartiality: It makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavors to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.

Neutrality: In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.

Independence: The Movement is independent. The National Societies, while auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments and subject to the laws of their respective countries, must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles of the Movement.

Voluntary Service: It is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.

Unity: There can be only one Red Cross or one Red Crescent Society in any one country. It must be open to all. It must carry on its humanitarian work throughout its territory.

Universality: The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in which all Societies have equal status and share equal responsibilities and duties in helping each other, is worldwide.

The IFRC is guided by “Strategy 2020,” a collective plan of action to tackle the largest humanitarian and development challenges of the current decade. The IFRC focuses work in three key areas: 1) disaster response and recovery, 2) development (particularly in the areas of health and social services) and 3) promoting social inclusion and peace.

Organizational DesignEdit

The Movement of the Red Cross is broken down into three major components or bodies: the IFRC, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and the 189 member societies. These are independent bodies; each has its own individual status and exercises no authority over the others. However, the IFRC generally thinks of itself as in the service of the member societies. Its activities toward this goal are 1) supporting members in their own growth, through “internal management consulting” work and 2) identifying, organizing and sharing relevant knowledge within the membership and outside. As Matthias Schmale, Under Secretary General for National Society and Knowledge Development puts it, “Rather than us in Geneva being the center of knowledge, the idea is that the knowledge resides in our membership and that we help members to access this.” The IFRC is comprised of a Secretariat and 60+ delegations strategically located to support activities around the world.

The IFRC has a comparatively formal and bureaucratic governance structure, although it maintains a nimble positioning on the ground when it needs to mobilize for disaster relief. The Secretariat is responsible for the day-to-day running of the IFRC. Decisions on direction and policy are made by governing bodies, which define a framework of purpose, policies, goals and programs, and provide a mechanism for accountability and compliance. A Council of Delegates adopts resolutions on movement action and advocacy.

The General Assembly is the highest decision-making body of the IFRC. It meets every two years and includes representatives from all member National Societies. The Governing Board also meets twice a year and has authority to make certain decisions. The board is staffed by the IFRC's President and Vice Presidents, representatives from elected member Societies, the Chair of the Finance Commission and the Chair of the Youth Commission. The IFRC has four constitutional commissions and committees: the Finance Commission, the Youth Commission, the Compliance & Mediation Committee and the Election Committee. The Governing Board is responsible for appointing the secretary general, who is also the chief executive officer of the IFRC and directs the secretariat and its delegations. The Governing Board may set up working groups according to specific needs, at its discretion.

Every four years, members of the movement hold talks with all States that are signatory to the Geneva Conventions at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The conference is the movement's supreme decision-making body and is a unique opportunity to examine priorities and challenges. A “Standing Commission” serves as the trustee of the conference and offers strategic guidance to the movement between meetings. It also promotes coordination between movement partners, advances the implementation of conference resolutions and examines issues of concern to the whole movement.

Schmale believes the IFRC’s organizational design, which has evolved over almost a hundred years, has some similarities to the United Nations. A strength of this framework is extraordinary global reach; as he points out, there is always a national society on the ground and a support network when disaster strikes. A challenge however is the sovereignty of the 189 member societies which makes reaching common agreement on policies difficult, with some resulting fragmentation of the movement. Schmale observes that the IFRC “reflects what you see in the rest of the word - regional groupings and local interests, not always pulling in the same direction.”

As for the IFRC’s specific role within the movement, Schmale believes the organization’s ability to broker humanitarian diplomacy by identifying key partners is integral, as well as its ability to influence decision makers and opinion leaders: “because of our brand recognition and good reputation, we have built some important partnerships.” Schmale sees value in national societies assuming this role to some extent as well. He says in his 20-odd years in the movement, societies that have cultivated partnerships tend to be stronger and more successful.

