The Red Cross
November 19, 2001 11:32 AM   Subscribe

The Red Cross has a decade-long pattern of using local crises to raise funds, and then to spend those funds on other things. The donors had thought their money would go to help specific victims, and sometimes up to 80% would be diverted to other causes. I think this is wrong.
posted by Steven Den Beste (38 comments total)
Here's why: I think that donor-intent is paramount. I don't think that the Red Cross, or any other charity, has the right to decide that a given cause isn't actually worthy of the money which was given for it. Whether there are other causes which are important or not, it's the donor's privilege to choose where their money goes.

And by doing what they've been doing, the Red Cross risks substantial long term harm. If people lose confidence in the organization, they'll stop giving money to it. I already have. I don't trust them any more. I'm well aware that they have the best of intentions, but that doesn't matter. So when I do charitable giving now, I give my money to a group where I have a good idea how it will get used.

If a lot of people end up doing what I do, then not only will the Red Cross no longer be able to help the unpublicized crises but they won't be able to help the big famous ones either. So in the interests of doing short term good, they risk long term evil.

I also think that their behavior is a form of contempt for the donors. The donors are no longer viewed as good-willed people trying to help out, but rather as cattle to be milked periodically. To send out a begging appeal about flooding in Minnesota, or earthquakes in San Francisco, or grass fires in San Diego, and then to put in very fine print that the money will be used for "this or similar disasters" is arrogant beyond belief.

It was previously publicized that this happened in NYC. Now it turns out they've been doing it routinely for a long time. It's got to stop.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:33 AM on November 19, 2001

i work in aid and development. you just would not believe the scams going on, in almost every organisation/charity
posted by quarsan at 11:41 AM on November 19, 2001

Couldn't agree more. I was particularly pissed off to read the Myths and Facts cover-my-ass garbage from them. Its also a shame for the well intentioned Red Cross volunteers who can do nothing about it. Recent full page ads in New York newspapers claim that "we listened to you" and will no longer do it re 9-11 donations. Who knows. Re 9-11, I ended up giving in person to my neighborhood's fire station.
posted by Voyageman at 11:53 AM on November 19, 2001

I give my money to a group where I have a good idea how it will get used.

How do you determine this? Aside from reviewing audit statements (yeah, right) or knowing someone on the inside, there doesn't seem to be any way to know. This article tells me I can't trust reputation, longevity, or the organization's Word.
posted by gazingus at 11:58 AM on November 19, 2001

if you think that's bad.....try this for size
posted by quarsan at 12:02 PM on November 19, 2001

Gazingus, I give money to the San Diego Food Bank. It's got one and only one mission and it's local. So I know it's going to be used to get food to people who can't afford to buy enough.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:12 PM on November 19, 2001

Frankly, I think everyones indignant reactions are a little embarrassing.

WHY does everyone view this as a "scam"? A scam would be key red cross personnel embezzling funds or setting super high salaries (see allegations vs. So. Poverty Law Center), A scam would be using the money for some totally unrelated cause (say, promoting gun control or animal rights, or whatever -- like the way AAA is a lobby organization vs. clean air legislation).

The organization isn't doing anything of these things, they have a clear focus, and you can be pretty confident your $s are going to help people who are in need. People only give money for very large profile disasters -- So, um, the Red Cross should stay dormant the rest of the time? A group of family trailers get totaled by a tornado, but its only a blip on the news, so they get NADA while victims of big disasters become multi-millionaires.

I'm completely bewildered by peoples reaction to this stuff, really. It makes zero sense.

When I gave to the red cross on Amazon, it said right there they were going to this or future disasters -- maybe other people didn't see that or hear that, but I don't even think that matters.
posted by malphigian at 12:15 PM on November 19, 2001

From the linked article:

"..the organization has said it will hold overhead costs for the Liberty Fund at 9 percent, which is considered modest."

