The problem with the Red Cross

By Felix Salmon
November 12, 2012

If you thought the official New York marathon statement about being cancelled was tone-deaf, just wait until you hear thison video, no less:

Gail McGovern, chief executive officer and president of the Red Cross, told NBC News’ Lisa Myers late last week that the response has been timely and well-organized: “I think that we are near flawless so far in this operation.”

This is chutzpah of the highest order: at least in the first dreadful days after Hurricane Sandy hit, the best adjective to describe the Red Cross was “invisible”, rather than “flawless”. One of the best ways to judge charities is by the way in which they learn from their mistakes and constantly improve; by that standard, the Red Cross is positively ostrich-like in the way that it refuses to admit that there was even a problem at all, let alone that it might have reacted better.

It’s incredibly sad, because the Red Cross is the default charity that everybody gives to whenever there’s a tragedy. Even I did so, not that I’m any great fan of the organization: I bought the Sandy benefit print from 20×200, and the proceeds from that are going to the Red Cross. But at least in the early days, and even now, it’s hard to find a Sandy-relief drive which isn’t giving its money to the Red Cross: whether you’re donating money at Chase ATMs, or donating your Starwood points, or whether you’re giving in response to a telethon, the Red Cross always ends up being the beneficiary. And in the case of Sandy, the amount raised is truly enormous: $117 million and counting.

The Red Cross loves to talk about its massive efforts, with what it claims is a group of 5,700 volunteers — but frankly I don’t trust the Red Cross’s numbers, given the many reports where the Red Cross higher-ups have sworn that they’re in a certain location and helping, even as no one who’s actually there has seen any evidence of them.

And in any case, the Red Cross doesn’t seem particularly capable of actually putting those 5,700 volunteers to good use. The real heroes of Sandy have been the much smaller-scale organizations, often built on an ad hoc basis. Occupy Sandy is the main one, and it’s been doing an amazing job, as Glynnis MacNicol recounts in a fantastic dispatch for Capital New York:

Almost without fail, what is being done in the neighborhoods I visited is being done by local community organizers or organizations like the increasingly impressive Occupy Sandy group…

At the end of nearly two weeks, the majority of which was spent traveling to the most devastated areas of Brooklyn and Queens, I could not tell you, nor could very many people I met, what government agencies a person could expect to arrive to help them in this disaster because I saw so few on the ground who might know.

This kind of story has been told many times, but bears repeating:

It was difficult not to conclude based on our surroundings that the neighborhood had not been served at all. Within five minutes of us setting up our goods in the empty lot, and without any real outreach needed, crowds began to appear—batteries, flashlights, disinfectants, diapers and blankets were getting snatched up quickly. It’s at this point the need began to feel overwhelming, and the frightening suspicion that help, official help in the form of city officials or large established disaster-relief organizations, was not going to arrive, started to sneak up on us…

While I was unpacking a garbage bag full of blankets one woman arrived with her daughter, who appeared to have Down syndrome, and asked if she could take two blankets instead of one. The feeling that I, or any of the volunteers, were somehow believed to be in charge of dictating what rations these families struggling in the cold could get struck me suddenly, and was obscene. I told her to take what she wanted. We left before the sun went down.

The next day Ben told me he returned to the same location to find a army of volunteers had arrived and an impressive organization had been set up. We had simply been the first ones out there—six days after the storm.

The Red Cross isn’t technically a government agency, of course, but it does work very closely with the government, and is treated as a quasi-governmental agency by those in need, and it certainly has many orders of magnitude greater resources than anybody associated with Occupy Sandy.

But here’s the problem: Occupy Sandy doesn’t scale. MacNicol admits as much in her piece: if we’d all given money to Occupy Sandy instead of to the Red Cross, they wouldn’t have been able to do more good than they did. The now-famous Occupy Sandy wedding registry is a fantastic idea, and has worked very well, but in general items are being bought just as fast as they’re being added. (Maybe buy some of the stuff on Congregation Beth Elohim’s list instead; they too have been doing a fantastic job.)

MacNicol’s story is one of a single man, Ben Heemskerk, with significant non-profit experience, organizing a relatively small group of his friends. Everybody knew who was in charge, and Heemskerk knew what his limitations were: he actually turned away volunteers he didn’t know.

Similarly, read Matthew Power‘s excellent article on what Doctors Without Borders (MSF) managed to do after Sandy, and you’ll see a similar dynamic: a lean and experienced group of people who know exactly what they are doing, going out and trying to make as much of a difference as they can, where they’re needed most. The trick is to move fast, to abjure any kind of bureaucracy, and to deliver help where it’s needed most.

The Red Cross can’t do that: it’s simply too big. This passage, from MacNicol’s piece, is key:

On Tuesday, one week after Sandy, some of our group went out in cars, and I and a friend were split onto a larger bus that was carrying a number of different groups. It was the first time I came into contact with volunteers not picked and vetted by Ben. The result was somewhat more chaotic; there was no clear leader and everyone had a different idea where our priorities should lie. To say that organization is the key to any useful relief effort is to say that the sun is key to daytime.

