Inside Track: Moving up the ladder
Mike Mitchell, executive director of the American Red Cross of West Michigan, started as a volunteer shortly after 9/11.
After watching a news broadcast of two planes crashing into the World Trade Center, Mike Mitchell was moved to do something meaningful in response.
He went to a branch of the American Red Cross where he was living in Chicago to sign up as a volunteer. He believed this was his “best option” to make a difference.
He had submitted a volunteer inquiry before 9/11 simply because he wanted to give back to the community in emergency services through a neutral organization. He had not received a response initially; he didn’t think much of it and just continued with his work.
This time, though, he wasn’t going to let that happen. He waited at the Chicago branch until he met with a volunteer coordinator and was signed up.
Mitchell was the owner of a computer software business in the call center industry, so he said he would do anything except work with computers. The Red Cross gave him a volunteer job working with communications platforms.
Within a year, the organization’s leadership asked if he would manage a nationwide emergency response vehicle program, giving the Red Cross the ability to respond to disasters within 10 hours.
“That sold me on the organization,” Mitchell said, noting 94 percent of its workforce is comprised of volunteers.
“That they were willing to empower a volunteer to run this multimillion-dollar operation to meet the immediate emergency needs of the community — I was hooked.”
Mitchell volunteered regularly until he sold his business seven years later, upon which he was asked to be the interim executive director of a Red Cross branch in Kankakee, Illinois.
He spent seven months in that position before it was filled. Then, the Red Cross asked if he’d like to be an interim executive director in Holland.
“No,” he told them. “I’d rather apply for the position than be an interim.”
He got the job, and a year later, he took on the role of chief operating officer for the West Michigan region in addition to his executive director role in Holland.
In 2014, the nonprofit underwent a nationwide reorganization. More than 3,000 branches were converted to 680. In Michigan, 20 chapters were cut to six, and the three regions merged intoone.
Mitchell was laid off for four months during the shift, and then he was hired for his current position as the West Michigan chapter executive director, overseeing the Red Cross’ work in 12 West Michigan counties.
He said the organization is congressionally mandated to provide its four main services: disaster response, blood donations, health and safety classes, and service to the armed forces. However, it does not receive government funding in an effort to uphold one of its founding principles of neutrality.
So, the Red Cross relies on public donations and volunteers to stay in operation. The national organization’s operating revenues and gains were $2.66 billion in the 2016 fiscal year, with $602.5 million coming from contributions, according to the annual report.
Mitchell said he is “proud” the Red Cross uses 91 percent of donations for clients, adding that percentage comes from careful planning from the national organization’s top leadership.
Before the reorganization, each branch operated autonomously. A lot of money was unnecessarily spent due to each branch’s separate departments, such as human resources. Each branch had their own bank account, too, which could make funds difficult to access quickly during crises.
Now, every branch operates under the national leadership. There are no longer duplicated departments, and there is one bank account for the entire national organization.
In that way, the changes were beneficial, Mitchell said.
The downside, though, is he’s not able to be as locally involved as he would like. When Mitchell was the executive director in Holland, he could attend rotary meetings and make many connections important to his position. When he moved to Holland, he was told it would take 10 years to be accepted into the community.
“I took that as a challenge, quite frankly,” he said.
In less than a year, he said he felt completely accepted by the community because his involvement showed caring and commitment.
Now that he oversees 12 counties, he cannot be as locally involved as he once was. He met with mayors on a monthly basis before the reorganization; now, those types of meetings happen annually. He and his staff are recruiting volunteers to fill that gap, though that will take some adjustment.
But, Mitchell said that sacrifice to maintain financial independence and neutrality is “well worth it” because it gives people around the world trust in the Red Cross.
During the Flint water crisis, residents were hesitant to open their doors to government officials who came with water donations. Red Cross representatives had a much easier time gaining access to the community because of that trust, Mitchell said. The residents knew the Red Cross was there for the “humanitarian purpose of donating water.”
If the staff opens a shelter for disaster relief, it does not worry about anyone’s legal status or checking identification.
“We just want to make sure you have a roof over your head and a place to stay,” he said.
Because there aren’t many natural disasters in Michigan, Mitchell said it’s a great place to train volunteers to be ready when they come in other areas.
He said this type of training is very important for anyone who wants to help during a crisis.
Though intentions are good, he said actions by untrained individuals sometimes can be detrimental.
Some people feel driven to travel to a disaster area to help directly, for example. But once those people arrive, they often have to become Red Cross clients in order to access food and shelter, since those resources are not readily available in a crisis zone. At that point, the good Samaritans are unnecessarily using resources that should go to the victims they wanted to help.
The best way to help, if volunteers want to use their own two hands, is to sign up with the Red Cross, get the proper training and be sent by the organization. The West Michigan chapter has sent more than 100 people to the recent disaster areas, including those affected by hurricanes, the northern California wildfires and Las Vegas shootings.
“Everybody wants to help,” he said. “Everybody wants to be able to do something. But only because you have the proper training are you able to. So, get the training now. Be able to help.”
Another common misconception, he said, is that it’s helpful to donate items such as clothes to organizations that provide services to disaster victims. If a box of clothes is donated, it takes resources to be sorted, packed and mailed, and it may not even be what the clients need. And if a victim receives a box of clothes from an outside source, that takes away the option of spending money locally to rebuild the economy.
It’s always best, he said, to donate money, if possible. That way, clients can use the funds for what they actually need, like clothes they like and that fit properly.
The Red Cross is in the public eye perhaps mostly because of its role in national disaster relief, but locally, Mitchell said the Red Cross responds to house fires with just as much gusto.
“A person who has a home fire here is no less devastated than the people who were displaced or impacted by Hurricane Harvey,” he said.
To be prepared for a disaster, big or small, Mitchell said training is key, whether it’s from the Red Cross or another organization. Everyone should be certified in CPR and first aid, for example.
Mitchell believes the Red Cross provides its services in an effort to make the world a better place. He said the organization always will be there in times of need because they have promised to do so.
“The American Red Cross is that fallback organization that everyone relies on when the need arises,” he said.
There are three things Mitchell generally asks of the public: “Their time, their blood and their money.”
Whether they can help a little or a lot, help is always wanted.