23 September 2018

Learning From the Red Cross

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst


  • This article highlights the lessons learned from doing a six-month project on learning from one of the largest nonprofit organizations in existence: the International Federation of Red Cross / Red Crescent.
  • Lessons include flexibility being key, learning being largely about bravery, and the importance of desire to build new knowledge and skills.

I've spent the last 6 months doing a pro bono project with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The IFRC is an incredible organization that does a lot of good in the world. They are a federation of 191 independently operating national societies, and, in total, direct the efforts of over 11 million volunteers. It's big. And it's complex. And .after working with them for six months, it's difficult for me to have sympathy for learning leaders who say that they "can't" do something because of internal complexities.

The goal of this small project with the IFRC was to get a baseline on how their national societies learn. They want to change the definition of "learn" from something that happens in the classroom to something that happens continuously, wherever staff and volunteers are. We began the effort with a survey and some analysis, and then the internal team heading up the effort hosted representatives from about 30 national societies in Geneva last week. The singular goal was to figure out how to further learning throughout the federation.

The thing is, while the IFRC doesn't have many of the usual trappings that we associate with learning and development, they are fundamentally a learning organization – an organization that learns. While they have challenges like all organizations do, they are unfettered by some of the things that keeps for-profit organizations stagnant. And because of this, they're continually learning and adjusting. And while I have been talking about it for well over 5 years now, this group taught me new things about what it means to be a learning organization:

1. Flexibility is key. I was supposed to present findings to representatives from about 15 national societies on Monday morning in Geneva, Switzerland. Unfortunately, I read the agenda wrong and bought a ticket that didn't get me to Geneva until 2pm on Monday, about 3 hours after I was supposed to speak. Fred, my contact with the IFRC, listened to my panicked call, and then worked some magic on his side to rearrange some things. He did it calmly – seeking a solution to the problem instead of focusing on the cause (which I fully admit, was me).

I couldn't help but think as I got of the phone with him how much stress in our organizations could be relieved if we could all learn a little bit of flexibility. Is forgetting the page numbers on a presentation really the end of the world, or are we all going to live through it? Can we instead use things that don't go 100% right as experiences for learning and growth? I did. I vow never to buy another plane ticket without double-checking my schedule.

2. Learning is largely about bravery. Because of the decentralized nature of the IFRC, our initial timeline for data collection and analysis was extended by several weeks, which meant that it was almost impossible to review high-level findings with leadership before we shared them with the larger group. IFRC leaders encouraged the sharing of data with the larger group, and then went further by allowing me to share it with a group of about 30 chief learning officers from around the globe to see if we could find commonalities and make suggestions that may help the IFRC.

It's brave to be that vulnerable. It's also how we learn. We try things we don't know how to do, we share uncomfortable information about ourselves with others, we allow others to learn in messy, scary, ways.

3. Desire is really important. I sat in a room last Monday with representatives from national societies that included Afghanistan, China, and North Korea, among many others. These people came together to find solutions that will help their staff and volunteers learn better. They spoke different languages. There was a lot of translation going on. There was questioning and clarification and a true desire to seek understanding. The goal was more important than nationality or one person's opinion, or the larger conflicts going on in the world.

I wonder how many other leaders are as anxious as these were in helping their workers understand what it will take to make a difference in their organizations. I also wonder how many L&D functions work as hard as the internal learning group at IFRC does to help inspire leaders to care about learning in the first place. And, I wonder what would happen if we all cared that much.

This project was unlike any other project I have ever done. It fundamentally changed me. I'm better for having done it and better for having met these people. And we're just at the beginning. I'm sure as we continue with this project, they'll continue to teach me what it means to be a learning organization and what it means to have impact in the world.

If you want to help, you can donate to the Red Cross here, and if you want to help with this project specifically, contact me. I know people 🙂

Written by

Dani Johnson
Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

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