“We have to stop treating these events as exceptional”: Canadian Red Cross CEO Conrad Sauvé on how to prepare for the next global emergency

Sauvé has been the organization’s CEO since 2008, and says shocks are getting more frequent and severe — so it’s time to invest in preparedness

Why It Matters

Major crises like climate disasters and pandemics are, and will continue to, increase in frequency. The good news, though, is that organizations responding to these crises and their aftershocks can use learnings from this pandemic to prepare for the next emergency.

This story is in partnership with the Canadian Red Cross.

The Canadian Red Cross has had an extremely — and increasingly — busy several years. 

From flooding in Calgary back in 2013 to forest fires throughout B.C. earlier this year to responding to tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes overseas. The crises are getting more frequent and more severe, says Conrad Sauve, who’s served as the CEO of the Canadian Red Cross since 2008. 

And, of course, these emergencies are compounded by the big one: COVID-19. 

Sauvé’s the first to admit that, like many other civil society organizations helping those affected by major crises, the Canadian Red Cross was not prepared for the pandemic and all its repercussions. But he has some ideas for how the sector could apply what it’s learned during this time in order to be better prepared for the next big shock. 

Future of Good CEO and Publisher Vinod Rajasekaran sat down with Sauvé to learn more.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Vinod Rajasekaran: I want to kick off with the present. As head of the Canadian Red Cross, how would you characterize the times we’re living in?

Conrad Sauvé: This has been a time of numerous disruptions. We’ve seen, certainly in the last 10 years, the rise of some big, international responses. The tsunamis, the earthquakes, the hurricanes. And in the last five years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase — this is prior to COVID — of natural disasters in Canada, from the most visible Fort McMurray evacuations, the B.C. wildfires that have gotten fairly big, and flooding in central Canada. So, we’ve seen firsthand a tremendous rise of responses on our side, and increased operations both domestically and internationally. 

Vinod: So, it sounds like emergencies are here to stay. Is that true?

Conrad: Well, I think one thing that’s clear is we have to stop treating these events as exceptional. When we do polls with Canadians, there’s a feeling that these things happened elsewhere but not here. 

Vinod: I don’t know if we would have thought about things in that way pre-pandemic. How has the culture of emergency preparedness evolved since you’ve been CEO of the Canadian Red Cross?

Conrad: I think it’s more about the realization that we’re unprepared, actually. And I think, if anything, the pandemic is going to be an accelerator — hopefully — of some better preparation. In terms of our cultural preparedness, I had a recent meeting within the Red Cross where we looked at the last five years, and we had underprojected, by a lot, compared to what actually happened. In terms of the pandemic, this has been a predictable event, in a sense. We’ve been talking about how we’re due for a pandemic, but were we really expecting it and preparing for it? In the Red Cross, the answer would be no. We’re very agile in the response, but were we really ready? I think one of the biggest learnings in the pandemic is that we’ve been talking about localization for a number of years. It’s about being as local as possible, as international as necessary. Your first line of response is your local capacity. 

[For instance,] we always say, earthquakes don’t kill people — it’s buildings that kill people. So, you see earthquakes happening in Japan, and there have been some terrible ones, but the same earthquake happening in Japan as in Haiti does not have the same impact in terms of building construction, and so on. 

Vinod: I’ve read about the work that the Canadian Red Cross and a few other organizations did after the 2013 floods in Calgary, to take a couple years to understand what could have been done differently to prepare civil society. Do you see something like that that we could do at a national level coming out of COVID?

Conrad: This has been our largest operation in history, the pandemic. But I’m tired of, every year, saying this has been our largest operation yet, because that has been the case every year. If we look at how we responded and how we go forward, we’ve developed different expertises, different services, through the Calgary floods, Fort McMurray — Fort McMurray was a huge response in terms of providing direct response to Canadians, but also the whole granting process to community organizations, what we understood, and then we came into COVID with a lot of this expertise. The whole area of supporting organizations and understanding what our added value is in the ecosystem, as a large, national and international organization. What we found, of course, is that during COVID, it wasn’t all about money. We advocated to the federal government to make sure that smaller organizations were on the radar in terms of accessing PPE equipment and training. The more vulnerable organizations were the smaller ones, the non-profits that didn’t have charitable status, the local, the very small organizations. Not a lot of infrastructure, not a lot of administrative capacity. One of the challenges looking back and the lessons learned is that we have to go looking for them, because they’re not registered anywhere. So, those are the delays. 

Vinod: We’re a very generous people in Canada. Annual giving is fairly high among western countries. Do you see an opportunity for Canadians and philanthropic organizations to give to mitigate and give to prepare?

Conrad: You’re right, I think Canadians are extremely generous in responding. The broad appeal is the emergency, and that they want to do something specific to that. The relationship in terms of mitigating and prevention is a harder sell, because it appears not as concrete. And so, more often foundations and some governments will support that side, and the mass public appeal will be the emergency, because it’s immediate. But you are right that the big agenda is the preparedness. We have been tremendously agile in building up a capacity to respond. We’ve never tested these things — everything’s been live in the last number of years. What we’d like to do is get ahead a little bit and say, ‘What’s going to happen? What are we looking to in the future? And can we collectively start looking at how we could respond?’ And let me put one very clear issue on the table: We’re going to have massive heat waves in major Canadian cities. We should be talking about that now. Where are the vulnerable people who are going to be affected by that? How are we going to respond? We should be talking about that now, not next July.

To watch a video of the full conversation — including more on global preparedness inequity, whether Canada is ready for the impacts of climate change, and more — become a Future of Good member today