Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.
Denver: In this edition of The Paths Forward we’ll speak with team members at RED an organization that PARTNERS WITH THE WORLD’S MOST ICONIC BRANDS TO BUILD STRONGER HEALTH SYSTEMS THAT FIGHT PANDEMICS.
We’ll start with Jennifer Lotito, their President who will tell us about how the Organization came to be.
Jennifer: As you mentioned, we were started by Bono and Bobby Shriver just over 15 years ago. And what I like to say is that we were not formed because we thought the world needed another AIDS fighting organization. That was absolutely not the case. We were really formed for one reason, and that was to bring the private sector– or companies into the fight, and specifically to fund the Global Fund, one of the leading private, financing organizations, fighting the most preventable and treatable diseases of AIDS, TB and malaria.
Denver: What sets RED apart from many other organizations is the concept of one mission, one team. Sean, Emilio. Mackenzie and Sam explain.
Sean: So (RED), for example, has determined that the Global Fund, one of the largest global health partnerships on the planet that just raises a ton of money to fight pandemics like AIDS, that’s the vehicle that we’re going to buy into and support. And that’s where we’re going to dedicate our time and our focus. So we realized that there are plenty of other great organizations that are doing work on global health, but instead of trying to boil the ocean, I think we really hone in on what we do best and the vehicles that can really make the most effective change
Emilio: But one aspect that I really love is the intimacy of this organization. And from an organizational standpoint as well, I think that when I, prior to joining (RED), I thought (RED), had seen all the work that they had done up until that point that it was an organization of 200, 300 individuals to find out, and pleasantly so, to find out that there’s about 30 of us total is really incredible.
I think further underwrites and proves the amazing work that everyone’s doing, the commitment that everyone has to this organization, and the way that in a very non-cliche way, in the way that everyone is really brought together under this one umbrella, into a very… it’s a demanding but very exciting environment. And I think that makes each campaign, each event, and each product launch even more rewarding, exciting, and just honestly incredible to see everyone’s work pay off.
Mackenzie: But just from my personal perspective, I always, and I think Huw also mentioned this earlier too, is that I like to say at (RED), there’s really no job too big or too small. We are all a part of the same team. And especially when, specifically on the communications team and we have campaigns going on and when we have activations, like in-person events preCOVID, it was like we step up all simultaneously, at the start line ready to go, and it is a unanimous team. And I’ve just seen incredible ideas and work come from every single level in this organization so fluidly.
And I think I always say, a person that, and this is kind of also an inside anecdote, but I always say a person that really thrives here is back in school, the kid who was in the group project who like stepped up to lead it and was just ready to take the reins without necessarily being asked. It’s kind of all of us, we’re all that kid that just is ready to go.
And so I think that’s just one factor of really being able to step up when you’re called to do so and be excited about it and not necessarily have it feel like a chore, and just be excited to do the work that maybe is above what you’re currently doing.
Sam: I just actually wanted to build on one point, just on the shared vision. I think one of the amazing things about working for (RED) is that we actually make a lot of decisions to get it right. So when we talk about our North Star, that North Star isn’t often dictated from the top down, it’s a decision that we make as a group.
And I think that’s really important for the culture at (RED) because we all essentially hold hands and say, “Right, this is what we’re going to do.” And we agree that this is our goal for the year, for the next three years, however it Un takes. But yet, having decisions being made together certainly helps us share that same vision.
Denver: While remaining laser-focused, RED responds to what is going on in the world and pivots accordingly to remain relevant and effective. Brett and Huw share their thoughts on this.
Brett: And what I have been constantly impressed by is (RED)’s ability to be strategic in maintaining that relevance. One thing that we’ve done recently is we’ve linked into COVID-19 and global health emergencies in addition to AIDS. And I think, especially from the business development side of things and from (RED)’s strategic vision and strategy going forward, I think it’s been able to really redefine the way that we conduct business and the way that we actually make impact in the world today.
And I think I’ve been really impressed by (RED)’s agility and its ability to strategically reposition and refocus our impact as a way to cast the net wider, and the types of partners that we can have, and the actual tangible impact that we have on the ground.
Huw: The Global Fund immediately, like everyone else in the world realized that you can’t fight one pandemic in isolation because COVID cripples the health systems that enable the AIDS fight. And so you have to fight both and we can do it all through the Global Fund. So again, it comes back to that ability for (RED) to be singular in its focus, even if we’re fighting sadly two pandemics these days. But it’s all through that one organization. It’s targeted, it’s strategic, it’s neat.
Denver: It’s the People that make RED special and that all begins with Hiring. Huw and Sam provide some insights into that process.
Sam: We typically look for people who are like us in so many ways, honest, kind. I think kindness is one thing that we could probably say about every single (RED) team member and the pandemic has just made that even more so, right? Like we need to be, more than ever, really understanding and really patient with our team who have gone through a lot these last two years, everybody has. You’ve got people who are sick, people who are having difficulties working remotely, parents are struggling, and we constantly need to be patient and understanding and supportive of our team. And I think when we’re recruiting, they’re the type of attributes that we really look for in a candidate for sure.
Huw: Generally, we don’t have a lot of interns. We have one per team max normally, but in my 10 years at (RED), I can think of so many of our absolute stars on staff who started as interns. And I think there’s something special there because it enables people to come in to (RED), to get the sense of it, to get the measure of their colleagues, to see whether frankly they like being that kid at school, that they are that kid at school that can do a bit of everything and jumps up because there’s all the people that succeed at (RED). And also it gives us as the existing team, a chance to really get to know the pipeline of recruits if you will. And it’s very clear who’s a stellar potential hire. And where there are gaps, where there are openings, if someone’s there and they’re already doing the intern role, but there’s a gap, a staff gap, you’ll always want to try and hire them
Denver: Employee Wellbeing depends on connection among team members. Brett, Huw, Emilio and Mackenzie all speak to that.
