In his weekly “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
Red Cross donations: Remember September 11:
I hope we soon see a lot of coverage of how the Red Cross is using its Hurricane Sandy contributions.
For everyone from Mitt Romney to President Obama to the good-hearted people who raised $23 million through NBC’s telethon last Friday, the Red Cross has become the charity of choice for victims of Sandy - just as it was the default charity after 9/11. But if New York’s last mass disaster is any indication, how the Red Cross uses the money is worth a lot of reporters’ attention.
In the months after 9/11, the Red Cross demonstrated that it was great at providing immediate relief such as blankets, food and short-term shelter, but it really wasn’t in the business of providing costlier long-term aid, such as help for people to rebuild homes and businesses. Thus, after $850 million in 9/11 contributions had poured into the organization, far surpassing what it could spend handing out blankets and sandwiches and setting up shelters, a mini-scandal unfolded when it was revealed that much of the money people thought they were donating to victims of the terror attacks was in fact being socked away to provide that same kind of short-term relief for victims of future fires or floods.
At the time, Red Cross officials defended themselves by explaining, correctly, that all of their 9/11 appeals included language somewhere on all printed solicitations or in television ads saying that “the funds raised will be used for this and other disasters.” That subtle disclaimer (accompanied by images of the Twin Towers and Pentagon rubble) was widely criticized. It was initially defended by Red Cross officials because many of the locally-based board members consider it an article of faith that funds be spread across the country for the benefit of all disaster victims.
Eleven year later, on the Red Cross webpage soliciting donations with the headline “HURRICANE SANDY: HELP THOSE IN NEED,” there is a fulsome description of all the help being provided to the storm’s victims. However, the last sentence says: Financial donations help the Red Cross provide shelter, food, emotional support and other assistance to those affected by disasters like Hurricane Sandy, as well as countless crises at home and around the world.”
If you click the “donate” button and then click further for the “cause description,” it says: “You can help people affected by disasters like Superstorm Sandy by making a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief.”
I don’t mean to sound like Chris Hitchens attacking Mother Teresa. The Red Cross is a great organization, and I’ve heard, though not done the requisite reporting, that after several management shuffles, the organization has cleaned up its act considerably since 2001. Then again, as this New York Times article from last Saturday reports, the Red Cross has not received good reviews so far for its post-Sandy relief work.
Even assuming that the Red Cross can recover from these early missteps, unlike the 9/11 aftermath this time there may not be such a large surplus of donations in light of what needs to be spent on immediate shelter and recovery. After the September 11 attacks, the families of the dead and injured were compensated by a federal victims compensation fund, and there were far fewer people left in need of shelter than what we’ve seen across New Jersey and New York following Sandy.
Nonetheless, all of the hundreds of millions that is now likely to pour into the Red Cross isn’t likely to be spent on shelter and other immediate relief efforts for this storm alone. So that disclaimer language certainly suggests a story.
There’s also the question of what will happen if the Red Cross decides to ignore the wiggle room in its disclaimer and use all Sandy contributions for storm-related relief by doing more ambitious recovery projects. After the embarrassing post 9/11 reports that the Red Cross was storing up those surplus contributions for non-9/11 activities, its officials decided to solve the problem by shoveling it all out to more expensive, longer-term 9/11 recovery efforts. The results were not pretty.