Nine percent of $543 million. $48.87 million dollars in overhead costs, and that's modest?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:17 PM on November 19, 2001

I agree with you, Malphigian. The Red Cross is involved with many, many, many causes including international relief. I saw this disaster as an opportunity to give to an organization which I should have given to long ago.

How many people gave blood? Are you angry that it didn't go into the body of someone injured in the Towers? Because, as it turns out, there weren't that many people needing blood, in the end. How is that different than giving cash?
posted by amanda at 12:20 PM on November 19, 2001

Some disasters dont have as good of PR campaigns as others. They deserve money, too. When you donated to Red Cross you donated to RED CROSS, not victims of the World Trade Center. By giving a charity money you should be saying that you support what the charity does, not just a single event.

What disgusts me is that 9/11 was the first time most people had ever donated to a charity, and probably the last time, too. So much for civic philanthropy.
posted by atom128 at 12:23 PM on November 19, 2001

Voyageman, that Red Cross page is unbelievable. They loudly proclaim that $136 million in benefits and don't bother mentioning that it's less than a quarter of the money which was collected.

They claim that all the contributed money is being used for its "intended purpose" but that only happened because of the publicity their prior policy got.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:25 PM on November 19, 2001

Atom, if the Red Cross wants its contributions that way, it should say so.

But when they advertise for a specific fund specifically created for a specific tragedy, then all the money collected for it should be used for it.

If they want general money for general needs, they should say so. Their donors deserve honesty.

If the only way the Red Cross can do good is by lying to its donors, we're better off without it.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:27 PM on November 19, 2001

Okay, I can see your point.

But look at the other side - the Red Cross has a huge number of issues that the charity is designed to address. And, in the wake of the half-BILLION dollars that have been donated to the Liberty Fund, lots of those issues are going underfunded. What are they supposed to do?

What if they run out of direct victims in need of assistance and there is still money left over? Then what?

Sure it is arrogance. But, maybe it's arrogance that is needed. Maybe they know more about where the need is than you and I - this is their full time calling, and they are supposed to know. Many more children die every year in this country from preventable diseases than died on September 11 - are those who were affected by September 11 more deserving simply because those people all died at once on live television?

Also, how does the Myths section equal "cover-my-ass garbage?" I honestly haven't been paying attention to this issue (I think the whole thing is a pretty apt illustration that most people in this country have way too much free time on their hands) - but how is clarifying misconceptions a bad thing?


Maybe in the future, the way to avoid all this nonsense is to refuse to set up a specific fund. All donations go to the general fund, with the statement on their materials that they will use all donations to cover emergent and existing needs, based on their professional judgement of the severest need.
posted by Irontom at 12:36 PM on November 19, 2001

If the only way the Red Cross can do good is by lying to its donors, we're better off without it.

Again, these attacks on the Red Cross seem incredibly weak. No one is claiming they are stealing money for their own benefit, no one is claiming they are going to use it for anything other than helping people in need.

I remain completely shocked that so many people are OUTRAGED, saying "NO! I wanted my money to go the people injured here, I don't care if there is already sufficient aid, I don't want it to go to those people whose homes got destroyed in that flood -- let them start their own fund!".

Its really, really silly. Sorry. And to have the massive attack on people who are not getting rich off anything, and have devoted their lives to helping others -- Its offensive.
posted by malphigian at 12:40 PM on November 19, 2001

Nine percent of $543 million. $48.87 million dollars in overhead costs, and that's modest?

Yes, it is. It takes large numbers of people and a big infrastructure to handle that kind of money and aid.

An illuminating example comes from the United Way - they list charities for the Combined Campaign that takes place every fall. Charities with administrative expenses above 25% are excluded, except those who have received a waiver because they are working to get their expenses below that level.

