How the American Red Cross Works

By: Ed Grabianowski

American Red Cross blood donor center.
American Red Cross blood donor center in Shoreview, Minnesota. UCG / UCG/Universal Images Group via G

Since 1881, the American Red Cross has been completely focused on humanitarian relief. More than 95 percent of the Red Cross' staff is made up of volunteers, and over a million people volunteer every year [ref].

While the American Red Cross is one of the world's largest aid organizations, it is only one branch of a worldwide movement dedicated to providing relief to victims of disasters and helping people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies.


In this article, we'll learn about the functions of the American Red Cross and how it provides all of its services. We'll also discuss the history of the American Red Cross and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.


Red Cross Functions

A Hurricane Katrina victim gets a hug from a Red Cross worker at the St. Agnes service center in Houston, Texas.
A Hurricane Katrina victim gets a hug from a Red Cross worker at the St. Agnes service center in Houston, Texas.
Photo courtesy Michael Seamans, American Red Cross

The American Red Cross' main functions fall into four areas: blood collection, disaster relief, aid to soldiers and victims of war, and community education and outreach.

Blood Collection

Many people know of the Red Cross primarily through its blood collection efforts. It collects and maintains about half of the United States blood supply from roughly 4 million donors [ref]. In 2001, this amounted to more than 7 million units of blood. Americans require about 39,000 units of blood every day because of accidents, surgery, illness or disease [ref]. The blood is used by all of the nation's hospitals and by the United States military.


Blood that has been collected by the Red Cross is carefully labeled and shipped to two different places: a component lab and a testing lab. The testing lab puts the blood through nine tests to make sure it is safe and free from transmissible diseases. The component lab separates the blood into red blood cells, platelets and plasma. Once the test results are received, the components are shipped to hospitals according to need.

Disaster Relief

Disaster relief is another major aspect of the Red Cross. Although the primary responsibility for dealing with disasters lies with local, state and federal governments, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the needs of victims can easily overwhelm the capabilities of government officials. The Red Cross strives to respond to any disaster or emergency incident within two hours of being notified, although this is not always possible because of hazardous conditions.

When the Red Cross arrives at the scene of a disaster, the first priority is to provide food, water, shelter and medical services. Medical services include first aid as well as treatment for certain ongoing conditions. For example, someone who needs dialysis or diabetes medication can get help from the Red Cross during a disaster. The Red Cross also provides mental health counseling to disaster victims, volunteers and rescuers. Mental health assistance is vital because anyone involved in a disaster sees and experiences things far beyond their normal lives, and it can be very difficult to deal with these experiences. The Red Cross has specially trained personnel with experience in disaster counseling.

Red Cross services also work to help people resume their lives in the wake of a disaster, giving them the tools to sustain themselves. This can include referrals, transportation or occupational tools. Finally, in situations where insurance and government help are not enough, the Red Cross can offer long-term help for rebuilding. All of these services are in addition to the logistics of housing, feeding and coordinating rescuers, medical personnel and victims. Using bulletin boards, Internet sites and other communications tools, the Red Cross also tries to reunite families that were separated in the midst of a disaster.

When there is a major disaster somewhere else in the world, such as the 2004 tsunami, the American Red Cross sends people and supplies to supplement the efforts of the other Red Cross and Red Crescent groups and works to coordinate relief from other national groups.

Aid to Soldiers and Victims of War

In times of war, the Red Cross fulfills the original goal of the International Red Cross movement -- to provide aid and comfort to soldiers and victims of war. This often takes the form of distributing care packages and keeping members of the armed forces in contact with family members.

Sgt. Maj. Ronald Simons talks to his son through the Red Cross' Project Video Connect.
Sgt. Maj. Ronald Simons talks to his son through the Red Cross' Project Video Connect.
Photo courtesy U.S. Army

Community Education and Outreach

The Red Cross impacts communities across the U.S. with its health and safety education programs. Through babysitter training courses, lifeguard training, CPR training and certification and HIV/AIDS education, they give people the tools to become lifesavers themselves. In addition, the Red Cross offers Workplace Training Courses in a variety of health and safety areas.

