1.7M Volunteers to Train? No Problem, Says Red Cross GEMBA

Ariel Kestens: “In the end, it’s all about management”

26/02/2015 Barcelona

Ariel Kestens
Humanitarian organizations may traditionally have been hesitant to embrace business concepts, but “in the end, it’s all about management,” says Ariel Kestens / Photo: Edu Ferrer

There are few more globally recognized brands than the Red Cross. For more than 150 years its flag has been a universal symbol of neutrality and relief from war, disaster and disease.

Managing the Red Cross’s humanitarian mission is no easy undertaking. A globe-spanning behemoth, its operations bridge two international bodies, 189 separate societies, 165,000 local branches and a staggering 1.7 million volunteers.

Ariel Kestens is the Global Head of Learning and Development at the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies. As challenging jobs go, there are few more exacting than his.

A graduate of the Global Executive MBA (GEMBA ‘09), Kestens came to IESE’s Barcelona campus this month to speak to MBA students taking part in Professor Antonino Vaccaro’s Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship Project – a laboratory which designs ventures that combine social impact and economic success.

Kestens gave students the inside track on the challenges he faces heading up a complex, cross-border division; and the ways in which he has been able to leverage his own GEMBA training to rethink and overcome problems.

The Scale of the Challenge

Front-line volunteers working with the Red Cross across the world face an enormous challenge. There are currently 85 million people in need of immediate disaster response; and a further 97 million needing longer-term support. Training these volunteers for the tasks ahead on a tight budget and across linguistic, cultural and political boundaries means negotiating a broad spectrum of highly complex challenges.

"The effective allocation of resources is obviously highly important," says Kestens. "But just as important is transparency." Because although Red Cross donors understand that training is useful, most prefer to see money go to the "ultimate cause of helping people."

"I have a target of teaching our 1.7 million volunteers seven key competencies by 2020 to help them discharge their tasks efficiently," he added.

Finding the Right Business Tools

Kestens quickly understood the scale of the challenge before him, and turned to the IESE GEMBA.

"I realized that I needed to boost my managerial and leadership skills. I had 1,000 employees, 40 nursing schools and a good 10,000 volunteers under my charge at that point – I knew there was much more I could, and needed to do."

Humanitarian organizations may traditionally have been hesitant to embrace business concepts, but "in the end, it’s all about management."

"The Red Cross is an organization that is very close to my own value system. This is the reason I came to IESE. I felt that the school’s values were very close both to the Red Cross’s and to mine."

Learning to Innovate

Change is never easy. Less so when you have been with an organization for a while: "By the time you reach a point in the organization when you can do it, you are so into the organizational thinking – the same way of doing things and looking at problems – that you become less innovative."

His GEMBA experience helped him shake off this fixed mindset, step out and gain fresh perspectives that he could convert into initiatives with impact in the Red Cross.

"The experience of having discussed hundreds of business problems with people from all over the world and from different sectors helps you to incorporate other ways of doing things," he says.

The tools he acquired during his IESE experience helped him approach the Red Cross’s training challenge from new and innovative perspectives.

In 2011 he introduced an online learning platform with an initial reach of 11,000 volunteers. Today it reaches some 149,000 people around the world.

As the platform continues to expand to more and more volunteers, Kestens and his team will need to develop techniques to bridge the digital divide. Limited connectivity, for instance, is a big problem in some remote regions. But problems are something Kestens has the experience, tools and mindset to embrace. "After all," he says, "necessity is the mother of invention."