Growth and ScalingEdit

In 2011, the IFRC’s assets were just over 457 million Swiss Francs (about $516 million). It is funded by statutory contributions from National Societies, the delivery of field services to program partners, and voluntary contributions from donors such as governments, corporations and individuals. The criteria for the statutory contributions of each National Society are established by the Finance Commission and approved by the General Assembly. Additional funding for unanticipated relief assistance is raised by emergency appeals.

At its founding in 1919, the Red Cross organizational structure closely mirrored that of the League of Nations. As the movement grew members expressed a desire for an umbrella organization that would perform key functions, eventually leading to the three-component structure the community assumes today.

Schmale believes that new pressures and influences are changing the IFRC’s role within the movement. “Now we are thinking through what would be of real value-added to our membership. If you had spoken to me five years ago I would have said coordination of international aid - when a big crisis like Haiti happens, our role is the coordinator a bit like the UN.” That has changed, he says, in part because there is competition and in part because certain societies have matured to a point where they are not dependent on aid. Schmale says the IFRC recently commissioned a review of its decentralized way of working which came back with two recommendations. One, the IFRC should position itself as a knowledge broker rather than a coordinator. (Schmale believes the organization is already heading in this direction.) Two, the IFRC should use its international reputation to influence and advocate. In practice this means moving away from being an actual “do-er” or deliverer of aid, and toward becoming a facilitator and connector. Schmale thinks there is a third factor that should not be discounted: the power of the internet, which presents “the possibility that has opened up to individuals and communities to connect to each other around the globe. The intermediary organization [such as the IFRC] has to change with that.” Rounding out this new environment is what Schmale describes as “some skepticism toward established institutions, and to some extent us…the Arab Spring, Occupy, whatever you think of these, they were expressions of people wanting to be much more involved in determining their own life and that has to change what we do at a global level.”

As the movement has grown, the IFRC has also become a standard-setter for the community. “Part of managing growth,” says Schmale, “is ensuring there is a common identity and brand and a lot of our work has been what we call dissemination of our principles.” One of the ways the IFRC accomplishes this is through establishing what it calls “Characteristics of a Well-Functioning Society,” a framework that includes measurable standards and indicators by which societies can self-assess their progress and identify organizational strengths and weaknesses. Despite its work in setting norms, Schmale admits some fragmentation of the movement persists: “Sometimes being part of the Arab bloc, or being part of the Nordic bloc, seems to count more than the global identity.” And because Red Cross societies are usually formed by an act of parliament, credibility can become an issue when “unsavory” governments are perceived as too close to national groups. Says Schmale: “We walk a tightrope.”

One interesting new avenue the IFRC is pursuing is behavioral change, or trying to translate movement principles into ways of behaving and influencing others. Schmale has heard this training was put into practice during protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt, with some success, and says that while most people continue to see the IFRC as the “fire brigade” there is another side to the organization’s work which may become increasingly important if it wants to maintain relevance.

Over the last 20 years, Schmale has developed some ideas about ways in which innovation occurs within the member societies and what makes certain societies more successful than others. Running through these ideas is a common thread: the ability of organizations to adapt to the changing external environment and invest in strategy capacity building.

For example, growth has changed how societies interact with one another. Schmale describes a situation where Scandinavian societies expressed interest in supporting the capacity of the Kenyan national society, and paid for salaries of senior executives so the organization could concentrate on making the chapter sustainable and invest in direct program work. This was a resounding success. Other so-called positive deviants are modernizing fundraising and making it more efficient. “The more sustainable among our members do things like mobilize regular giving…even international donors have decentralized their decision-making to local levels.” This ties in to the transition of the IFRC’s move away from mobilizing resources to become more of an influencer and relationship builder.

Schmale does see an inherent tension between the control and oversight the IFRC seeks, and the innovation it wishes to spark in the movement. He uses an example from within the IFRC to illustrate this point: “…the head of Information Technology came to me and complained about another part of the house that had been in contact with a major company to discuss an innovative way of mobilizing volunteers; the head [of IT] said if we don’t look into the maintenance and sustainability of such new systems and connect them to systems we already have, we are set for failure. But those leading this initiative are also onto something powerful and good. We have seen this tension between risk taking, and knowing that risk is not always about following rules. This applies to the larger membership - sometimes innovators have had to explicitly break existing rules.”