Brett: And I think (RED), as far as ensuring that we are a successful team, has really taken the initiative to invest in all of our wellbeing. I remember my first day at (RED), the first thing I was given was a DoorDash code to get myself lunch. I remember that I was immediately integrated into a What Are We Watching Zoom channel. I remember being immediately integrated into a My Pet channel where we get beautiful pictures of the staff’s dogs. So I think (RED) has had a unique ability to make us all feel connected.
Huw: But we also took some proactive measures. We really ramped up our social committee, so there’s a few of us that are on a social committee and it is our job… over and above, our day job is to make sure that we are at least once a month doing something as a team that is fun, relaxing, different, creative, challenging.
It can be anything from murder mystery. We’ve even done a chocolate-making class where everyone bought a bar of chocolate, melted it, smelted it, and rebuilt it with the guidance of a chocolate maker. So we’ve done really fun things in remote context that I think has very much kept us together.
Emilio: There was this aspect, yes, we’re here for an important reason, but as well, simultaneously, we are here to catch up as friends. And I think that really just, I was taken aback in the best way possible by that. And for me, that underscores and underwrites the high level of passion and commitment to (RED) and its mission, and also to deepening our own relationships with one another. And I think that’s a really incredible thing
Mackenzie: And it’s just a really beautiful thing to witness that people can come together from, as we mentioned, an insanely diverse amount of backgrounds and experiences, personal, professional, and otherwise to really all care at the forefront of every single day for this mission and this cause. It is the singular purpose of helping to save lives.
And so I just to kind of wrap up the intimacy of the team and the work that we do in that singular focus, it’s beautiful to see when we do all come together in person and that passion and that emotion that’s put into everything that we do, I think is the basis of why we have proven to be exceptionally innovative and exceptionally successful because there is at the end of it all, really this emotional and passionate force that’s driving every single thing that we do at (RED).
Denver: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are top priorities from the first interview to the Branding Partners (RED) engages with according to Sean and Brett.
Sean: One thing I’ll touch on that I think is an important value that we haven’t gotten to, that (RED) cares so much about is just a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, where, we often talk so much about the world we want to build beyond the United States and a world absent AIDS and HIV or a world without COVID-19, a world that is just, and fair. And as our co-founder, Bono, likes to say, where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live.
But it’s important that these values are also reflected at home here in our own company. And so I think that begins with a real attention to DEI issues. We start that in the recruitment process with asking every single candidate, not just what are your thoughts on these issues, but how have you worked to advance them in your personal and professional career? Just speaking anecdotally, when I was interviewing at (RED), I got that question from every single person that I interviewed with, and then one person in the interview forgot to ask me about it. And they actually sent me a follow-up email afterward asking for my thoughts on it, which I think is really telling about how committed the organization is to this work.
Brett: So Denver, I think one… as Sean mentioned, DEI is critical to (RED) and one way in which (RED) really chases and ensures that we are committed in achieving diversity, equity, inclusion is through our brand partnerships. (RED) really cares in making sure that we have a diverse array of partners that have diverse co-founders and owners, and that also have diverse audiences. As part of our strategic plan, as an addition to ending COVID-19 to our mission statement, as I mentioned earlier, we’re also trying to ensure that (RED) is making impact among marginalized and underrepresented communities that global health emergencies impact mostly. Examples of this are people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.
Denver: Finally, a trusting relationship between the President and the staff is so important, especially in a small close-knit organization. Huw and Sam share their perspectives as does President Jen Lotito.
Huw: She’s a great problem solver. But I think what’s really great with her is we are a small team, it’s a pretty flat structure, it doesn’t feel corporate, but she has coffee with everyone on a rotating basis. And that coffee will be in-person. Now, if you’re in New York or in the area, it’ll be a coffee on Zoom otherwise, but she will check in with everyone.
And it’s a forum and an open floor for conversation. So if you’re having challenges, if you’re having issues, if you’re excited about something, if you want to talk about your career progression, Jen’s all ears and she’ll have that open conversation with you. So I think you talk about culture, you talk about recruitment, they’re kind of very interlinked to a matrix there. For me, those are two pieces that I’ve observed over the years that are consistent, the type of leadership that Jen shows and leads with, and also who we recruit and how we recruit them and why people like coming to (RED) and why people stay at (RED).
Sam: But when I think of some of the highlights, it was recently Jennifer Lotito’s birthday, our president, so for our team meeting, we all decided that it’d be appropriate to change our Zoom background to various pictures of Jennifer. So she got the surprise of her life, turning up to see 30 odd faces of herself staring back at her.
Jennifer: I had only just gotten into this role in January of 2020, so I think I was about six weeks into it when we locked down. I’d obviously worked with the team for a long time and knew the team. But my leadership focus is my team, always. And I think part of that is because we are so small, we can’t do what we do without having the most incredible team. And that team won’t do what they do if they don’t feel motivated and inspired and respected and everything else. So I feel very strongly about my leadership focus being on them, and then doing what I can to step up and be out there and doing what they need me to do. Doing things that might get me out of my comfort zone, that is something that I feel I owe them. And in return, I want them to do the same
Denver: I want to thank the RED team members who participated in this piece: Brett Harrison, Samantha Karch, MacKenzie Christian, Emilio Oribe, Huw Davies, Sean Simons. And to learn more about their work come to denver-frederick.com and hear my earlier interview with Jennifer Lotito the President of RED.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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