[Editor’s note: After this story was first published, ProPublica obtained emails from emergency management officials in Texas criticizing the Red Cross for its response to Hurricane Harvey, alleging that the relief group had failed to communicate well with local officials, not delivered promised supplies and resources, and been understaffed and underprepared when they arrived in the state.]
The easiest thing to do after a disaster strikes is to make a quick donation to the Red Cross. Millions of us have done it: You send a text, contribute $10 or $20, and imagine you’ve done a good deed.
But in an article last week for Slate, journalist Jonathan Katz urged readers to stop doing that. Katz, who was the Associated Press’s bureau chief in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake (and later wrote a book about it), argued that the Red Cross “has proven itself unequal to the task of massive disaster relief.”
The problem, as Katz sees it, is that the Red Cross is a dysfunctional organization that excels at raising money but has shown little evidence of its ability to spend that money wisely or meaningfully. The Red Cross takes in close to 3 billion annually, refuses to open its books to the public, and, according to Katz, has consistently failed to produce a useful breakdown of its spending after major disaster efforts.
They’re also limited in terms of what they can do on the ground. The Red Cross isn’t a development organization — they don’t rebuild schools or hospitals or infrastructure. They provide short-term relief — cots for people to sleep on, blankets to keep them warm, hygiene kits, etc. This kind of work is important, Katz says, but it doesn’t justify the enormous sums of money the Red Cross solicits from the public.
I reached out to Katz and asked him why we should be more skeptical about the Red Cross, why the model of disaster relief they represent is broken, and what individual citizens can do if they really want to help.
He told me that Red Cross perpetuates a tendency we all have to see disasters as opportunities for charity. As a result, we spend far less time thinking about how to prevent disasters in the first place. “It’s always about relief, always about helping people after it’s too late,” Katz said.
“No one makes the world a worse place when they donate to the Red Cross,” Katz told me, “but if they do donate and assume that’s enough, we’ll keep repeating this cycle over and over again.”
Shortly after this piece was published, the Red Cross responded with a statement that said, in part, that it had received “the highest ratings for accountability and transparency from independent non-profit watchdogs like Charity Navigator and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance.” The organization added that “Disasters by their nature are chaotic, and that means there always will be problems and some things that go wrong. That’s the reality in a disaster zone — not failure.” Their full response is below.
My conversation with Katz, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
It’s not everyday someone makes the case against the Red Cross. Have you received a lot of blowback?
Emotionally, this is powerful stuff. We're talking about life and death. Disasters present a unique opportunity for people to demonstrate virtue — it's an opportunity to be brave, to be charitable, to be compassionate. Giving money to disaster relief organization like the Red Cross is an emotional act, which is disproportionate to the amount of money you give. You send over your $10 and it feels like a significant act. And I can relate to that. I'm sure you can, too.
But that’s all the more reason to be thoughtful about what we do and why. We shouldn’t reflexively send $10 to the Red Cross and then walk away feeling as though we’ve made a difference. The truth is that we probably didn’t, and it helps no one to imagine otherwise.
You used the phrase “make a difference,” and that’s exactly what the Red Cross website tells people who visit it: Click here to donate to Hurricane Harvey victims and you can “make a difference.” Is that true? Does donating to the Red Cross in moments like this make a difference?
Not really. Their use of language like that is part of the problem. What other financial transactions promise you that you're "making a difference" or changing the world? But that's a big part of their sell. There are two problems here. One is that the Red Cross is a dysfunctional organization. The second problem is that disaster relief in general is a much bigger and a much different problem than the one people are solving when they send a single donation in the wake of a particular disaster.
Can you expound a bit on that second problem?
Sure. A question like “Does it make a difference?” is hard to answer. One of the things I've learned in covering disasters for more than a decade is that you have to take this conversation out of the realm of vaguely saving lives or vaguely making a difference. And we can't talk about good intentions either, because intentions don't amount to much. Instead, we have to be very practical about what is needed, what is being proposed, what is being done with the resources available, and who's being held accountable for all of it.
So a lot depends on what you’re trying to do. If the difference you’re trying to make is to pay for cots, then you need to break down what the most effective way to do that is. The same is true of short-term food relief. In some cases, the Red Cross is fairly good at these sorts of things. They’re very good at handing out blankets. They’re very good at getting their logo in the middle of every shot of a disaster scene.
But there are many, many other things that have to be done, both after a disaster strikes and before it strikes in terms of risk prevention, and the Red Cross doesn’t help with that.
Well let’s get specific. What is that the Red Cross doesn’t do well? Why should people think twice before sending their money?
What the Red Cross does well is position very short-term relief in certain kinds of situations. They're better at it in a very small-scale disaster, where basic logistical networks aren't being affected. So if there's a single house fire or something like that, they can be effective. But in terms of broader disaster relief, they really don’t do much apart from raising money.
