Managing risk at the Canadian Red Cross

Nine years ago, Amy Avis began as a student and volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross legal department. Today, she is its general counsel.

Managing risk at the  Canadian Red Cross

Nine years ago, Amy Avis began as a student and volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross legal department. Today, she is its general counsel. At 31 years old, she is bringing her millennial mindset to the job.

Amy Avis is in charge of a unique risk portfolio at the Canadian Red Cross. From disaster response during the Fort McMurray and British Columbia forest fires to international work abroad in jurisdictions where, as a young woman, she faces cultural challenges, the job requires she make critical decisions for the organization, often in extreme circumstances.

Last fall, Avis, who is 31, became general counsel and vice president of risk and compliance at the non-profit, but she has been working in the legal department since before she graduated from law school. She has travelled to the South Sudan and Maldives where the men she was dealing with wouldn’t shake her hand. She is often “shoulder to shoulder” with operations people helping to make decisions on the ground.

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That includes making assessments as to how many people are evacuated and to where in disaster situations. Her role involves risk management, understanding the organization’s insurance portfolio, expediting contracts — often moving people,  things and money rapidly across Canada — and negotiating government contracts.

Avis “grew up” in her legal function at the Red Cross doing emergency response work and, even now, in the general counsel role, it is something she continues to do. “I think that it is so critical for operations to see us as on the same team as them,” she says.

When she was articling with the organization, she set the goal to become general counsel by age 35. “I thought I was totally crazy, but I thought it would be an interesting goal to try and achieve. I have had various people remind me I said that and they have said, ‘We thought you were joking.’ I don’t think there is any one path that brings you where you want to be, but for me I very early decided I wanted to be in charge of the in-house function and also our insurance and risk portfolio,” she says.


While she hasn’t always enjoyed being called a “millennial,” Avis says she’s come to embrace some of what that has come to mean.

“I spent a lot of time rebutting this idea of being a millennial, but what I’ve been reflecting on is that there are a lot of qualities in us as millennials that make us a force to be reckoned with. One of the reasons I’ve been successful is that I have the millennial spirit of fearlessness and entrepreneurship that is something we’re characterized with as a generation. And innovation — something that makes you really successful in-house is to creatively problem-solve and provide innovative solutions to problems that are not exclusively legal.

“I have always said ‘I’m not a millennial,’ but I do think it does define me in some ways and is something that makes us kind of awesome.”

Internationally, Avis has travelled to South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India — and many other locations — to broker commercial contracts with Red Cross, Red Crescent movement partners, funding agreements or large-scale construction tenders with non-governmental actors setting up legal status in those jurisdictions so the Red Cross can operate.

The money at stake is sizable. Last year, the Canadian Red Cross had revenues of $612 million. Avis plays a role in safeguarding donor funds to ensure the agency knows where the money is going and that strong controls and reporting mechanisms are in place to make sure it is going toward the purpose for which it was given.

When working in Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, Avis must take into consideration the local legal framework versus the Canadian legal framework and what arguments might be successful at law versus public perception, as well as what’s right versus the humanitarian imperative. “There’s a lot of layers and for me — it’s really case by case,” she says. “In the case of South Sudan, it is a newly formed government so it makes it that much more complicated to figure out what the rule of law is.”

Being young in her role has its own challenge, and moreover, add to that being a young woman in the job and Avis has seen her share of awkward experiences. The two previous Canadian Red Cross GC before her were men.

“In the Maldives, I was walking into a room of all men. I walk into all-male boardrooms all over the world all the time, but in that instance, I reached out to shake a gentleman’s hand and he didn’t take it. I reached further and I assumed I wasn’t reaching far enough across the board table. Then I realized he couldn’t shake my hand for religious reasons because I was a woman. I’m not criticizing that; I don’t think he was being disrespectful, but I had to overcome my own embarrassment and that’s kind of a difficult way to start a negotiation,” she says.

There are a lot of women who work for the Red Cross but in incident management, crisis management or critical incidents. If something goes wrong, legal would have a large part in an investigation.

“That’s typically a super macho situation and I’m certain it would give people more comfort if I had greying hair and was a 50-year-old man. You have to kind of rebut the presumptions and move on and gain credibility just through good work,” she says.

“That and the myriad other ways [being a woman] manifests itself internationally and in Canada in boardrooms is something that the two male GCs in the position before me wouldn’t have had to think about,” she says. “They don’t have to contend with that and it is something that is unique to being a woman in this role. I do think I’ve been in many rooms where they assume I’m the junior and I have to introduce myself and say it a couple of times — you have to be extra confident to overcome that.”

