Storms open Red Cross to fresh crit­i­cism

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By David Crary

NEW YORK >> Con­fronted with back-to-back ma­jor hur­ri­canes, the Amer­i­can Red Cross has re­ceived a huge out­pour­ing of fi­nan­cial sup­port — and a si­mul­ta­ne­ous bar­rage of crit­i­cism based on its strug­gles to re­spond to sev­eral past dis­as­ters. To date, com­bined do­na­tions to the Red Cross for hur­ri­canes Har­vey and Irma have topped $300 mil­lion. For­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama tweeted a link to a Red Cross fundrais­ing site. Many pro sports teams, celebri­ties and ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions have an­nounced large do­na­tions.

Yet even in the early stages of the re­sponse to Har­vey in Texas, a “NoRedCross” hash­tag cir­cu­lated widely on Twit­ter. Some prom­i­nent jour­nal­ists wrote ar­ti­cles sug­gest­ing that peo­ple should not do­nate to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. The New York Times, in an ed­i­to­rial, urged prospec­tive donors to be skep­ti­cal.

“Its record on large-scale oper­a­tions is spotty,” said the ed­i­to­rial, as­sert­ing that “there has been less ac­count­abil­ity than Amer­i­cans might ex­pect em­a­nat­ing from its grand mar­ble head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton.” The crit­i­cism has been sting­ing to Red Cross vol­un­teers, many of whom have taken to so­cial me­dia to re­but the neg­a­tive com­men­tary.

“I worry that our vol­un­teers need to feel ap­pre­ci­ated,” Red Cross Pres­i­dent Gail McGovern said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “Af­ter 12-hour shifts they come back to their ho­tel re­ally ex­hausted. They don’t want to read this stuff.”

Some lo­cal of­fi­cials in Texas and Florida have com­plained about glitches in the Red Cross re­sponse to Har­vey and Irma, while others have ex­pressed thanks. But much of the cur­rent mis­trust of the Red Cross arises from the af­ter­math of other ma­jor dis­as­ters over the past 16 years.

Trou­bling track record

Af­ter the 2001 ter­ror at­tacks, the Red Cross irked many donors by ear­mark­ing some 9/11 gifts for un­re­lated pur­poses, in­clud­ing fu­ture needs. It was widely crit­i­cized for its re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005, and af­ter­ward ac­knowl­edged prob­lems that in­cluded over­whelmed vol­un­teers, inad­e­quate anti-fraud mea­sures and too few strong part­ner­ships with lo­cal char­i­ties and civic groups. More re­cently, in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing by Pro Publica and Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio made the case that the Red Cross re­sponses to the Haiti earth­quake in 2010 and Su­per­storm Sandy in 2012 were flawed in mul­ti­ple ways. One key al­le­ga­tion was that the Red Cross failed to ad­e­quately doc­u­ment how it was spend­ing the $488 mil­lion it raised for its work in Haiti.

Last year the Red Cross posted a de­tailed break­down of its spend­ing in Haiti. But that did not de­ter some crit­ics from us­ing so­cial me­dia as the new hur­ri­canes ar­rived to post Haiti-re­lated head­lines like this: “How Red Cross Raised Half a Bil­lion Dol­lars and Built Only Six Homes.”

“Peo­ple are re­peat­ing and re-tweet­ing this stuff in­stead of tak­ing time to re­search,” said McGovern, a for­mer pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Har­vard who took over as Red Cross pres­i­dent in 2008 af­ter years of rapid lead­er­ship

turnover. McGovern said she took so­lace in ev­i­dence of con­tin­ued pub­lic sup­port — the strong flow of do­na­tions and the sign­ing up of about 40,000 new vol­un­teers dur­ing the hur­ri­canes. The or­ga­ni­za­tion ran scores of emer­gency shel­ters in Texas and the South­east, and says it al­ready has pro­vided more than $45 mil­lion in fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to more than 100,000 hur­ri­cane-stricken house­holds in Texas.

For both Har­vey and Irma, the Red Cross is among the hur­ri­cane re­sponse groups rec­om­mended by Char­ity Nav­i­ga­tor, a watch­dog group that rates char­i­ties on their fi­nances and trans­parency. On the Char­ity Nav­i­ga­tor web­site, sev­eral hun­dred com­ments about the Red Cross were posted, in­clud­ing vis­ceral ex­changes be­tween sup­port­ers and crit­ics. Char­ity Nav­i­ga­tor’s pres­i­dent, Michael Thatcher, says the Red Cross “is un­der pretty in­tense scru­tiny,” and he hopes the re­sult is im­proved ac­count­abil­ity. “It’s a hard job to be able to ramp up quickly and de­ploy vol­un­teer re­sources and ex­pert re­sources at the drop of a hat,” he said. “Are they per­fect? No. I would love to see them do bet­ter, but I def­i­nitely want them to hang around.”

Bob Ot­ten­hoff, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Cen­ter for Dis­as­ter Phi­lan­thropy, urged the Red Cross to be as spe­cific as pos­si­ble in ex­plain­ing how emer­gency do­na­tions will be spent, both short term and long term.

“Part of why the Red Cross got in dif­fi­culty is they’re rais­ing money in such large quan­ti­ties, they can’t use it all for the rea­sons peo­ple gave it,” he said. An­other source of con­cern to some crit­ics is McGovern’s salary of just over $500,000. The Red Cross de­fends it as be­ing in the normal range for lead­ers of ma­jor na­tional non­prof­its. In the wake of var­i­ous past con­tro­ver­sies, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice is­sued a de­tailed re­port about the Red Cross in 2015, rec­om­mend­ing that Congress es­tab­lish some sort of fed­er­ally over­seen process for reg­u­lar, in­de­pen­dent eval­u­a­tions of Red Cross dis­as­ter ser­vices. The Red Cross con­tended that ex­ist­ing eval­u­a­tion mech­a­nisms were ad­e­quate, and the GAO’s pro­posal has not been im­ple­mented. Congress char­tered the Red Cross in 1900 to play a cen­tral role in re­spond­ing to do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional dis­as­ters, though it does not re­ceive fed­eral fund­ing for this pur­pose reg­u­larly. McGovern says the Red Cross wants to be as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble about its han­dling of do­na­tions. It’s too early now to out­line long-term plans for the Har­vey and Irma do­na­tions, but that is­sue will be broached in a one-month-later re­port, she said.

Are they per­fect? No. I would love to see them do bet­ter, but I def­i­nitely want them to hang around.” Michael Thatcher Pres­i­dent, watch­dog group Char­ity Nav­i­ga­tor

ASSOCIATED PRESS / AUG. 29

Hur­ri­cane Har­vey evac­uees fill the floor of the Ge­orge R. Brown Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Hous­ton, which was des­ig­nated a Red Cross shel­ter.

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