27 September, 2005

Red Cross facing heat

With everything from Major League Baseball to my neighborhood dance parties all sporting the scarlet plus sign, I have suddenly seen more contrarians starting to pick up the idea that the Red Cross is not all it's cracked up to be.
"they're encouraging federal taxpayer handouts to religious groups."

LA Times op-ed:
... asking where all the privately collected money will go and how much Red Cross is billing FEMA and the affected states is a legitimate question.... Giving so high a percentage of all donations to one agency that defines itself only as a first-responder and not a rebuilder is not the wisest choice.
As a former volunteer for the organization and as someone who has read over their tax filings more carefully than most members of the public, I'd like to scribble down a few of the ways in which the organization is dysfunctional.

Deceptive marketing: The Red Cross is no longer much of a first-response disaster organization. It is mostly a monopolistic biomedical supplier. Of its $2.3 billion budget, $2.1 billion are for its biomedical division. (Another $147 million was for ongoing 9/11 work, because Congress made them promise to spend all 9/11 donations on 9/11, even long after the money was no longer needed.) They are in large part a seller of donated body parts. But when it comes time to fundraise, they always show firefighters carrying children, as though they had anything to do with firefighting or injured children.

In fact, they don't. They do almost no direct medical care anymore. When I was a volunteer in the early 1990s, I was an EMT and was in a region that still let us treat minor wounds. But even then, because of liability concerns, most geographic units of the Red Cross wouldn't let their staff touch an injured person.

Nor do they fight fires.

What they do is after a disaster, they try to restore people to the lifestyle they had before. Which leads to:

Unjust distribution of donations: They group's goal of restoring people to pre-disaster conditions means they provide millionaires with pallet-loads of donated furniture, books, food, whatever comes in the door. And for the destitute homeless guy whose gutter got closed by fire? He's lucky to leave the shelter with a new refrigerator box to sleep in. OK it's not quite that bad. He will receive a toiletry kit.

The worst was revealed after 9/11. The New Yorker reported SoHo loft-dwellers using their Red Cross checks to redo their kitchens -- at last, a chance to get that Wolf Range and SubZero fridge I've been wanting.

But that's the kind of class-consciousness you'd expect from a group that in 2002, gave its departing chief executive a $242,000 severance check, a $130,500 performance bonus, and $794,000 in deferred compensation. Which brings us to:

Executive pay: In both 2003 and 2004, according the group's tax return, they had several employees making more than $300,000. I can understand that in the medical field you need to pay well to get talent. But aren't there a lot of people in the field who would take a bit of a pay cut in return for the good feeling of working for the Red Cross? That's what you'd think, but you wouldn't know it to look at the tables of top-paid employees.

Marsha Evans, CEO$468,599, including $18,000+ in pension contributions
Ramesh Thadani, Exec VP & CEO, Biomedical Services$467,008 for 2 months' work, including $260,000+ in severance
John D Campbell, SVP, Disaster and Chapter Services Finance$397,168 for 6 months work, including a $99,009 severance and over $60,000 in pension contributions
Mary Elcano, Corporate Secretary and General Counsel$296,403 including $6,000+ in pension contributions
John F McGuire, Exec VP & CEO, Biomedical Services$131,440 for 3 months' work, including $36,000+ in relocation expenses
Robert P Campbell, CFO$370,581, including $38,000+ in relocation expenses
James Krueger, Exec VP Chapter Services Network$354,811 for less than 5 months' work, including $191,000+ in severance
Alan McCurry, Chief Operating Officer$356,618, including $21,000 in pension contributions
John Seitz, SVP, Growth and Integrated Development$319,332 including $19,000+ in pension contributions
Allan Ross, VP, Technical Operations$308,957 including $16,000+ in pension contributions
Donald Dudley Jr., SVP, External Affairs and Biomedical Services$344,760 (includes a $43,000+ expense account and over $21,000 in pension contributions)
Thomas Schwaninger, SVP & CIO, Information Systems$325,389, including $13,000+ in pension contributions
Terri Sicilia, Exec VP Disaster Services$260,395, including pension contributions

So in fiscal 2004, the group paid out a total of $4.4 million in executive pay to its top 13 suits. It's not a dreadful number for a $2.3 billion biomedical company, but it's something to keep in mind as they hold up photos of bedraggled New Orleaneans in their appeals for cash.

And finally: There's the little matter of homophobia.

Suggestions of alternative charities are welcome.


Ouch. At the risk of being the destroyer of comment threads, I'll say somethign. :-)

Well, your educated suggestions seem more likeley to be helpful than my guesses. :-) And I also still insist that blood is nothing to sneeze at, despite the upsetting homophobia and simply annoying travellers phobia. But yeah, who else is there? Salvation Army? Hmm. Second Harvest might be awesome, but that's just food.

I agree completely, however, that the Red Cross is far from sufficient and we need to know about other groups. I'm always happy to plug my local CARD  for working with Community Based Organizations to prepare the poor and the vulnerable ahead  of time and specifically target aid to them afterwards. It would be great if more of these sprung up around the country, and people supported them regularly.