Avis articled with the Canadian Red Cross and worked with the organization throughout law school. The day after her articling was complete, she was on a plane for India and says that sealed it for her. “I said, ‘I’m in.’”

From there she progressed up through the ranks, becoming senior legal counsel. “When the former GC left the organization, I think our executive management had a choice in that moment and it was either to bring in someone external or mentor me and believe in me to do the role,” says Avis.

The agency chose to support Avis and in October of last year they promoted her into the GC function. “It’s to the credit of the organization that they did that, quite frankly,” she says.

Nothing in law school really prepared her for the job. Although she took international law courses, it didn’t begin to ready her for her role at the Red Cross.

“The courses were quite academic and high level, and talked about treaties and things that don’t have a lot to do with international commercial legal issues. I often think about the fact there are conventions and treaties on what you can and cannot do, but, realistically, if you’re in a country and someone holds you up at gunpoint, you’re not going to argue the nuances of what they can and cannot do,” she says.

She didn’t set out to be an in-house lawyer — the way law school is largely oriented is for private practice and the recruitment drive is toward that career path, she says.

“I didn’t realize a job in-house at a charity like this existed,” says Avis.

She got a public interest fellowship with the University of Ottawa and received a grant and had to find a humanitarian organization to work with for the summer. She approached the Red Cross legal department and convinced them to take her on.

“I kind of fell into it and then kind of fell in love,” she says of her role at the charity.

When Avis joined the Canadian Red Cross legal department there were three people and this year it now numbers eight. “It has grown and evolved quite a bit since then — our operations in Canada have changed so much in the last nine years,” she says.

“When you’re drafting memos in law school, you’re drafting then as you would in private practice, which is so different than how we practise law. We have to be seen to be shoulder to shoulder with the operation and business units and leveraging our understanding of operations and having that really good pulse on risk and reward and being joint in the decision-making. That’s so not the mentality of lawyers traditionally — which is to write a memo on what you can and cannot do and heavily caveat your advice, which isn’t really helpful in in-house but particularly so in an emergency or a disaster. I think even more so that disconnect is something I’ve had to contend with in my practice,” she says.

With the help of some mentors, Avis has found her own style of managing.

“For me, it’s to know your limit and seek out expert advise; we’re not experts in everything and, because a lot of things we encounter are so novel, I’m not shy about knowing my limitations. I know my organization and operation and I can take what they’ve given me and leverage it better than anyone, but certainly I don’t know everything about everything,” she says.

The Red Cross has local counsel in the jurisdictions in which it operates. Avis relies on external counsel for advice on things such as privacy protection and cybersecurity.

“We absolutely need external support for the unique work that we do,” she says.

Like any in-house function, Avis says, she works to prove the value add to the organization, but it’s even more important when resources are so finite and spending on administration writ large is viewed by the public as negative in the charitable sector.

“Absolutely, we try to run as lean a function as we possibly can. I would say it’s about being right-sized for the operations. We don’t want to be too big, but we also don’t want to be too lean with the view that it then materializes in later risks,” she says.

One of the larger projects she has been working on is the enhancement of the organization’s risk management framework.

“We work in inherently risky environments, so to me that means we have to have increasingly more discipline as to when we do and do not assume risk, and so we have invested heavily in risk management and ERM. I think just getting that engrained into the culture of the organization — not to say they aren’t invested, but it’s a process and that’s been my main initiative. I’m happy to report it’s taken off and people are really invested in the process,” she says.

Right now, she’s working on a risk appetite statement so that when the organization has to, for example, deploy doctors for an Ebola response or is trying to figure out how to medevac someone from a situation or responding to asylum seekers coming from the U.S. because their visas are being revoked, the organization knows how to evaluate its response.

“For me, in any given moment or in the thick of something, the north star is the risk appetite of the organization. It’s something I’ve invested in understanding what that risk appetite is — you have to have the clarity to set that and hold yourself accountable to it in any given moment when faced with a go or no-go decision.”



The Lawyer

Amy Avis

The Company

Canadian Red Cross

• General counsel & vice president of risk and compliance

• Joined Canadian Red Cross as university student in 2009

• Articled with Canadian Red Cross

• Graduated University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Common Law 2011

• Building out enterprise risk management strategy for Canadian Red Cross

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