So - YES it is a modest level of expenses. And NO you don't understand everything you read when you have no context for it.
posted by Irontom at 12:44 PM on November 19, 2001

While I will agree that donor intent is important and shouldn't be ignored, I think that the needs of those who will benefit from charity are what's really paramount. Is there a disaster relief effort you think that the Red Cross shouldn't be helping with? If you give them money to help the victims in New York, and it turns out there are victims elsewhere and already enough money in the city, is the Red Cross wrong to sponsor relief efforts somewhere else? When you donate, should you have the authority to decide exactly where your money is spent, or which services and items are procured? Let's say, for instance, that you only want your charity to go to residents of the city or state where you donate. Should out-of-towners then be out of luck? Or should you be allowed to specify that your money only go to white, middle-class suburban homeowners? I mean, it's your money and your intent. What possible right could the Red Cross have to divert your money to someone else?
posted by UnReality at 12:53 PM on November 19, 2001

Yes. When I give money I should have the power to decide where it is spent. Yes, they are wrong to use it elsewhere.

If there are other disasters which need money, let the Red Cross say so. If they want to create a general pool of money for unforseen disasters in future, let them say so.

If they lie about how they're using the money, why should we trust them at all?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:28 PM on November 19, 2001

if you want your money to go to someone specific, take it to them yourself. if you, like most people, just want to help somehow, that's where charities like the Red Cross come in. all of the money collected for the WTC victim's families shouldn't go directly (or solely) to them. charities are there to help those in times of desparate need, not set them up for life. once they're back on their feet, the charity should move on to help the next person in need.

like those people are entitled to the millions of dollars anyway. bah!
posted by tolkhan at 1:29 PM on November 19, 2001

That's a right pretty straw man you've built there, malphigian. No one is saying that helping other needy people besides the victims of the WTC attack is wrong. It is the pretext under which the Red Cross solicits its donations that is objectionable. It's the ol' bait-and-switch.
posted by gazingus at 1:49 PM on November 19, 2001

thank you Malphigian, IronTom for bringing some logic skills to this thread. Yes, the Red Cross was possibly in error IF they led people to believe that their money was going to 9/11 disaster relief and nothing else - but that's a minor slip-up not a fraud. A little common sense would've told anyone that their money would be going to the Red Cross as a whole, no matter what the ads said.

The Red Cross is a huge organization giving aid to everyone from Afghan refugees to New Yorkers. Should they have used 9/11 as a focal point for raising money? Absolutely. Should people be allowed to choose exactly where their money goes? Well, I guess. But the Red Cross shouldn't be expending their resources catering to such people. You give money to a relief organization--especially one as well-respected and time-tested as the Red Cross--and you should trust that they know much better than you do, where the money is needed.

No, I'm not being naive by suggesting all money given to the Red Cross is ideally spent. But they're in the relief business and do a damn good job of it--cut them some slack ferchrissakes.
posted by xochi at 1:51 PM on November 19, 2001

It is the pretext under which the Red Cross solicits its donations that is objectionable. It's the ol' bait-and-switch.

While I'll cop to using a bit of a straw man, my point (if you check both my posts) was that its a very, very mild bait-and-switch, and that I don't think any of the hostility is warranted.
posted by malphigian at 4:02 PM on November 19, 2001

I caught this thread a little late, but I wanted to let y'all know that myself and a couple friends have decided to start a charity effort of our own, which will have a minimum of overhead and no sideline objectives. All we want to do is cut checks directly to the families of the deceased victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Since many of these families are getting no assistance while the volume of contributions are sitting in a holding pattern, we want to fill in the gap. I can't feel comfortable while bills are piling up for these families and little is being done to help.

We're building a website which will let you view victim profiles and donate directly to the victim's family of your choice. It should be live as soon as we get the official list. To get more info, check out
posted by razorwriter at 5:26 PM on November 19, 2001

Oh, lighten up you kneepad dollar worshippers. Isn't there anything else to whine about besides such horrible horrible organizations as the American Red Cross?

Look. It's like voting for a presidential candidate who advocates "family values" during his campaign, then realizing after the election that what he really advocates is "rich family values". And I don't hear any of the greedheads on the right bellyaching about that little lie.