So in Haiti, for example, where I worked, this was a big issue. The Red Cross raised tons of money but had no idea what to do with it, or how to make it work for the people who needed it. They raised something like half a billion dollars and they had no way to spend it. They did not have half a billion dollars’ worth of things to do. So in a situation like that, especially in an overseas disaster, all of that was a complete waste. Almost all of that money could have been better spent somewhere else.
So what happened to all that money?
It still hasn’t been spent. After all these years, they still don’t know what to do with it. They spent some of it on short-term relief, and they basically regifted it to other organizations — after taking their 9 percent cut, of course. The much bigger issue is that this is just a terrible way to do disaster relief in general. The entire system is broken, and the American Red Cross specifically just happens to be the biggest brand name in that mess.
But when you tell people not to send their money to the Red Cross, they get frustrated because there isn’t an obvious alternative. It’s not entirely clear what the best thing to do is.
That’s definitely part of the problem here. You argue that we’re framing this issue in the wrong way, that we’ve got to think differently about disaster relief. Because the truth is that we should be thinking about how to prevent disasters or about how to mitigate their effects, as opposed to waiting for something terrible to happen and then throwing money at it.
That’s right. The fact is, there’s very little that we can actually do from the sidelines. You can't make the rain go away, you can't make the water go away, you can't bring back the people who have died, you can't bring back the things that have been lost.
Part of the problem with the model that the Red Cross perpetuates is that it gets people in the habit of seeing disasters as opportunities for charity, and as unavoidable acts of God or something like that. So these awful things happen, no could have seen it coming, and now we all get to be good people by contributing a few bucks from afar.
This is a terrible way to think about disaster. It has resulted in untold tragedy all over the world, and we have to break that cycle. It's a very difficult thing to do because it requires that we think about something in an entirely different way.
What does that mean? How should we think about this?
We don’t spend nearly enough time worrying about disaster prevention. It’s always about relief, always about helping people after it’s too late.
All those millions of dollars given to the Red Cross after a disaster strikes could have been spent on the construction of better, safer buildings that are less likely to be destroyed in a storm or an earthquake. It could’ve been spent on better flood protection, on better levees. It could’ve been spent on creating better systems and infrastructure and training more first responders so that we’re more prepared. It could’ve been spent on building an environment less prone to disaster in the first place.
None of this is the Red Cross's fault. They raise money, and they’re very good at it. That’s what they do. As long as people give them money they will continue to be good at that. It's not like the American Red Cross is putting a gun to people's heads and saying, "Don't prepare for disasters so that you can keep giving us money whenever they strike."
But they happen to be the biggest brand name in this world, and people turn to them when there aren’t enough of these systems in place, so they give a little money and feel good about themselves and go back to not caring about their own communities or the community they’re helping. That has to stop. If we care about actually reducing suffering, this has to stop.
I take all those points, but where does that leave us? What can or should the average person do if they want to help? Should they send material goods like food or clothes to local organizations instead? Should they volunteer or send cash?
One of the worst things you can do is just send stuff into a disaster zone. This is another thing we see in disaster after disaster: people hurriedly send old clothes, canned food, and toys, and no one has any idea what happens to that stuff. If you’re compelled to give, always give cash.
Give cash to who? Not the Red Cross, obviously.
No, definitely not the Red Cross. Ultimately, you want this money to end up in the hands of the people who most need it. How to do that is going to vary from disaster to disaster, location to location. But generally speaking, working with people rooted in these communities is a much more effective way to go.
The Red Cross can do a lot of things, but they won’t help the people in Houston who are going to need money to restart their lives, their businesses, their incomes. That is not a situation that a cot or a hygiene kit or a nice volunteer with a warm cup of coffee can fix. Those people are going to need money. A lot of that is going to have to come through flood insurance, a lot of that is going to have to come from the federal government, or the state government. That is an opportunity for people to give.
What won’t do much good is having millions of individuals scattered across the country make individual contributions to the most visible organization they know: the Red Cross. Because in three months or six months or a year, we’ll start seeing all these stories asking where they money went? And no one will have any idea. I’ve been covering disasters for a long time, and it almost always plays out that way. And we’ll realize, yet again, that our good intentions and our money was largely squandered.
Six months from now, when we’re writing and reading stories about Houston after Harvey, is this what you expect to see?
I hope not, but yes. The conversation will be about how we got into this mess and what we can do next time to prevent it. And the answer will be what it always is: "Prepare well in advance. Think about these things well in advance, and when the disaster strikes, have a complete different way of doing it." Then we don't change, and then disaster strikes again and the whole cycle starts over again.
All you have to do is just look at the after-action stories from Hurricane Sandy, from Hurricane Katrina, from the floods in Louisiana last year and see. You can basically take those, change the particulars of the disaster zone that you're talking about, and use the same story to describe Houston.
You suggested earlier that the Red Cross is not only limited in terms of what it can do on the ground but that it’s also a dysfunctional organization. How so?
