Confronted with back-to-back major hurricanes, the American Red Cross has received a huge outpouring of financial support and a simultaneous barrage of criticism based on its struggles to respond to several past disasters. To date, combined donations to the Red Cross for hurricanes Harvey and Irma have topped $300 million. Former President Barack Obama tweeted a link to a Red Cross fundraising site. Many pro sports teams, celebrities and major corporations have announced large donations. Yet even in the early stages of the response to Harvey in Texas, a NoRedCross hashtag circulated widely on Twitter. Some prominent journalists wrote articles suggesting that people should not donate to the organisation. The New York Times, in an editorial, urged prospective donors to be skeptical. “Its record on large-scale operations is spotty,” said the editorial, asserting that “there has been less accountability than Americans might expect emanating from its grand marble headquarters in Washington.” The criticism has been stinging to Red Cross volunteers, many of whom have taken to social media to rebut the negative commentary. “I worry that our volunteers need to feel appreciated,” Red Cross President Gail McGovern said in a telephone interview.
“After 12-hour shifts, they come back to their hotel really exhausted. They don’t want to read this stuff.” Some local officials in Texas and Florida have complained about glitches in the Red Cross response to Harvey and Irma, while others have expressed thanks. But much of the current mistrust of the Red Cross arises from the aftermath of other major disasters over the past 16 years. After the 2001 terror attacks, the Red Cross irked many donors by earmarking some 9/11 gifts for unrelated purposes, including future needs.
It was widely criticised for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and afterward acknowledged problems that included overwhelmed volunteers, inadequate anti-fraud measures and too few strong partnerships with local charities and civic groups. More recently, investigative reporting by Pro Publica and National Public Radio made the case that the Red Cross responses to the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 were flawed in multiple ways.
One key allegation was that the Red Cross failed to adequately document how it was spending the $488 million it raised for its work in Haiti. Last year, the Red Cross posted a detailed breakdown of its spending in Haiti. But that did not deter some critics from using social media as the new hurricanes arrived to post Haiti-related headlines like this: “How Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars and Built Only Six Homes.” “People are repeating and retweeting this stuff instead of taking time to research,” said McGovern, a former professor of marketing at Harvard who took over as Red Cross president in 2008 after years of rapid leadership turnover.
McGovern said she took solace in evidence of continued public support, the strong flow of donations and the signing up of about 40,000 new volunteers during the hurricanes. The organization ran scores of emergency shelters in Texas and the Southeast and says it already has provided more than $45 million in financial assistance to more than 100,000 hurricane-stricken households in Texas. For both Harvey and Irma, the Red Cross is among the hurricane-response groups recommended by Charity Navigator, a watchdog group that rates charities on their finances and transparency.
On the Charity Navigator website, several hundred comments about the Red Cross were posted, including visceral exchanges between supporters and critics. Charity Navigator’s president, Michael Thatcher, says the Red Cross “is under pretty intense scrutiny” and he hopes the result is improved accountability. “It’s a hard job to be able to ramp up quickly and deploy volunteer resources and expert resources at the drop of a hat,” he said. “Are they perfect? No. I would love to see them do better, but I definitely want them to hang around.”