Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement

American Red Cross (The)

By Lisa A. Bancuk

Graduate Student, Grand Valley State University


The American Red Cross is a humanitarian organization led by volunteers and guided by its Congressional Charter and the Fundamental Principals of the International Red Cross Movement. The Federal Charter states it is a nonprofit, tax-exempt, charitable organization. Its seven fundamental principles are: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality. Its mission guides the organization to provide relief to victims of disasters and to help people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies.

Historic Roots

Pre 1900

In 1863, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement is established in Geneva, Switzerland due to the efforts of Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant. Dunant's writings inspire the First Geneva Convention at which delegates from twelve countries sign the Treaty of Geneva to protect the wounded during wartime.

Clara Barton founds the American Association of the Red Cross in 1881 to aid the injured during the Civil War. Though the organization is modeled after the International Red Cross, Barton establishes it to serve America in peace as well as war, particularly in times of natural disaster and national tragedy. In 1893, its name is changed to the American National Red Cross (in 1978, it will become known simply as the American Red Cross).


At the beginning of the twentieth century, recognition of the American National Red Cross increases when it is granted a congressional charter and Henry Dunant receives a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, problems exist and Clara Barton resigns in 1904 due to public pressure. Because the organization suffers from lack of uniformity, it works toward reorganization so it can provide aid during World War I.


After World War I, the public support for the American National Red Cross and the number of volunteers decreases. Yet the need for its services continues. In 1921, Judge John Barton Payne, reorganizes it again, showing it can survive without war and emergency work. Payne believes the organization will prosper if it satisfies social demands and needs not addressed by other agencies. During this time, its staff and volunteers help those who suffer from floods, drought, and the Great Depression.


Thousands of volunteers emerge at the beginning of World War II. The Red Cross recruits nurses on behalf of the U. S. military. It also hires additional social workers and recreation specialists to help civilians adjust as an increasing number of Americans are drafted. During the 1940s, the organization establishes a blood donation program and makes its hiring practices and organizational structure more equitable.

In 1950, the American National Red Cross becomes involved when Communist North Korea invades South Korea. It aids U.S. armed forces by delivering emergency messages to troops from their families, collecting and shipping blood to injured soldiers, and holding morale-boosting activities for troops. They also assist in the exchange of prisoners and provide relief to the Korean citizens.


As in the rest of American society, the organization has to cope with issues related to rapid social and technological change. Societal divisiveness flourishes due to the Civil Rights Movement, labor disputes, constant unemployment, and the Vietnam War. The organization begins to rely on radio communications, computers and satellites. It aids in recovery from such man-made disasters as chemical accidents, oil spills and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. During this time, it assists Vietnam War veterans, the elderly, mentally ill, and Vietnamese refugees.


The American Red Cross provides relief to victims of disasters. Millions of relief workers aid victims of house fires, earthquakes, floods, bombings, and hurricanes. The 1990s brought a record-breaking number of hurricanes, including Hurricane Andrew for which the Red Cross spent close to $84 million and provided almost 15,000 volunteers in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. During the 1990s, the American Red Cross was named one of the 10 best-managed charities in the country by Money magazine.


Throughout its history, the American Red Cross has helped victims of disasters, wars, and other catastrophes. The organization is important to the United States and the world. It offers food and aid to foreign countries and also ranks as a leader in the nursing, health and safety fields. It provides medical services as well as morale boosting services to the American armed forces. It also serves an important function as the nation’s foremost blood collection agency. In fact, it obtains nearly half of all blood donated in America today.

“In 1904, Clara Barton commented on the role of the Red Cross in American life: ‘It is not in its past glories or benefits of the Red Cross lie, but in the possibilities it has created for the future’” (Gilbo p. 45). In some way, the American Red Cross has touched the lives of countless citizens of the United States. It is an important agency that has made it much easier to handle emergency situations in peacetime and during war.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The American Red Cross is at the heart of the philanthropic sector. It uses volunteers throughout the world to help accomplish its goals and services. The services it provides help those in need at all economic and socio-economic levels. The Red Cross does not look at politics, race and social status; it only looks at human need. It also promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation, and lasting peace among all people.

To help those in need, the organization depends on individual donations, corporate sponsors, and volunteer support from individual citizens. There are many services provided by the Red Cross, including: armed forces emergency services, biomedical services, community services, disaster services, health and safety services, international services, leadership volunteers, and youth services.

Key Related Ideas

  • Volunteerism

  • National Emergencies

  • Emergency Preparedness

  • Individual and Corporate Giving

  • Neutrality

  • Impartiality

  • Youth Involvement

  • Federal Charter

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Clara Barton

  • Henry Dunant

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • International Red Cross

  • American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)

  • Hospitals

  • Churches


American Red Cross. [online]. Available: www.redcross.org. (30 March 2001).

Dubowski, Cathy. Clara Barton: Healing the Wounds. New Jersey: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Gilbo, Patrick F. The American Red Cross: The First Century. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1981.

Gilbo, Patrick F. Know Your Government: The American Red Cross. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.