By Gordon Williams
It’s not unusual to meet individuals who have been connected with the American Red Cross for years and years, decades even. Michele Roth, on the other hand, was just finishing her third week with the Red Cross when we interviewed her.
Michele is the brand-new executive director of the Red Cross serving Central and Southeastern Washington, headquartered in Kennewick WA and one of the five chapters covering Washington and Northern Idaho that make up the Northwest region. The chapter stretches across seven counties, with offices in Yakima and Walla Walla in addition to Kennewick.
Events forced Michele to hit the ground running. She had been in the job for less than a week when flooding swamped the Walla Walla Valley, forcing the Red Cross to open shelters to house flood victims. “In my very first week, I got to see Red Cross volunteers at work,” she says.
Beyond that, she toured blood services operations in Yakima — a key unit in Red Cross blood collection and distribution operations.
Finally, she attended a meeting of her chapter’s board of directors. “I knew some of the members before, but this was my first meeting as executive director,” she says.
Michele is brand new to the Red Cross, but a veteran of many years in the world of nonprofit service organizations.
Before joining the Red Cross, she ran her own consulting business that developed marketing and funding strategies for small businesses and nonprofits. Before that she worked for Second Harvest Inland Northwest, a hunger-relief network serving 26 counties in eastern Washington, and for United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties. (Kennewick is in Benton County.) At United Way, she says, “I was responsible for developing and overseeing all marketing strategies and external communications, as well as the contact for media.”
How she moved into the nonprofit world is a story unto itself. It began when Michele and husband Steven were both working in television in Las Vegas NV — Michele in TV production and Steven as a cameraman. The couple has four children, two boys and two girls. In 2003, they decided they wanted to raise their children in the Pacific Northwest, so they moved to the Tri Cities area (Kennewick, Richland and Pasco). “We saw it as an opportunity to move to a community that was better for our kids to grow up in,” she says.
Michele’s first foray into the nonprofit world came at a school her children attended. She was able to find a sponsor that would donate the t-shirts the school had been buying and paying for. With that, her career in helping nonprofits with marketing and fund-raising was born.
“I love the nonprofit community, but I wanted to move into a job at the executive director level,” she says, at that point the Red Cross job opened up, “It was exactly what I was hoping for,” she says. She was also attracted to the Red Cross role in disaster response. Michele grew up in a town along the Atlantic shore of New Jersey. “Hurricane Sandy wiped out the boardwalk where I grew up,” she says.
So, what is next for Michele after that high-energy start? It is learning about all the many areas in which the Red Cross functions — from disaster response to water safety and from collecting blood to teaching CPR. “That is a really big learning curve,” she says. “There is so much to learn about this organization. At United Way we shared a parking lot with the Red Cross, and I still did not realize all the services the Red Cross provides and the impact it has on the community. Mastering all that is my biggest challenge as executive director.”
In that role, Michele will be the public face of the chapter. She will visit disaster scenes where Red Cross volunteers are at work and share the Red Cross story with potential board members, financial supporters and volunteers. It is her job to make sure the community understands how to access the vital services it provides, and help raise the money the Red Cross needs to deliver them.
Her years in the nonprofit world taught her the crucial role volunteers play in serving the public. Fully 95 percent of the Red Cross workers in her chapter are volunteers. “Our volunteer workforce is huge,” she says. “It is essential that we make sure our volunteers are appreciated, that they have a good experience when they work for the Red Cross.”