A Red Cross CPR class in session
A Red Cross CPR class in session
Photo courtesy American Red Cross

Local Red Cross chapters provide a wide range of humanitarian services, including food pantries, senior services, community service programs, homeless shelters and youth groups.

In the next section, we'll look at the history of the Red Cross.

Red Cross History

The Red Cross movement started in Europe with Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant. In 1859, he witnessed a bloody battle near Solferino, Italy that left the battlefield strewn with wounded soldiers. Dunant was horrified that the men were left there to die from their injuries. He organized local villagers into volunteer teams that recovered the injured, brought them into homes and churches and cared for them as best they could.

With little or no medical training or supplies, there was a limit to what they could accomplish. Dunant vowed to harness the willingness of people to help those in need by organizing and training international relief groups. These groups would remain independent of any nation, and work on battlefields worldwide to provide aid to civilians and soldiers who were victims of war.


In 1863, a Geneva, Switzerland conference outlined the principles of the Red Cross movement. At a second conference, participants drew up the Geneva Convention. This was a set of rules for the treatment of wounded on the battlefield and the general conduct of war. It was initially signed by twelve European nations. Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works in war zones and on battlefields worldwide.

During the American Civil War, a former schoolteacher and office clerk named Clara Barton volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers. She realized that medical care behind the lines could only accomplish so much -- wounded men needed medical care as soon after the battle as possible. As a battlefield nurse, Barton witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. After the war, she created a system for tracking down missing soldiers and reuniting them with their families. On a trip to Europe, Barton learned of the Red Cross, and was struck by the parallels between her efforts and those of Dunant. After volunteering with the Red Cross in European wars, she returned home and began organizing the American Red Cross, although the United States had not yet signed the Geneva Convention. She was determined to overcome the political isolation of the era, and she also recognized the toll that natural disasters exacted on U.S. citizens every year. The American Red Cross would not restrict its efforts to wartime.

In the early 1880s, deadly floods and forest fires drew attention to Barton's efforts. Within a few years, the U.S. government signed the Geneva Convention and accepted the American Red Cross organization. Later, Barton would travel again to Europe, where she eventually convinced the Red Cross federations to develop plans for peacetime relief efforts. Barton served as President of the American Red Cross for 23 years, and traveled to battlefields around the world to personally oversee relief efforts.

The American Red Cross is part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), an umbrella organization that unites nearly 200 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. The national organizations are independent, but the IFRC coordinates their efforts and helps them unite for international relief projects. This federation is focused on disaster relief, rather than the war aid provided by the ICRC.

Next, we'll find out how the American Red Cross is structured.

Red Cross Structure

The American Red Cross is made up of 769 regional or city-based chapters. Every chapter is officially chartered by the national Board of Governors. The directors of the chapters have some degree of autonomy is determining which programs and services are most vital in their area, while the Red Cross' $4.1 billion annual budget is distributed at the national level to the individual chapters.

The Red Cross is not funded by the government; its budget comes from donations as well as cost-recovery fees that are charged for some services. In certain circumstances, the Red Cross recieves government money because the government has contracted the Red Cross to carry out some aspect of relief efforts. Because it is a non-profit, charitable organization, the Red Cross is tax-exempt.


The Red Cross is not completely independent of the United States government, however. The organization runs under a Congressional charter that has been in place since 1905. Under this charter, the Red Cross acts as an "instrument of the government," carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the Geneva Convention and other tasks that the federal government delegates to it [ref]. The Federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) monitors the Red Cross' blood collection and storage programs.

The president of the American Red Cross is elected by a 50-member Board of Governors. The members of the board are volunteers, while the president draws a salary of more than $200,000 per year. Some presidents have offered to forgo this salary [ref]. The President of the U.S. is considered the honorary chairperson of the Board of Governors, and also appoints eight of the board members. The other 42 members are elected at the annual national convention. The board elects 12 of them, and 30 are elected by the delegates from various Red Cross chapters who attend the convention.

The rest of the Red Cross' roster is made up of approximately 1.2 million volunteers and about 40,000 paid employees, mostly nurses.