The Role of VolunteersEdit

The Red Cross Movement has approximately 17 million volunteers. Volunteers are not managed directly by the IFRC, but rather by the member organizations (National Societies). There are several main roles that volunteers fill within the Red Cross Red Crescent movement. The majority of volunteers are engaged in service, and are mobilized to do humanitarian work. These could be trainees with first aid skills who respond when disaster strikes, or who participate in formal long-term programs such as “home from hospital” services that reconnect former hospital patients with social networks and resources. A second role is centered on governance, and includes people motivated to help run the national societies. The IFRC is democratic and all key decision-makers are elected; its governance comes from a “grassroots” level. Opinions differ within the movement on whether to recognize donating blood or money as a volunteer role. Finally, online volunteers are increasingly becoming more engaged in the movement. Schmale observes that “the day after the disaster in Japan, there were 177 million tweets generated, and someone has to analyze the relevant information coming out of social media, and so we have a growing community of online volunteers who help manage the analysis of information and translating that into decision making. I would never have talked about that two years ago, but this is a growing phenomenon: people nowhere near the disaster site, sitting in front of the screen, providing an important service.”

Most volunteers are motivated by the “action” of disaster response. Schmale says a lot of the value these volunteers deliver is directly tied to basic training and skills transfer programs: “Person-to-person contact is important.” The more specific and concrete life-saving activities are offered through the Red Cross Red Crescent, the more volunteers are attracted to the mission and mobilized. Another interesting trend is affecting volunteer roles and engagement with the movement. Schmale sees that most volunteers no longer want to commit to life-long cause, although they may commit to associated values. Instead, they want to commit to short-term, time-focused, specific activities they do to live out those values. National societies who are able to leverage this reality into new, active volunteers “constantly review and change the services they offer to the public.”

As the Movement and the IFRC have grown over the years, tensions have bubbled up between paid staff and volunteers. This is not new; Schmale quotes research on this topic dating to the 1970s. “We used to be volunteer-dominated. Now many of our volunteers would argue we are dominated by paid staff and they are running the show.” He says occasionally this tension can be productive, but managing the relationship is a never-ending process. Management of support to volunteers, Schmale observes, “is the most complicated people-management form that exists.” Volunteers are masters of their own time and energy, and their interests may change, while paid staff is generally more interested in continuity and sustainability. Schmale believes the American Red Cross does a particularly good job of balancing these tensions, in part by creating leadership positions that are co-run by both paid staff and volunteers on an equal basis. Building mutual respect is a core component of the IFRC’s norm-setting work. “We try to promote that out of Geneva - that a big responsibility of paid staff is to provide proper recognition of volunteers.”

Measures of Organizational EffectivenessEdit

The IFRC has a handbook that serves as a handbook for measuring impact on the ground. There are data collection guidelines that are project based (for example, measuring height-to-weight ratios for nutritional studies). The guidelines also seek to make meaning from data in the following ways:


By assessing the relevance of strategies – are current strategies contributing to the overall goal? By evaluating the effectiveness of organizational structures and management systems – are there areas where structures impede the realization of the overall goal? By evaluating communications – are messages effectively communicated throughout the organization? Externally:

By showing donors the impact of their contributions – making the link between donation and changes in the lives of the beneficiaries; By showing the wider public the effectiveness, relevance, and efficiency of operations; By demonstrating to potential funders the focus of the organization; By increasing advocacy – being an effective voice for the voiceless; By embracing transparency – showing an effective and well-functioning organization; By opening up to scrutiny and independent verification Despite these efforts, Schmale says making meaning out of data is one of the IFRC’s weaker areas. Three years ago the organization created a “data bank” by which member societies are supposed to measure their impact on seven key indicators, and provide regular reporting. But this ends up being a repository for quantitative data, such as staff turnover, number of volunteers, or number of users or beneficiaries reached. “What we are not great at,” says Schmale, “is measuring social impact.” He believes some of this may be related to the nature of disaster relief and humanitarian work - because the culture is that of “do-ers” it is assumed that the impact is clear and doesn’t need to be measured. Schmale says the movement has been discussing the creation of an overarching dashboard with key indicators, primarily focusing on the “Characteristics of a Well-Functioning Society” but perhaps also some indicators of social impact.


