Interview · Pauline Lebas, Director of Innovation, French Red Cross

How does your passion for social innovation influence your work within the Red Cross?

Social innovation is defined by the 2006 Nobel Prize winner for economics, Mohammed Yunus, as “the ability to see in every difficulty an opportunity for entrepreneurship”. It is this optimistic and entrepreneurial approach that drives me in my day-to-day work at the French Red Cross.

In addition, my early experience enabled me to develop expertise in measuring social impact, so I have an impact- and results-oriented approach to social innovation. I believe that the social and environmental challenges facing us are too great for us not to be uncompromising about the real impact of our innovations.

Finally, I have always designed and co-developed social innovations with the people concerned (“what is done for me without me is against me” said Ghandi). I did this for several years in the slums of Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar and India. In France too, I’ve kept to this principle and I make sure that we work with our volunteers on the ground and that our solutions are always co-developed with the people concerned.

What is your vision of digital technology at the French Red Cross?

The French non-profit sector as a whole is lagging behind in its digital transformation. At the French Red Cross, we have invested heavily in recent years, particularly in the wake of the covid-19 crisis and thanks to France Relance funding, to equip our structures, train our volunteers, experiment with new technological solutions and support the public through a national digital inclusion programme.

These investments are bearing fruit: for example, they have enabled the deployment of a collaborative work suite for the 100,000 volunteers of the French Red Cross (volunteers, employees, students), which has had a huge impact on our responsiveness and our ability to pilot and manage recent crises and exceptional situations by working together at different levels of our volunteer network.

What were the main lessons learned from the first national day dedicated to digital inclusion at the French Red Cross?

Three lessons can be drawn from the first national digital inclusion day at the French Red Cross, which was held in November 2023:

  1. Digital inclusion is becoming a priority and strategic issue for the French Red Cross, because the digital divide affects 20% of the population and hinders many essential everyday practices (access to health, employment, social and family links, etc.). This divide can only increase in the coming years as digitalisation continues and new technologies based on artificial intelligence reach maturity;
  2. We have drawn positive conclusions from the first experimental phase of our digital inclusion programme, with more than 25,000 people supported across France, and we have launched a new phase of this ambitious programme for 2023-2025;
  3. We have a strong alliance at our side to rise to this challenge: teams of passionate volunteers and employees in the field, high-quality experts in the establishments and departments of the French Red Cross and public and private partners committed to working with us on a long-term basis.

What are your ambitions and objectives for a more impactful digital future by 2025?

Our ambition is to make digital a tool of resilience for individuals, organisations and regions.

For individuals, we want to continue rolling out our digital inclusion programme throughout France, to equip, train and raise awareness of digital uses.

For organisations, we are studying the potential and experimenting with numerous technological solutions to improve crisis management: the use of drones in natural disaster situations, the use of virtual reality to train and prepare employees, and the use of artificial intelligence to manage information in the midst of a crisis. We are convinced that these solutions, if used responsibly, can help save lives and limit damage in the event of a crisis.

For local authorities, we are convinced of the potential of data sharing to facilitate the sharing of information, coordination between players and optimisation of efforts. For example, we have worked extensively with the Solinum solution to improve support for the public.

How is the Red Cross addressing the issue of parity?

The French Red Cross has always been a very feminine organisation. During the First and Second World Wars, it was mainly women volunteers who provided first aid and care for the war-wounded. Today, 60% of our 75,000 volunteers are women.

That said, like everywhere else, our challenge is to help women take on more responsibility within the organisation, whether as volunteers or employees. We are already fairly exemplary: 47% of our local presidents are women and our articles of association require parity on the association’s board of directors from 2019. Since the end of 2022, our new Managing Director, Nathalie Smirnov, has also been supporting the assumption of responsibility by women on the Management Committee.

We are continuing our efforts to ensure that women dare to take up positions of responsibility. To this end, we have set up and run a women’s network called GLOW RED, initiated by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

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