What Is Your Company Doing for Humanity? A corporate leader challenges his peers to answer the call

John Osborn, former CEO of advertising agency BBDO New York and current CEO of OMD USA, has been in advertising for nearly 30 years. In addition to this work, he says he has found “great joy and gratification by getting deeply involved in several causes that are near and dear to me,” including as the board chair for the American Red Cross of Greater New York. Here, he gives an overview of the Red Cross’ work in local communities, and he calls on corporate leaders to demonstrate to their own employees what they are doing for the good of humanity. His remarks have been edited for length and style.

Who and what inspired you to get involved with the American Red Cross?

John Osborn: It really dates back to when I was a kid. Growing up, I wanted to be a firefighter. We lived in a town where the fire horn would blow, and I found myself, in a strange way, being drawn to the scene. I really admired firefighters because they help others at times of great need. If you fast-forward to me later in life, I guess I have an imprinted gene that compels me to go where there is smoke, whether that's serving my clients, serving the American Red Cross or serving the kids of the Police Athletic League. I enjoy giving my time to helping people who need it most, when they need it most. That's really part of the core mission of the American Red Cross.

Tell us more about what American Red Cross volunteers and workers are doing in our communities.

Osborn: The American Red Cross is standing at the ready in a myriad of different ways for the betterment of society. When people think of the American Red Cross, they usually think of large-scale national and international disasters. It’s more. We have boots on the ground each and every day. For example, we help families that have been displaced by house fires. Every single day, seven people die in home fires. The Red Cross is working hard not only to respond to people when, God forbid, there is a fire, but also to prevent fires. One initiative in market now is the Sound the Alarm campaign to install smoke detectors and smoke alarms across various parts of the city so that people can get out of a fire before it’s too late.

The American Red Cross also does so much more. It’s in charge of a tremendous blood collection and donation effort. It’s deeply involved in working arm-in-arm with state and local governments to provide assistance after storms and daily disasters like home fires. There are many services involving the military, connecting overseas service members with their families back home should somebody become sick or, on the other end of the spectrum, when a new baby is born. The Red Cross works to get people back, and if they can't get back, to set up a communications system so that loved ones can be in touch with one another.

It goes above and beyond each and every day, in big ways and little ways, to take what is often a very imperfect, very bad situation and try to make it as good as it can possibly be, recognizing that it will never be perfect. If I had to sum up everything in one word, it would be "hope." The Red Cross provides hope for those who may feel like they have no hope. It's a tremendous expression of selfless care and compassion for others, which is unique in this world.

What inspired the Sound the Alarm campaign, and who's participating in it?

Osborn: The program started last year, and the goal is to reduce home fire deaths and injuries by 25 percent by installing free smoke alarms across the United States. Statistics show that in fatal house fires, there's a disproportionally greater amount of fatalities in homes where there aren't working smoke detectors or where there are no smoke detectors at all.

We've been recruiting volunteers who serve alongside Red Cross employees to disperse into communities every single day of the week, every single weekend, to ring doorbells, and to ask if there are working smoke detectors. If there aren't, we ask people to allow us to come in and install them. It's tedious work. This also requires a delicate approach to ensure that we're accepted into the communities. In some of these places, it's rare for the doorbell to ring, and then all of a sudden, somebody wants to come into your home. But it's been extremely effective. We expect that on a nationwide level, we will be able to celebrate the 1 millionth free smoke alarm this October, which is very, very exciting.

Our board members are deeply involved in this. Many have actually served on installation trips in neighborhoods. You have to be able to operate a drill. These things don't just stick on the ceiling anymore. They actually drill the holes and screw the screws. Support can come in many different ways, not only in the form of a check. That’s where our volunteers really come into play. They want to get involved, and they want to interact with the communities themselves. That's where I think our board members gain such great satisfaction.

Many of our readers are executives and legal department leaders who could offer a lot to nonprofits, like the American Red Cross. What's your advice to those who are not sure how to become more involved?

Osborn: Oftentimes the biggest barrier is taking that first step, making that initial point of contact. With us, it's really, really easy. All you have to do is call the local Red Cross headquarters. Here in New York you can call at 212-875-2001 and ask for Josh Lockwood, who is the CEO, or call 1-800-REDCROSS.

There is an excellent opportunity for companies to get involved with the Red Cross, just as we do here at BBDO. Many of our board members are influential people, running companies or in senior positions at companies. They can offer their services pro-bono. They can invite their employees out, whether participating in smoke alarm installations or conducting a blood drive. This is where our surveys have shown that corporations can greatly benefit by showing their internal constituencies that they are making an extra effort to do something good for humanity. I’ve seen first-hand how this sort of purpose-based activity can drive culture and morale.

Published September 14, 2017.