I'm all in favor of giving money back to the people it was stolen from. The Red Cross seems overall to be doing a better job of that than most.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 6:44 PM on November 19, 2001

I think the hostility here is certainly misplaced. It's not like it was going to the pockets of board members. That's a scam. The Red Cross money would still go to victims of disasters; one of the things they were trying to use the money for was to create a better communications system in the event of a major terrorist attack or attacks, and a system to freeze greater amounts of blood to have on hand in case of need. These are reasonable uses of general fund money.

Where the ARC screwed up was in not being up-front about this. Each caller to the 800# or visitor to the website should have been given the option of giving to the victims' fund or to the general fund, even if they used some polite arm-twisting to do it (e.g. default checkbox, or an interstitial: "The American Red Cross is always planning for the next disaster. Would you consider designating a portion of your donation for future needs such as the next terrorist attack?"). So if they've lost goodwill that's something objective. I don't see how it's deserving of contempt, though.

I've written previously about how there are different ways and standards to distribute charitable funds and the Red Cross problem is because they use one way (mainly vouchers) and people donating thought differently (divvy up and hand out). In truth there are a lot of different needs that 9/11 victims will have -- even a lot of different categories of victims (e.g. not just the ~4500 dead). The Red Cross is Congressionally chartered to provide emergency disaster relief, and they do a lot of that for which people don't generously donate via 800 numbers. They gave out tens of millions in relief services in the days immediately following 9/11, after all, long before the money started pouring in. And they're in a "spend now, raise money later" structure; money they raise is pretty much always going to the next disaster, rather than the one everybody's paying attention to. It's something they haven't managed well from a PR standpoint, judging by this thread, but it certainly isn't "wrong". Wrong would be not having the money when they're needed.
posted by dhartung at 7:08 PM on November 19, 2001

also aren't funds fungible to a point? even if contributions are designated to wtc and pentagon relief, it frees up resources for others in need.
posted by kliuless at 7:21 PM on November 19, 2001

Oh, lighten up you kneepad dollar worshippers.

I'm glad to hear you've got so much money that you don't have to care what happens to it after it dribbles through your fingers, f&m, but the rest of us aren't quite so fortunate as you.
posted by kindall at 7:30 PM on November 19, 2001

I agree with SDB's point that there must be honesty and accountability in any charitable organization, or it will lose the trust of its donors. If the only way they can get money for "general fund" purposes is by soliciting it under false pretenses and then diverting it, then they should not get the money.
posted by rushmc at 8:23 PM on November 19, 2001

The Red Cross needs to deal with many in need, and needs to raise money all year round. In this case, they messed up. They started their agressive fund-raising right after Sep 11, stating explicitly it was for those affected by the events (as they now apparently have agreed to do). They effectively "preyed" on people's emotions, capitalizing on the sense of grief felt by all right after the attacks, which was the reason they received as much money as they did. Only after they had collected the money did they say, well there are "other worthy causes" and we willl use some of your money for them. As much as I respect them, I cant help being reminded here of seedy lawyers hanging out in airports giving their businesss cards to crash victim families.
posted by Voyageman at 9:53 PM on November 19, 2001

Isn't every charity like this? Unless you're a big-money donor you don't get to micromanage how your donations are used.
posted by electro at 10:04 PM on November 19, 2001

Electro, you "micromanage" by choosing who to give your money to, with the assumption that they're up front about how they'll use it.