Things started falling apart, in MacNicol’s experience, just when the number of volunteers exceeded the number of friends-of-Ben. Imagine what would happen when the number of volunteers starts growing into the quadruple digits. They actually behave in a predictable manner: the overwhelming majority of them have a tendency to stand around waiting to be told what to do, while a few others bicker about what ought to be done.

This is inevitable when the number of volunteers grows much into double digits, and it’s exacerbated when the volunteers are inexperienced. Here’s Power, tagging along with an MSF doctor:

Suter had recently returned from a nine-month MSF mission in the Congo, where she had worked with a local hospital and helped organize small health clinics spread out around the countryside. “This really isn’t all that different,” she said, headlamp on, scanning a printed spreadsheet filled with the names and addresses of a dozen patients.

Now that’s the kind of volunteer you want manning an impromptu health clinic in the Rockaways. Disaster relief is something which can be learned with experience, and MSF volunteers have disaster-relief experience in spades. Red Cross volunteers, on the other hand, don’t.

And yet, one of the first things that the Red Cross did after Sandy hit was to say that it was “stretched thin” and put out a call for more volunteers. It’s very hard to tell whether all those extra volunteers actually improved outcomes: after all, each one needs to be supported by the larger Red Cross organization, and all of that support is effort which would ideally be expended on the needy. It’s a bit like adding extra stories to extremely tall skyscrapers: the added support those floors need, in terms of columns and elevator banks and the like, means that they don’t actually end up increasing total square footage at all.

The real problem with the Red Cross was not that it was stretched thin, but rather that it was simply too big, and its people too inexperienced in disaster recovery, to be able to respond nimbly to Sandy. Eventually, after a week or two, it will lumber in to affected areas and take over from the ad-hoc groups who provided desperately-needed aid in the early days. It’s reasonably good at that. But that’s clearly not good enough, and it’s certainly nowhere near flawless.

Of course, the Red Cross is burdened with massive expectations. If you’re stuck in a remote part of Staten Island without power or communication for days on end, no one’s going to blame Doctors Without Borders or Occupy Wall Street if you get no help — but they are going to blame the Red Cross.

With $117 million in donations comes an expectation that the Red Cross can and should be everywhere it’s needed, when it’s needed, rather than in a handful of places, a week later, offering food but no shelter or blankets or power or lights. But probably those expectations are unrealistic. The US is fortunate in that it’s not a permanent disaster zone: it’s not a country where Red Cross volunteers are ever going to be experienced in responding to such things. And mobilizing thousands of volunteers and tens of millions of dollars to provide food and shelter in areas without electricity or pharmacies or heat — that’s a logistical nightmare.

The Red Cross, in the event, proved incapable of rising to the occasion. Other large organizations did amazing work: ConEd brought power back, and the MTA brought public transportation back, in much less time than virtually anybody had dared to hope. But those organizations had experienced and dedicated workers who knew exactly what to do and how to do it, rather than a rag-tag band of well-intentioned volunteers worrying about what they were authorized to spend, and a fleet of trucks located in unhelpful places up and down the Eastern seaboard.

In the end, the Red Cross will probably spend much if not most of that $117 million — but not in the immediate aftermath of the storm, when the need was greatest. And more to the point, inputs aren’t outputs. If the money gets wasted in logistical infrastructure, it helps no one.

The truth of the matter is that if you donated money pretty much anywhere, after Sandy hit, that money probably didn’t do a lot of immediate good: at that point, it was too late for money to be turned into first- or second-day response. Ask any of the people who were working on the front lines, whether they’re from Occupy Sandy or MSF or even the Red Cross: money was never the bottleneck, and there was never a point at which anybody felt that if they only had more money, they could do more good. People didn’t need money, they needed gas.

Which isn’t to say that donating money is a bad idea, when disasters hit. But it is to say that donating money to the Red Cross might not be the best use of your dollars. My advice is to give instead to MSF, or an organization like it, which is dealing with disasters every day of the year. That gave them the experience ability to respond quickly when disaster struck in the USA — and it also means that if your money would be put to more urgent use somewhere else, like Zimbabwe or Honduras or Chad, then that’s where it will go.

We should spend as much money as is needed here — but don’t force the matter and earmark $117 million for Sandy relief, when no one knows whether even the Red Cross thinks it can sensibly spend that much. The Red Cross didn’t need to promise to spend all that money on Sandy and Sandy alone, but it made that promise anyway: “the Red Cross promises,” said NBC’s Lisa Myers very explicitly in her piece, “that 91 cents of every dollar donated will be used to help victims of this storm”. That was the last straw, for me: not only was the organization MIA for nearly all of the first week, but it’s now promising to spend huge amounts of money in New York and New Jersey regardless of where that money could be put to best use.

The trick to being a disaster relief organization is that you need the money and the resources before disaster hits, so that you’re prepared when it happens. The Red Cross should have used its balance sheet to go to work as soon as Sandy arrived, should then spend whatever is necessary for as long as it is necessary, and then should use whatever’s left over from its latest $117 million windfall to be better prepared for the next disaster.

Instead, the Red Cross is promising to spend that whole $117 million down to nothing, leaving it just where it started this time around. Which was clearly inadequate.

And that’s why there are surely better places for you to send your money.

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