In the next section we'll examine the controversy that sometimes plagues the Red Cross.

Controversy and Conflict

Red Cross Disaster Relief truck
Red Cross Disaster Relief truck
Photo courtesy FEMA

The American Red Cross has not always operated smoothly. The end of Clara Barton's tenure as president of the Red Cross was marked by an internal power struggle that resulted in accusations of improper bookkeeping on her part, and ended with her resignation.

Controversy involving the presidency of the Red Cross erupted again during the 1996 campaign for United States President. Senator Bob Dole was running as the Republican candidate and his wife Elizabeth Dole was head of the American Red Cross. There were reports that she used a personally selected group of advisers to shift Red Cross policy for reasons that may have had more to do with her husband's political standing than the demands of health and safety programs [ref].


Marsha Evans resigned from the presidency in December of 2005. Although some critics claim that this is related to the Red Cross' Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, Evans cited difficulties in dealing with the Board of Governors. She had held the position since 2002.

The Red Cross' blood collection services have come under fire for violations of safety protocols for blood collection and storage. In 2001, the FDA filed a motion in federal court to publicize the Red Cross' failure to improve several specific deficiencies in the blood collection program, such as improper labeling and lack of inventory controls [ref]. The Red Cross claimed that all the FDA violations were simple bookkeeping errors, and that there is no danger to the nation's blood supply.

The Red Cross has also been criticized by gay rights groups who claim that some of their blood donation restrictions discriminate against gay men. Donors who have engaged in certain activities that put them at high risk for blood-borne diseases are restricted from donating for a certain period of time, or in some cases banned for life. Examples include getting a tattoo, living in Africa, using illegal drugs intravenously, or engaging in male-to-male sex. A man who has had a sex with another man after 1977 (or a woman who has had sex with a man who has had sex with a man) is banned from donating blood for life. In 2000, the issue was reviewed, but the Red Cross did not revise the ban [ref].

Some of the Red Cross' financial donors have been angered to find out that some of the money they donated was diverted to fund future relief efforts, instead of the disaster that prompted their donation. For example, about $200 million of the $1.1 billion collected in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was put aside to fund future relief efforts. Donor complaints resulted in the money being shifted back to 9/11 relief, the resignation of Red Cross president Bernadine Healy, and a promise of greater transparency in the agency's financial dealings in the future [ref]. Despite those efforts, complaints surfaced again in 2005, when funds donated for relief from Hurricane Katrina were not earmarked for long-term rebuilding (something for which Red Cross funds are not traditionally used).

Others complained that the Red Cross' relief efforts after Katrina were insufficient, poorly organized and targeted to white storm victims, while black victims didn't receive help for days. The Red Cross has refuted some of these claims here.

For more information about the American Red Cross, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Biomedical FAQ: Red Cross,1096,0_379_,00.html
  • Burger, Leslie & Rahm, Debra. "Red Cross Red Crescent: When help can't wait." Lerner, 1996. ISBN 0822526980
  • "Despite Katrina efforts, Red Cross draws criticism." Associated Press, September 28, 2005.
  • "FDA asks federal court to hold American Red Cross in contempt of 1993 consent decree." FDA News, December 13, 2001.
  • "The federal charter of the American Red Cross." American Red Cross Museum.
  • Hamilton, Leni. "Clara Barton." Chelsea House, 1988. ISBN 1-555466419
  • Heller, Linda. "The Red Cross: A Question of Competence." The Nation, July 1, 1996.
  • Hurd, Charles. "The Compact History of the American Red Cross." Hawthorne, 1959.
  • "Hurricane Katrina aftermath: American Red Cross relief efforts." Reuters, September 14, 2005.
  • Orfinger, Becky. "FDA Committee Votes Against Relaxing Donor Ban." American Red Cross, 2000.
  • Pollard, Michael. "The Red Cross and the Red Crescent." New Discovery, 1992. ISBN 0027747204
  • "Truth Concerning Misstatements." American Red Cross, September 2005.
  • Volunteer FAQ: Red Cross,1096,0_385_,00.html