If you read the investigative work that Pro Publica has done about the Red Cross and their actions after the Haitian earthquake, after Hurricane Sandy, after the Louisiana floods last year, and many other disasters, you see the same pattern. The Red Cross leadership has misled Congress and resisted oversight at every step. They don’t open their books, they’re not transparent, and they only release details after they’ve been publicly shamed.
The Red Cross generates more than $2.6 billion every year. Do we have any idea what they do with that money?
No. And because their brand name is so strong, they get away with it.
The recovery effort is just beginning in Texas. We’re facing potentially another catastrophic storm later this week. If people want to donate strategically, who should they listen to? How will they know where to turn if not the Red Cross?
It’s an important question. The best thing to do is to listen to people who are actually living there. Especially the voices of people who we might not otherwise listen to. Not just what the mayor has to say, but what the people from the poorer part of towns who are getting pushed out of their homes, or who have been through repeated disasters now, and can't take one more. Pay attention to what they’re saying and think strategically about how best to help them.
Texting Red Cross is easy and quick but it won’t accomplish much. There are plenty of people who can’t help or who don’t want to help, but if you actually care about making a difference, realize first that there are limitations and then consider carefully your options. No one makes the world a worse place when they donate to the Red Cross, but if they do donate and assume that’s enough, we’ll keep repeating this cycle over and over again.
Below is the full statement we received from the Red Cross in response to this article:
First, let me say that the American Red Cross agrees that disaster mitigation and preparedness play incredibly important roles in alleviating human suffering. Disaster preparedness is key to keeping people safe and mitigating the effects of weather and health emergencies. That’s why we teach people first aid across the USA, invest in disaster preparedness tools like Red Cross mobile apps—which sent more than 20 million hurricane and flood alerts the last week of August—plant mangrove and casuarina trees to mitigate the effects of storm surges in Indonesia, and dig drainage ditches in Haiti to prevent flooding. We make investments in disaster mitigation, but know from experience that donations in the midst of disaster are critical, too. People forced to leave their homes need help immediately—like a roof over their heads, a meal in the hands, and a nurse to address medical needs.
The American Red Cross has well over a century of experience responding to large scale disasters. Whether responding to the 1889 Johnstown flood or last year’s massive flooding in Louisiana, the American Red Cross has the expertise, systems, logistics, and both human and financial resources to rapidly scale up and provide needed assistance to hundreds of thousands of people. Disaster relief and recovery is a team effort. Massive disasters like Hurricane Harvey create more needs than any one organization can handle. Some organizations—like the Red Cross—are able to help shelter tens of thousands of people because of our size and scale. Other aid agencies are best suited to focus more on individual needs in specific areas. We work with various non-profits—large and small—during disasters to avoid duplication of effort and ensure that gaps are filled. We encourage people to donate to the charity of their choice—but please do donate because the need is great.
People give to the Red Cross in the midst of disasters to alleviate suffering and that’s exactly what their donations have done. The Red Cross and our donors should be proud of how their donations have been utilized to help save lives and support people during large-scale disasters. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, this includes sheltering, feeding, and tending to the mental health and health needs of tens of thousands of people.
Americans work hard for their money, and we believe they deserve a detailed accounting of how their donations are being used. In the midst of disasters, we keep the media and donors up-to-date via our website, social media accounts, and by giving interviews to news outlets. Once the immediate disaster is over, we always publish detailed updates on redcross.org about how the funds are spent and committed. We are still in the midst of Hurricane Harvey relief and our first priority is getting people the help they need—right now—like shelter and food. Donation totals are literally changing by the hour, but we plan on releasing preliminary figures this week.
We receive the highest ratings for accountability and transparency from independent non-profit watchdogs like Charity Navigator and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. In fact, we believe we set a new standard for transparency for the non-profit sector when we released a complete financial breakdown of the $488 million we received for Haiti earthquake relief, here:http://www.redcross.org/about-us/our-work/international-services/haiti-assistance-program/donations-at-work. This stands in stark contrast to the statement in the Slate article that, “[The American Red Cross] has never produced a meaningful breakdown of its spending after the Haiti earthquake.” Donors should be incredibly proud of our work in Haiti, which includes investing in more than 50 hospitals and clinics, helping more than 143,000 people through safe housing and neighborhood recovery, and even helping to construct the country’s first wastewater treatment plant. While your piece and the Slate article imply that we only handed out tarps and hygiene kits, it fails to account for our incredible accomplishments, like providing 70% of the funds needed for the Haiti’s first cholera vaccine; investing $5.5 million to help construct Mirebalais University Hospital; or the $10 million we provided to help build the new hospital in Jacmel. These interventions save lives and they’re a direct result of Americans’ generosity in the aftermath of the quake.
Disasters by their nature are chaotic, and that means there always will be problems and some things that go wrong. That’s reality in a disaster zone – not failure. But we work to fulfill our mission no matter the challenges, and we always strive to do the right thing.