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September 29, 2005

Red Cross backlash

Richard Walden's recent LA Times op/ed makes some critical points about FEMA, philanthropy, and the Red Cross.

Many Americans don't realize that the Red Cross is both a charity and a contractor. The Red Cross receives millions of dollars in federal contracts for disaster-relief services over and above the money it receives through charitable donations. According to Walden, FEMA will reimburse the Red Cross for the cost of sheltering 300,000 evacuees.

As a private charity, the Red Cross is not directly accountable to taxpayers, even though it is a major player in a publicly-funded relief effort; and as Walden explains in the op/ed, the Red Cross is only minimally accountable to its donors.

Perhaps most troublingly, the Red Cross is not directly accountable to the evacuees that it serves.

There's a huge difference between a charity and a social program, even if the services rendered are the same. You can feel that difference in the shelters. The evacuees are treated like charity cases, not like citizens exercising their legitimate entitlements.

We saw the charity dynamic play out over and over again the shelters of Baker and Baton Rouge. We took calls from shelter residents who wanted to volunteer for the Red Cross but who were refused simply because they were residents. At that point, anyone could walk in off the street and sign up to volunteer. Bob and I did. The staff told us to fill out the volunteer forms because it was the only way to get admitted to the meeting where we were invited to give a presentation!

We also took statements from Red Cross volunteers who were being sent home by their immediate supervisors for complaining about a racist clique of officials who gave white families preferential access to food and clothing. These volunteers had no right to appeal their supervisor's decision and no official channels to lodge their allegations of discrimination.

Most troubling of all, the shelter residents have no voice of their own. Mothers told us they were afraid to complain about an alleged sex offender who was volunteering in a clothing distribution center. These women were unwilling to speak out because the Red Cross has no guarantees of non-retaliation. Alleged "trouble makers" can and do get kicked out with no right to appeal.

On the whole, shelter residents are treated more like prisoners than clients. The Red Cross doesn't give evacuees any say in how their shelters are run. A participatory model might have been impractical in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, but now that situation has stabilized, it's time for evacuees to play a more active role in shaping their temporary communities. Approximately 1 million people have been displaced by this year's hurricane season. Not all of them are in the temporary housing system, but most will continue to recieve some form of aid from the Red Cross for a long time.

For all its good deeds, the Red Cross is a huge private bureacracy. It isn't accountable to the people it serves, it isn't accountable to taxpayers, and it isn't directly accountable to its donors. This model may be acceptable in the immediate aftermath of a poorly managed disaster, but it's not an appropriate way to run a long-term relief effort.

Obviously, we're stuck with the Red Cross this time around. They're in place and they're doing a lot of good. However, the 2005 hurricane season should prompt us to rethink the relationship between private charity and federal disaster response.


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» Beat the Red Cross at their own game from The $5 Philanthropist
To distill this down to its essence, there are two important issues here: The first is the brand ubiquity of the Red Cross versus other relief and development agencies and the second is the issue of donor preference to fund relief efforts as opposed... [Read More]

» Beat the Red Cross at their own game from The $5 Philanthropist
To distill this down to its essence, there are two important issues here: The first is the brand ubiquity of the Red Cross versus other relief and development agencies and the second is the issue of donor preference to fund relief efforts as opposed... [Read More]


The Red Cross has had a long time to build to an impenetrable bureaucracy. The problem is that now they have an administration that is happy with that. The hard reality is that it is gouvernment that needs to tighten its oversight of all groups, companies and departments that it supports. When gouvernment is lax about integrity then the rest follow suit. It is a part of the culture of entitlement and it is not just Fortune 500 companies that have the attitude.

Red Cross lost a lot of legitimacy in California after the San Diego Wildfires. The Red Cross used images of displaced residents for fundraising; the local chapter chairwoman took a salary of on quarter of a million dollars; the Red Cross disbursed zero funds to displaced residents.

Now, the Red Cross uses a sotto voce disclaimer in its fundraising appeals: "We need your financial contibution for this and other disasters...."

"Other disasters" includes its policy of highly compensating its own insiders.

I don't trust 'em, but there all we've got.

Isn't there a significant difference between the american red cross and the international red cross? I was told that the american red cross is much more restricted and federally controlled than the international one.

I would never give money to the Red Cross. I have heard about this shit for years. this is soooo sad! Give your money to charities that you know, and those who guarantee getting the goods where they are most needed. Give to food banks. Know where your money is going.

Who should we donate to instead of the Red Cross? A list of recommended charities would be helpful.

After Katrina, my wife and I donated to the Red Cross and the America's Second Harvest. However, I'm not inclined to make any more donations to the Red Cross, and the evacuees will need more than food to rebuild their lives.

AmeriCares is an alternative; like ARC, they are a four-star charity on Charity Navigator, but they are far more efficient with their funds than ARC (lower administrative overhead, lower executive salaries). They have played a major role in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

I've also recently discovered a very small-scale charity called Modest Needs (

If you are looking for an alternative.

Common Grounds

More info and photos can be found here about Common Grounds.

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