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2021_0722_Internal Resilience in Humanitarian Organizations


When discussing humanitarian work in resilience, we often think about disaster recovery efforts or development projects taking place across the globe. Humanitarian organizations and first responders are on the front lines of this work. Organizations that are more resilient are more capable of consistently delivering services and typically respond more effectively to traumatic or stressful events. So then how can we expect these organizations to help build global resilience if they are not resilient themselves? An expert in disaster response, Harold Brooks, who served as Senior Vice President of International Operations for the American Red Cross’ International Services Department, CEO of the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, and is one of the Global Resilience Institute’s Distinguished Senior Fellows, offers insight into how an organization that helps build resilience externally can also maintain internal resilience.

Resilience begins at the individual level. For humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross, these individuals include staff and volunteers. For Brooks, a resilient individual “has to believe they can regenerate themselves to be what they need to be under the changing circumstances.” In other words, humanitarian staff and volunteers are resilient by being prepared, adaptable, and assured that they will be able to handle the shock and strain that come from witnessing traumatic events. This begs the question, are humanitarian workers just born with the necessary personal qualities that help them be more resilient in this field? How effective can an organization and its leadership be in building individual resilience? According to Brooks, humanitarian workers do tend to have a “passion for compassion” that helps them be more resilient in the face of experiencing shock or witnessing traumatic events. However, simply assuming and expecting that humanitarian workers will be inherently resilient greatly risks an organization’s ability to be effective in a crisis. 

It is essential that the leaders of humanitarian organizations make an effort to create an organizational culture that fosters resilience among its staff and volunteers. These include individuals who are relied upon to sift through the rubble after deadly disasters, enter dangerous and unpredictable areas in order to deliver life-saving services, and support communities in the wake of mass casualty events. To ensure that humanitarian workers can continue to carry out this important work, it is critical that there exists an organizational culture in which they feel supported by their leaders and peers alike. For example, Brooks discusses the importance of humanitarian organizations having Protection, Gender, and Inclusion (PGI) Officers and psychosocial support (PSS) staff working internally. PGI Officers are specially trained to handle cases of harassment, inequality, and violence, and are vital in creating a safe space for individuals to discuss sensitive or troubling issues. Similarly, PSS staff provide essential mental health support services to staff and volunteers, offering them a critical emotional outlet where they can talk. Individuals may talk about their experiences, difficulties, emotions – whatever it may be that helps them decompress. These resources help contribute to an organizational culture in which individuals feel supported and valued. This in turn allows humanitarian workers to be more adaptable, self-assured, and ultimately, resilient. According to Brooks, people are the most important asset of a humanitarian organization. It is extremely important that they are supported in ways that reflect this fact. 


About Harold W. Brooks 

Harold W. Brooks is a member of the Global Resilience Institute’s (GRI) Post-Disaster Assessment and Advisory Team as well as a GRI Distinguished Senior Fellow.

Brooks served as senior vice president, International Operations for the American Red Cross’ International Services Department (ISD), after leading the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter as the regional Chief Executive Officer and held a number of leadership positions throughout the country, including in Washington, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New Jersey. As SVP, Brooks managed the international activities of the Red Cross which included supporting rebuilding and recovery efforts in Haiti, disaster response and preparedness activities worldwide, and disease prevention programs. He also ensured that local Red Cross chapters continued to educate their communities in International Humanitarian Law and provided services to reconnect families internationally, separated by war and disaster. Additionally, he oversaw the organization’s global policy and planning efforts supporting the American Red Cross mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

About GRI Distinguished Senior Fellows 

GRI’s Distinguished Senior Fellows (DSF) provide strategic advice to GRI as it leads an interdisciplinary effort to advance resilience-related initiatives on a global scale. Appointment as a DSF is offered to exceptional resilience practitioners from both public and private sectors.

About the Author 

Kathleen FleischauerKathleen Fleischauer is a first year graduate student pursuing a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management at Northeastern University. Originally from upstate New York, she moved to Montreal, Quebec to pursue her undergraduate studies. In 2018, she graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor’s degree in International Development and Anthropology. Since receiving her Bachelor’s, Fleischauer has worked in Montreal, Chicago, and the south of France, and is currently the Global Development Coordinator at GRI.