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Afghan refugee crisis now largest relief effort for American Red Cross

BYU honors American Red Cross head Gail McGovern as Executive of the Year

American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern talks to a donor during a Red Cross blood drive at BYU in Provo, Utah.
American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern, center, talks to a donor during a visit to a Red Cross blood drive at BYU in Provo, Utah, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. BYU’s Marriott School of Business honored her Friday with its International Executive of the Year Award.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

The Afghan evacuee crisis already is the largest refugee aid project the American Red Cross has managed in recent history, its president and CEO said Friday before she accepted a leadership award at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

The American Red Cross has provided what it calls full mass care — shelter and medical aid — to 22,000 Afghan refugees at four U.S. military bases while providing aid and training Department of Defense personnel in full mass care at 14 additional bases, Gail McGovern told the Deseret News.

McGovern received the 2021 International Executive of the Year Award on Friday night from BYU’s Marriott School of Business during a dinner at the Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center.

The White House has said it expects to resettle 95,000 Afghans, according to news reports.

“In my tenure at the Red Cross, this is the largest refugee project that we have been a part of,” said McGovern, who led the organization out of dire financial straits after she took over in 2008. The size and scope of the Red Cross efforts to help Afghan evacuees is so large that organization officials go back to the 1970s, when the Red Cross helped refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, to find a larger effort.

The Red Cross has provided 580,000 items and 330,000 meals and snacks to Afghan evacuees.

“So many of these people arrived with nothing, I mean, absolutely nothing,” McGovern said. “No shoes, soiled clothes, no diapers for the children. It was absolutely and continues to be heart wrenching.”

The charity’s ability to provide humanitarian aid on that scale is a sign that American generosity is alive and well in an era of political division, she said. The American Red Cross is politically neutral and has 300,000 volunteers.

“There’s no such thing as a typical volunteer,” she said. “They come from different political backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds. You know, it’s kind of a beautiful thing, and I just feel privileged to be part of it.”

“I have this vantage point where I can see the generosity of the American public,” McGovern added, “and I think that there is no country like ours in that regard. The per capita charitable giving in the United States of America is higher than any other country, and that’s what I see. That’s what I see during disasters. That’s what I see when it comes to installing smoke alarms.”

McGovern spent Friday at BYU giving leadership advice to business students, visiting donors at a campus blood drive and accepting the award from BYU President Kevin Worthen and the Marriott School’s National Advisory Council.

American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern talks to BYU student while he donates blood on the Provo, Utah, campus.
American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern talks to BYU student and blood donor Ryan Best, 24, during a visit to a Red Cross blood drive on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. BYU’s Marriott School of Business honored her Friday with its International Executive of the Year Award.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Past award recipients include former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill, former ESPN president George Bodenheimer, former ExxonMobile CEO and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Randal Quarles of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

During her acceptance speech, McGovern said she was drawn to the Red Cross position in 2008 because of the intellectual challenge of a turnaround job. The charity had a $209 million operating deficit.

She succeeded but said the work changed her for the better, too.

“The award honors someone who is an exemplary leader, someone with integrity, someone with high moral and ethical standards. Gail represents all of those things,” Marriott School Dean Brigitte Madrian told the Deseret News.

McGovern is a decorated leader. A former dean of the Harvard Business School introduced her at the recognition dinner and said he counted recruiting her to teach at Harvard before she joined the Red Cross as one of his great successes.

“We are honoring a world-class teacher. I don’t say that lightly. Her students loved her, and she loved them. Her colleagues recognized her value by making her a professor of management practice ... and she was viewed and treated by the tenured faculty there as a senior colleague — valued, trusted and admired,” said Elder Kim B. Clark, an emeritus General Authority Seventy and the National Advisory Council Professor of Business at the BYU Marriott School.

“She’s very tough, but she has a heart of gold,” he added.

McGovern clearly understood BYU. When she posed for a photo at the campus blood drive that suggested Cosmo, the BYU sports mascot clad in a blue jersey, was donating blood, an onlooker asked her what color it was.

“He bleeds blue,” she said, as if it were obvious. “He’s Cosmo.”

American Red Cross president and CEO Gail McGovern prepare for a photo with BYU mascot Cosmo the Cougar at a blood drive.
Brigitte C. Madrian, dean of the BYU Marriott School of Business, left, Cosmo the Cougar, center, and American Red Cross president and CEO Gail McGovern prepare for a photo opportunity during a visit to a Red Cross blood drive at BYU in Provo, Utah, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. McGovern received the BYU Marriott School of Business’ International Executive of the Year Award.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

This is the second time BYU’s Marriott School has recognized McGovern, who is the former president of Fidelity Personal Investments and former vice president of AT&T’s Consumer Markets Division. The school’s Romney Institute of Public Management gave her its Administrator of the Year Award in 2015.

BYU’s sponsor, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has worked with the American Red Cross for 34 years. McGovern met with church leaders in 2012.

“It’s been energizing for me to see her brand of leadership at the American Red Cross,” Latter-day Saint Charities President Sharon Eubank said. “She’s had to deal with financial crises, personnel crises and emergency after emergency. She’s a leader on the fly, and she’s really good. She has burnished the American Red Cross’ reputation,” said Sister Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency for the church.

“I can’t even describe what an honor it is to receive the award,” McGovern said in her acceptance speech, “and I want to make you proud for the rest of my career so you know I deserved it. It’s been a pleasure sharing the day with you and from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much.”