Sir Nicholas Young inherited a heavy load when he took the post of chief executive at the British Red Cross in 2001. The charity had just come through a difficult restructuring process after accumulating a deficit of £14 million, and Young's first task was to sort the resulting mess out.
"The organisation has been through a really bad time," says Young. "When I came back to the British Red Cross, the restructure had caused an enormous amount of upset and had left a lot of hurt feelings. Morale was really low and there were concerns whether centralisation was the right way to go."
Before the restructure, the British Red Cross was made up of 93 different county branches, each with its own board of trustees and individual working practices. As it grew in size and income, the structure became a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare, so the decision was taken to overhaul its entire operation completely and create a more modern, centralised way of working.
And it has worked. This year the British Red Cross expects to have cleared its huge deficit in less than three years. But, as Young explains, it has not been without significant hardship. "In order to get to this point, we had to make 400 redundancies and close shops. We also had to restructure management, and slim down 93 county branches to just four main regions to try to improve clarity," he says. "And make no mistake, we could not have survived without this. The structure we have now is the right one, and I do believe that a more businesslike approach will see us through."
Young believes one of the main benefits to come out of the restructure is the real focus on discovering what the UK public need most from the British Red Cross.
"Now we've come out the other side, we've begun to develop an emphasis on caring in a crisis, which is something that we feel we can do very well," he says. "Our domestic emergency services are one of our biggest priorities, as this is where we've encountered a real need both on a local and national level."
Young believes that his time as chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Relief between 1995 and 2001 helped him to recognise the importance of the British Red Cross' role in local communities. He joined Macmillan after a stint as director of UK operations at the British Red Cross and says that he only realised how much he had learned after rejoining the humanitarian organisation.
"I feel that I really learned my craft at Macmillan, and the job gave me a completely different perspective on the needs of people in the UK," he says. "It's a great fundraising charity that has a real connection with the communities it serves. My time there gave me a clear idea of the kind of relationships we need to nurture with our local operations at the Red Cross."
He says that part of the problem with gaining support for the modernisation of the British Red Cross is its strong place in the public's affections.
People tend to treat the charity as a great British institution and don't take kindly to any change in its character: "The British Red Cross has been the darling of the public since the second world war, and the public is still protective of the organisation. We've found it hard to move on because people want to preserve that sense of tradition and history and keep the charity exactly the way it was."
During his second spell at the British Red Cross, Young has also had to weather several savage media attacks in which the organisation has been criticised for betraying its supporters and the public. In December, The Daily Mail ran the headline "Red Cross bans Christmas" alongside a story which claimed that the charity had banned workers in its shops from displaying nativity scenes. This is indicative of a major misconception about the charity's core objective, says Young.
"The basic DNA of the British Red Cross is its complete neutrality," says Young. "We don't belong to any one section of the British public, and, in some ways, our foundation as a Christian organisation jeopardises that position. We will take steps to include every single person in the UK in our work."
He also hopes that the new streamlined British Red Cross will be able to raise the profile of its domestic work and persuade more people to become involved with its emergency support work. "The Red Cross' strong international profile means that people still think of us as predominately an overseas charity, and that's a problem," he says. "We need to get the man on the street thinking about the need in his own town or village as well as being aware of what's going on elsewhere in the world."
He is concerned that the Red Cross' high profile in the Iraq war will reinforce this impression, and accepts that it will be a challenge to generate support for its domestic campaigns, including the upcoming Red Cross Week.
However, Young believes that in the long term the charity's investment in its UK services and its new policy to engage volunteers in frontline activities will pay off.
"We live in a cynical world where the social foundations of church and community are crumbling," he says. "But I have faith in the fact that people still essentially care and will respond to the opportunity to do their bit, and I feel that we can continue to play a central role in preserving a sense of collective responsibility." Annie Kelly