Not to sound like a broken record, but it would be great if the hive mind could coordinate and break up the task of plugging in local groups (shelters, CBOs, etc.) into some kind national database/network. Say that when there's a disaster in Michigan, I would then know the local community-geeks have already scouted out, vouched for, volunteered at, and put online the relevant local shelters and groups, so I can donate without thinking too hard.

And yeah, we need more civil-society-oriented journalism. This was great info. 

Posted by Saheli

That was a lot of data all at once -- I'm trying to get clear on your basic point, and it seems to be: the ARC isn't all it's cracked up to be, so don't donate to it? Sorry for the enormous comment, but I've got a lot to say.

I'm a former volunteer there as well, and a former employee as well. And a longtime blood donor: while I'm happy to take you word for the enormous percentage of their budget spent on blood services, I'm not sure why that should be considered a bad thing. Every time I go in for an Apheresis  donation, they use up $200 worth of plastic tubes just sucking the blood out. As for their extremely restrictive rules, I'd point out that they have to follow FDA guidelines, and that a single instance of one person letting tainted blood reach a recipient anywhere, ever, in any circumstances, would probably bring a billion-dollar lawsuit. Anyone remember what happened in the 80's when AIDS suddenly arrived on the scene?

The organization is definitely a immense bureaucracy suffering from it's own sheer weight. There's a lot of room for improvement. And their use of advertising implying they provide help to the most desperately in need is a little misleading. It's absolutely true that the goal in Disaster Services is to get things back to the status quo.

Donations to the red cross can be marked for certain causes (like Katrina or 9/11 or, if you want, local single-family fires). They will, and have to, use those donations ONLY for the designated purpose. Since everybody likes giving to the big, sexy issues, that's where all the money is dedicated. Even when it's no longer needed - or more commonly, when it's still helpful but would be more helpful elsewhere. How many people want to donate to the local Detroit volunteer efforts? Not many - until something big happens.

The Red Cross doesn't, can't, and isn't trying to provide all services to all people. I have some definite concerns about whether or not they're making that clear or even deliberately obscuring it.

If you want to see your help go to homeless people, widows, orphans, the blind the sick and the lame: give to the charities that serve them. Organizations like DCARA that serve deaf people don't focus on homeless people, like BOSS does, and neither of them help people in need track down the resources available, like Eden I&R does.

These are all agencies in Alameda County, CA, where I live. There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of them around the country and around the world. They're small: you've never heard of most of them, because they don't have the advertising juggernaut supporting them that the big boys like ARC or the Salvation Army can pull out. They're all skating by on miniscule budgets, suffering every time the economy takes a nose-dive, or the administration cuts funding for hippie commie pinko crap like helping people -- or whenever a big sexy disaster pulls all the donor dollars down to the newest headline and away from local service providers.

If you think giving your money to the big guns isn't helping the way you want to, try giving to the small, local players. If you want to help with Katrina, find a local service organization you approve of, give them some money and give the rest to their sister agency in the Gulf. If you want to build up the odds that these nonprofits can survive the economic devastation of a major disaster, then give to CARD, like Saheli suggested.

Just don't stop giving. 

Posted by McCormick

Thanks, McCormick and Saheli. You are right. I was not trying to discourage philanthropy. I am just tired of everyone "doing something" by donating mindlessly to the Red Cross, without even knowing where their money is going.

I will post more hurricane relief options later. And Saheli has a good idea of mapping out the grassroots groups in each region to help those of us who distrust big-money Washington groups (like the Red Cross) to give money to the smaller, often more efficient players.  

Posted by hedgehog

I was pissed when i found that my 100 bucks went to an organization that actively helped the White House turn blame for the relief debacle toward the local authorities in New Orleans. The RC director changed her story in later interviews, answering the question as to why the Red Cross hadn't gone in to help people, and even posted this distortion to their website, saying that local authorities had _blocked_ them from entering. Rather than the truth, which was that the original game plan agreed to by the Red Cross and the local authorities before the hurricane struck; to set up their relief centers outside of the city on high ground and help people there. They explained in the beginning that they were not 'first responders' and never had any intention of going into the city. Later dropping this little detail and implying that they were trying to get in.

The Red Cross is obviously very dependent upon Federal favor but yet, the magnitude of the failures in New Orleans need to be accounted for and their collusion will do nothing but help to obscure the facts, leaving the door open for further disasters-within-disasters. Disgusting. 

Posted by bill stender

I think you should give money instead to organizations that focus on poorer parts of the world. Justice aside, it's pretty obvious that polio vaccines in the DRC, or cholera medicine in Mauritania, are going to be a far more cost effective way of saving lives than even a well-run charity operating in the U.S.

If you assume that African lives are roughly equal in value to American lives, then I think groups like MSF or Partners in Health are a better deal, even if it's harder for us as Americans to monitor how they spend the money.

Unless the goal is not about saving lives, but achieving some socio-political end, like a democratic rebuilding of New Orleans. In that case, someone sent me this link, http://radicalreference.info/altkatrinarelief 
which looks interesting.

Posted by aram harrow

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