An honest take on life and parenthood

Ticked off at the Red Cross

on November 29, 2012

When you think “disaster,” you tend to think “Red Cross” immediately afterwards. That’s how good their brand is.

Unfortunately, the Red Cross is officially on my you-know-what list in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  I thought they would blow us out of the water with their response to make up for their terrible performance during Hurricane Katrina.  Yet they managed to crush my high expectations with their feeble, apathetic relief efforts on the East Coast, especially in New York.

I guess that’s how it is when you are a bloated nonprofit with too much money and a bulletproof brand.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my anger. Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro called the response of the American Red Cross “an absolute disgrace,” and said, “Do not donate to the Red Cross. Let them get their money elsewhere.” (“After Sandy, The American Red Cross Collects both Criticism and Cash,” The Daily Beast, Nov. 24, 2012 )

The Red Cross admits that it didn’t move fast enough, according to Business Insider Magazine.

‘”When you have 8 million people in need, with roads that are damaged, infrastructure broken down, flooding everywhere, we can’t be there that fast. And we feel bad about that,” said American Red Cross spokesman Roger Lowe.’ (“Red Cross: We can’t Get there That Fast When there is Flooding and Broken Infrastructure,” Business Insider, Nov. 4, 2012. )

Um, excuse me, but isn’t that what the Red Cross should be able to do, before anyone else? And how is it possible that other organizations with far fewer resources managed to provide assistance days before the Red Cross arrived?

I read news coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath every day. And while I can’t believe I am saying this, I also rely on my Facebook newsfeed for unfiltered news from the ground. I know lots of New Yorkers, and because they are people of both conscience and energy, they have been out there delivering help to the people who need it most.

My friends are part of countless small volunteer organizations that have cropped up to fill the void left by the Red Cross. There is Liz, who is a one-woman font of information on Facebook for all relief efforts in all five boroughs, not to mention a constant and tireless volunteer in the worst-hit areas. Rana, a college classmate, volunteers with the Lower East Side Girls Club. It is delivering assistance to people who already teeter at the brink of poverty, and who needed this hurricane like they needed a hole in the head.

Evie, a one-woman dynamo, and the Executive Director of Global Kids, lives in Astoria, Queens. She has organized countless friends and neighbors to deliver hot food to the Rockaways every day for weeks now with zero budget. Talk about the miracle of loaves and fishes! Anna lives in the Bronx and is a self-employed nonprofit fundraising expert, yet she has carved out the time to take long train rides from Pelham Bay to the Rockaways or Red Hook, devoting precious work days to deliver relief in some of the most devastated areas.

Then there is Occupy Sandy. Like many other grassroots, ad hoc groups for the hurricane, Occupy Sandy has leveraged mobile technology and its organizing abilities to target and deliver aid swiftly, just by using texting and common sense, and of course, their amazing ability to galvanize people on a moment’s notice.

So where was the damn Red Cross?

I will tell you where they were. They were wandering around, asking random people for directions to devastated neighborhoods. They were busy organizing and counting their relief kits, instead of distributing them to people who needed them.

Most importantly, they were trolling for donations from the American people. It’s the first thing you see when you go to their website. Go ahead. You’ll see what I mean. Take a quick detour and come back to my post in a minute:

So what did you think?

Did you see that picture of the big-eyed baby?  “Your help is needed. Donate now.” And some language around donating to get relief delivered immediately to the people who need it most. Yeah, right. Tell me another one. Furthermore, what did they do with the additional $23 million they raised during the NBC Hurricane Sandy telethon?

The American Red Cross has 140 years of relief experience, fat bank accounts, and the staff, equipment, and resources to mobilize aid immediately. Moreover, the advances in mobile technology over the last five years have been incredible. You would think they would have been the first to see its potential and pounce on it as a tool to streamline and mobilize relief operations.

Naively, I also expected that after the embarrassment of Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross would have given itself a thorough and critical self-examination, and done some serious restructuring in both its leadership team and its relief operations team, so that the double disaster of Katrina never repeated itself.

Instead, they seem to have rocked on in comfortable complacency, with some tweaks god only knows where. They went on, running their blood drives and doing small things on a steady basis to preserve their do-gooder image.