The IFRC does not have a systematic way of identifying future leaders in the movement. Generally, Schmale says, “you get into leadership programs by virtue of holding a position or office.” He does note a yearly “pilgrimage” to Geneva for newly elected leaders, to attend a training program. There are some within the movement however who are pushing for identifying leaders because of their natural authority, and within member societies leadership development is taken more seriously.


Technology is increasingly important to the Red Cross Red Crescent movement. Schmale points to one example, an online learning platform started three years ago which currently has 50,000 members and is projected to grow dramatically. The Learning - Education - Training Hub (LET) is described as a “cost effective, multilingual learning environment that provides extensive online learning and training opportunities for every volunteer and staff member, as well as colleagues in partner organizations around the world and the general public.” The LET is broken down into several components. The first is a Learning Environment, which offers high-quality self-directed courses delivered online, in addition to a community that puts staff and volunteers in touch with one another. National societies are encouraged to adopt and use this component as they see fit. They may:

customize the environment administer their own volunteer and staff members upload their own courses run activity reports to monitor usage

A second component is accredited Academic Courses delivered online, in conjunction with academic institutions. Currently, courses are offered in four main areas: global health, disaster management, humanitarian diplomacy, and social and voluntary sector leadership.

Reference Centers are the third component of the LET. This is a section of the online LET community that “hosts” national societies recognized by the IFRC for excellent work. The centers’ primary objective is to develop strategically important knowledge and define best practices on a variety of topics that will support future Red Cross operations.

Other aspects of the LET include Communities of Practice, which are thematic-based groups of staff and volunteers, and a Learning Blog, where movement contributors can share reflections on what they have learned through LET, and share personal stories.

Grantmaking and General Resource Provision The annual turnover in the Red Cross Red Crescent network is ~$38 billion with only $1.13 billion coming through international channels; the rest is generated by national societies. The American Red Cross alone runs a $2 billion blood services program, which is essentially self-sustaining.

Fifty percent of the approximately $1 billion disseminated by the IFRC goes straight to international disaster response. Emergency appeals are also channeled through the IFRC. The remaining fifty percent goes toward longer-term programming primarily in the public health field, such as fighting HIV. Most of this money comes from governments, some comes for the corporate sector, and some from the individual public.

Schmale says out that some members on the receiving end would argue for democratizing or making the decision-making process more participatory. “We [the IFRC] as the intermediary organization play a role starting with the way we appeal, so we will appeal based on what we think the needs are and try to influence giving.” Being the intermediary is not without risks. For example, the IFRC has had experiences where it has channeled a donation from an investor but been unable to guarantee accountability of the grantee, in part because of the sovereignty of the member societies. In a recent dramatic case, a government walked in and removed the entire leadership of a national Red Cross society. “A risk for an intermediary,” observes Schmale, “is that you never fully control the dynamics.”

IFRC key findingsEdit

Societies that cultivate partnerships tend to be stronger and more successful.

IFRC is becoming a knowledge broker rather than a coordinator, using its international reputation to influence and advocate, and disseminate movement principles.

Innovative, successful societies share a common thread: the ability to adapt to the changing external environment and invest in strategic capacity building.

Most volunteers no longer want to commit to life-long cause; instead, they want to commit to short-term, time-focused, specific activities they do to live out those values.

Successful societies “constantly review and change the services they offer to the public.”

A big responsibility of paid staff is to provide proper recognition of volunteers.