Neal Denton, American Red Cross Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships, learned about working in the nonprofit community from his father.
Neal grew up admiring thirty-year Red Cross veteran David A. Denton, Jr. and his circle of chapter colleagues as they strived to address the needs of their communities.
“Dad was always working with board members, nonprofit partners, corporate leaders and others to provide services and respond to disasters and emergencies in the community,” Neal says. “I knew I wanted to be part of that nonprofit community. But I really had no design of coming to the Red Cross.”
Neal talks about how proud he was as a boy that his father provided Red Cross services. One evening, Dave Denton took Neal along when responding to a fire. It was getting later in the evening, and the firefighters needed food.
Neal and his dad drove to a fast food restaurant, arriving just as the crew was scraping the grill and closing for the day. Dave Denton ordered 100 burgers and explained they were for the firefighters working nearby. The crew fired up the grills, formed an assembly line and bagged the burgers in record time.
“The electricity in that place was amazing,” Neal says. He still recalls how willingly the people at the restaurant extended their work day to support the community’s firefighters, and that he thought his father must be an important guy to make all this happen. Neal also remembers how grateful the firemen were to get some food.
Now Neal and his wife Julie—a former nonprofit executive herself—have children of their own, Alyssa (13), Grace (11) and Willa (8). The girls love to come to Red Cross Square, the campus in downtown Washington, D.C. where Neal works.
Recently, one daughter asked, “Granddaddy worked for the Red Cross, you’re with Red Cross, does that mean I should work for the Red Cross, too?” Neal replied, “Only if you’re lucky, dear, only if you’re lucky.”
Growing Up in the Red Cross
Dave Denton started his Red Cross career at the Louisville, Kentucky, chapter. That’s where Neal was born.
“There was a lot more upward mobility in those days, people moved around from chapter to chapter,” Neal comments. “We would live in a community 18 months to two years and then move for a more senior job.”
Move they did. Neal lived in Concord, N.H.; Rochester, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; Alexandria, Va.; and Cleveland, Ohio. And when Neal left to serve in the Army, his dad went on to Philadelphia, Pa. and St. Louis, Mo.
Dave Denton worked in successively more responsible positions, capping his career as Vice President of Midwest Operations. Along the way he worked as CEO of three Red Cross chapters, ensuring the delivery of Red Cross services to progressively larger communities.
When Dave Denton landed in a community, he quickly engaged and got to know the leaders. At the same time, he’d build a team of problem solvers. “Dad loved the challenge of walking into a new community and trying to make as much of an impact with the Red Cross as he could,” Neal says.
The entire Denton family was a part of the team. “Mom had her role in moving the ball forward,” says Neal, “as did his two boys and later, our sister.”
Neal talks about the pride he had in being part of a Red Cross family, and of being involved with the Red Cross chapter. “My brother and I took every swimming course, every first aid course, and started giving blood as soon as we were eligible,” Neal recalls. “We were dad’s personal focus group.”
The Dentons helped with chapter projects and with fundraising. During the Viet Nam War, Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces made care packages for service members. Neal remembers hundreds of the bags set up in rows in their home.
He and his brother would go up and down the rows, dropping one item at a time into each bag—a toothbrush—a razor—a comb. Neal comments, “As a kid that was a powerful feeling, to know those things were going from our hands to the hands of soldiers.”
Serving as a Red Cross Youth Volunteer
During high school, Neal was a Red Cross youth volunteer. He took all the youth leadership training the Red Cross offered. He learned everything he could about health and safety. He volunteered at blood drives, taking just-filled bags of blood to a processing table.
In the mid-1970s, outstanding service earned Neal a youth delegate spot to his first American Red Cross National Convention. Dave Denton, then CEO of the Cleveland chapter, didn’t attend. “Stay out of trouble,” Dave told his son as he saw him off.
When Neal arrived, the Denton mail box was stuffed full of invitations to every top convention reception. Realistically, Neal knew the invitations were meant for his dad. But, teenager that he was, he thought, “how cool is this,” and set out with a friend to make the rounds.
Neal was really enjoying the hors d’oeuvres at the Board of Governors reception when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was his dad’s number two man who asked “What are you doing here?” Neal surrendered the rest of the VIP invitations but still had a magnificent time at that first convention.
Working for the Red Cross
Like his dad, Neal has held several jobs at the Red Cross: Chief of Staff to the President & CEO; Senior Vice President of Service to the Armed Forces; and Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships.
Neal has been called “a coalition builder.” He needed those skills when he was appointed head of Service to the Armed Forces. 2007 saw a troop surge in Iraq, and the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Thousands of National Guard and Reserve members were being called to active duty. The Red Cross needed to reestablish its services to veterans, members of the military and their families.
Under his leadership, Service to the Armed Forces engaged in a new partnership with the Department of Defense Joint Family Assistance Program, the Red Cross and other nonprofit organizations. The initiative coordinated resources and volunteers to better serve military families.
Neal spearheaded a Service to the Armed Forces Veterans Day program on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to say “thank-you.”
He initiated the Service to the Armed Forces Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign. For the past three years the Red Cross, in partnership with Pitney Bowes, has collected and distributed thousands of holiday cards for American service members, veterans and their families in the United States and around the world.
Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces programs have become a family affair at the Denton home. Neal’s daughters pitched in on Veterans Day, shaking the hands of veterans and thanking them for their service. And every year they volunteer for the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign.
Now head of Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships, Neal continues his coalition building. “The Red Cross works better when we work with others,” he states.
Dave and Neal Denton’s Red Cross careers differ in one notable way. Neal has worked at American Red Cross national headquarters where policy is made. Dave Denton worked in the field where services are delivered. “Dad was totally a field guy,” Neal smiles. “He never worked at national headquarters. He doesn’t understand to this day how he could have raised his son so poorly that he would work at national headquarters.”
Even today, Neal says his dad knows exactly how the Red Cross runs. Dave Denton laughs at the cyclical nature of the organization. “The things that keep us up at night now are the same that Dad and his colleagues wrestled with in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s,” Neal comments.
It is really no surprise that a father and son whose careers are decades apart can find so many similarities in the challenges of their jobs. Certainly the Red Cross is delivering services in more up-to-date ways than 30 or 40 years ago. Technology has seen to that. And programs have come and gone to meet the most current needs.
But at its foundation, the Fundamental Principles upon which the Red Cross is built are the same: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. These seven principles defined the Red Cross Network in 1960, and they define it today.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the community of Red Cross people striving to provide relief to victims of disasters and help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies.
Red Crossers call themselves a family. When Neal Denton talks about the people important to his father’s career, it as if he’s talking about relatives. He talks about Marge Jordan, one of the first female chapter executives, a pioneer in innovative service delivery, and Dave Denton’s mentor. He talks about Bill Birkholder who had the CEO job at the Cleveland chapter before Dave or Steve Bullock who took the role when Denton left.
“Are you really Dave’s boy?” is a question Neal hears often. He says so many of the people he works with knew his dad—Harold Brooks, Sue Richter, Frank Miller, Armond Mascelli.
Dave Denton was always a member of the very valuable part of a community that addresses needs. “I wanted to be a part of that community, to work with public policy and social issues,” says Neal, “that’s the legacy I got from my father.”
Neal has followed in his father’s footsteps. He is part of that Red Cross family. Before that Neal headed the leading national trade association of nonprofit fundraisers, and was named to the list of “movers and shakers” in the nonprofit sector for a decade.
Neal Denton says he has a feeling the legacy is going to go to another generation. With two parents and multiple grandparents serving as role models, he’s pleased that his daughters know the value and the good feeling that comes with giving back to their community.