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Disaster Business Is Good Business for the American Red Cross

American Red Cross

The American Red Cross usually gets a huge uptick in donations in the wake of a high-profile disaster like a hurricane hitting the United States. (Photo Credit: Ryan Johnson/Flickr)

The American Red Cross is the horror movie franchise of humanitarian aid. Evidence of its failures be damned, the organization simply keeps coming — no matter how many would-be death blows it receives.

True to form, when Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma ravaged the southern part of the United States and parts of the Caribbean, the organization raked in millions in donations from everyday citizens and big name celebrities wanting to lend a helping hand. A total of $300 million to be exact.

With a robust media and public relations operation, the organization is well-versed in shielding itself from criticism, as current president Gail McGovern did, when implying that criticizing the organization was an equivalent to criticizing the volunteers who put their lives on hold and bodies on the line after a disaster.

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

Without a doubt, the people doing the hard work on the ground are to be commended. That said, their selfless actions in the aftermath of natural disasters aren’t at issue — and Red Cross criticism should not be, and is not, synonymous with criticizing the rank and file volunteer. Red Cross criticism, as McGovern very well knows, lies purely within the executive suites of an organization that is cash rich but morally bankrupt.

In August, Brad Kieserman, the organization’s vice president of disaster operations and logistics, fumbled in an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” when questioned about the percentage of donations that went directly to relief efforts in Texas.

“I don’t think I know the answer to that any better than the chief fundraiser knows how many, how much it costs to put a volunteer downrange for a week and how many emergency response vehicles I have on the road today,” he said.  “So I think if he was on this interview and you were asking how many relief vehicles in Texas, I don’t think he’d know the answer, and I don’t know the answer to the financial question, I’m afraid.”

Such an oversight might be forgivable for a local mom and pop operation struggling to deliver services and keep the lights on. But for an organization that can afford to pay its chief executive more than $500,000, this is totally unacceptable.

It would also be understandable if the Red Cross didn’t have such a questionable, and documented, history of failing to deliver when people need them most and exploiting Black pain.

When Haiti was ravaged by an earthquake in 2010, the Red Cross, then a cash-strapped organization, saw dollar signs in the wake of the tragedy that claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced more than one million others.

The organization raised more than $500 million following the earthquake, according to a damning investigative report released by ProPublica and NPR detailing the Red Cross’ failings in the country.

In addition to an executive calling the disaster a “spectacular fundraising opportunity,” the organization continued to solicit funds in the name of Haiti relief after amassing enough for the relief effort, effectively erasing a previous deficit of $100 million. At the time of the report’s release, the Red Cross was responsible for just six homes being built in the country. Six.

Issues don’t stop there. When Superstorm Sandy slammed the east coast in 2014, the Red Cross was once again the public’s charity of choice, with then-President Obama encouraging citizens to give to the organization. And true to form, the Red Cross got caught Red Crossing — that is, failing to deliver on promises. An NPR report found that the organization diverted funds for public relations purposes, including news conferences, wasted “excessive” amounts of food and that distribution of relief was “politically driven.”

As former Red Cross staffer Richard Rieckenberg noted in the aftermath, “It was just clear to me that they weren’t interested in doing mass care; they were interested in the illusion of mass care.”

Those illusions, crafted by well-paid PR people, keep the Red Cross from totally falling out of favor. Throw in an army of everyday citizens who put their lives on hold to volunteer after a disaster and technology that allows individuals to donate from the comfort of their cellphones and you have the makings of an organization that is nearly impervious to bad press.

After all, we tend to like our illusions. We also like when people show up and do something. The Red Cross has mastered the illusions, and they do show up to do something. However, when it comes to the Red Cross, doing something and doing something effective are often at odds. But damn if they don’t make people feel good about those $10 donations via text messaging.

There is, no doubt room for big organizing when it comes to natural disasters. But until the Red Cross corrects the issues that have caused it to fall down on the job dating as far back as the September 11 terrorist attacks, money is better served going to smaller, locally run organizations in impacted areas.

Continuing to reward the Red Cross with time and treasure is to reward inefficiency and exploitation. For those who live through the horror of a disaster, they should not be subjected to the horrors of not being able to put their lives back together in the name of an organization that wants to look good without doing good.


AJ Springer is a writer, communications pro, nerd and nomad. You can find him on Twitter @JustAnt1914 discussing current events, combat sports, pop culture and the finer points of pro wrestling. He makes his home in Washington, D.C.

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