You know what? This do-gooder isn’t buying it. I am sick and tired of seeing certain nonprofit organizations sail a long way on their brand name without having to do much of anything. The American people are generous and big-hearted. We work too hard for our charitable giving to be wasted.

According to Charity Navigator, the American Red Cross tops the list of Super-Sized charities, dwarfing every other organization on this Top 10 list. It is twice the size of the Smithsonian, and triple the size of the American Cancer Society. Check it out:

Unbelievable, no? In 2011, they took in a dizzying $3.4 billion (yes, you read that correctly) in revenues. They may be crappy at disaster relief, but boy, they really know how to raise money. And because they are a nonprofit, they have to spend the money they raise, so they spent $3.4 billion that year too.

With those kinds of resources, shouldn’t the Red Cross set the gold standard for relief operations around the world? Wouldn’t Hurricane Sandy have been the perfect opportunity to showcase that capability? Instead, we saw sad evidence that the Red Cross has not changed much at all, and is far from being a leader and innovator in disaster relief. That crown goes to scrappy little Occupy Sandy.

According to its website, the Red Cross also responded to the Haiti earthquake, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and nuclear disaster, and the various natural disaster events in the US in 2011. Given the Red Cross’s performance in NY recently, I have to wonder if they were even remotely effective during these other disasters. We weren’t around to see it, so they probably bumbled around in Haiti and Japan, too.

Look, I have nothing against Red Cross volunteers. I have two friends who are, and they urged me to reconsider my position when I started yelling about the incompetence and wastefulness of the Red Cross. My problem is with an organization that is one of the wealthiest charities in America, yet continues to be bureaucratic and slow-footed in a business that demands nimble and immediate response.

Red Cross should use that $3.4 billion a year to invest in its leadership, logistics, and technology. Enough with the Beefaroni, banana bread and Band-Aids.

2 responses to “Ticked off at the Red Cross

  1. Anna Foster says:

    First of all, I like the title of your expose. Secondly, I think the Red Cross is tripping over the money their donors pull from their thread-bare pockets in this economy, especially. I think it’s natural but unfortunate. I’m glad you tipped your hat for Occupy Sandy. I don’t see them getting the accolades and prominent space in the media and through other organizations’ lists of places to help. It’s staggering but again, natural. I’ve mostly had good experiences with Occupy. And I’m happy to report from what I’ve seen, while many if not all these other organizations are SAYING their doing good recovery work, Occupy is busy DOING it!

    As a side note, while I can’t afford to travel to these areas, I have friends that are picking up my transportation costs. This is their way of helping. They’re literally paying for someone to get their boots on the ground and do the work they wish they could. They KNOW their money is well spent and I applaud them and my husband who is working to make ends meet for us at home.


  2. Anne Kelly says:

    I love that you mentioned the Charity Navigator site, we all should be reviewing that information before donating money. The Red Cross has done a fantastic job of getting themselves to the top of the list of recognized charities, but that does not mean they are producing in the ways the donors may wish them to produce. With each disaster, they are able to capitalize on our human desire to help those in need, and our human laziness in researching the group we choose to donate to. But when we are donating in response to a disaster, I don’t think that means the money sent is going directly to relief for that disaster. Wondering where the money goes?

    If we trust their website, first off, 9 cents goes toward some sort of overhead. 91 cents goes toward “fulfilling their mission” but I suspect their is some program overhead in that 91 cents as well.

    I know in Boston, the Red Cross is active in blood donation supply (probably the leading group to obtain blood donations) and has a few food pantries for needy people. On their website, they say 335,000 “were reached”, is this the same as they “benefited from”, in regards to HIV/AIDS. Much of that effort may not be in the US. They connected 1,000 people who were separated from families by war or disasters. They vaccinated 146 million children again Measles. And the list goes on.

    So if you believe in this variety of efforts, and we can trust the Charity Navigator review of 3 out of 4 stars, then keep donating to them. I have not donated cash to them, but have donated blood and volunteered at the local food pantry. But we also have the option to find more effective charities for our specific area, if we choose to take the time necessary for background checking.


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