If they're not lying about it, that is. Which is why I give money to charities that I think are not lying -- which no longer includes the Red Cross.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:17 AM on November 20, 2001

They NEVER LIED. That's the whole point we are trying to get across to you.
posted by Irontom at 6:27 AM on November 20, 2001

Maybe they didn't explicitly "lie", but they sure did screw up. Why did the CEO get sacked by the board, why were they called to testify in Congressional hearings, and why do they feel compelled to keep running full page apology ads (another one today) in the NY Times (in the Nation Challenged section, always right after the NYT Portraits of Grief) : "...Shortly after the tragic events of Sept. 11th, the American Red Cross established the Liberty Disaster Fund as an account specifically to fund relief services related to terrorism. Families across this country have given the Red Cross their hard earned dollars, their trust, and very clear direction for our September 11th relief efforts. We regret that our program over the past eight weeks has not been as sharply focused as the people affected by the tragedy deserve and as are generous donors intended..." PS They do point out no Liberty Funds are being used to pay for these ads, so I guess its coming out of other people's donations.
posted by Voyageman at 6:59 AM on November 20, 2001

If there are other disasters which need money, let the Red Cross say so.

You can't figure it out on your own?
posted by vbfg at 7:09 AM on November 20, 2001

You can't figure it out on your own?

I can infer their existence, sure, but that is not at all the same thing as "figuring out" that when someone asks me for a buck to go to X, that they will take it and give it to Y. The need or worthiness of Y is irrelevant.
posted by rushmc at 7:21 AM on November 20, 2001

Whenever there's a big disaster on this planet, the Red Cross strives to be the first group there to help. So far as I can tell, they do what they promise. They often accomplish what they say they'll do. This sounds more like a combination of "buyer beware" and "sour grapes."

The Red Cross never said their purpose was to give money to the families of those who survived the tragedy. That's not what they do. Anyone who gave money to the Red Cross expecting them to give money to the families of the WTC/Pentagon victims are pretty stupid. That's like voting for a conservative politician but then being surprised when he supports big business. Duh. It's what they do. Buyer beware.

Here in Dallas there's signs that ask people to stop giving money directly to homeless people. This just encourages homeless people to stay homeless. They hang around somewhere and people give them money. So they come back the following day hoping for lightning to strike twice and often it does. So these signs tell people to give to homeless shelters instead. Now, if these homeless shelters did any good, there wouldn't be homeless people would there? Yet no matter how much money you give to homeless shelters, there's still gonna be somebody standing on the side of the road holding one of those other signs. The ones that say "will work for food." Those signs are usually lies by the way. If those guys could work, they'd have a job and wouldn't be homeless.

So if you give to a homeless shelter, does that money get into the hands of homeless people? No. It goes to providing shelter to those who actually know where the homeless shelter is, and want to go there. So if you want to give to homless people, you don't give to homeless shelters. You give to homeless people.

Really. This is incredibly simple. If you want to give to the Red Cross, give to the Red Cross. If you want to give to the families of the WTC/Pentagon victims, give to the famililes of the WTC/Pentagon victims. If you want to give to the families of the WTC/Pentagon victims, DON'T give to the Red Cross.

And if you want to give to homeless people, get back in touch with me in about three months since I'm playing around in MeFi instead of looking for a job.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:40 AM on November 20, 2001

Voyageman - they never lied, and they never hid it, and they are now busy apologizing to people who have got their nose out of joint because they didn't think (or read find print) before they donated, or before they started calling lawyers.

Dr. Bernadine Healy, the previous president, resigned under heavy criticism. Generated in the press. By people who didn't like the job she was doing. Regardless of whether or not they knew how to do her job.

It's a sad fact that in this day and age, many people and agencies are forced to apologize because other people don't understand how things work. And people in high profile positions lose their jobs because the mob doesn't like them, based on what they read in the papers, or hear on the radio, or watch on CNN.
posted by Irontom at 9:14 AM on November 20, 2001

just wondering if anyone has donated to the Red Crescent.........
posted by quarsan at 10:54 AM on November 20, 2001

Really. This is incredibly simple. If you want to give to the Red Cross, give to the Red Cross. If you want to give to the families of the WTC/Pentagon victims, give to the famililes of the WTC/Pentagon victims. If you want to give to the families of the WTC/Pentagon victims, DON'T give to the Red Cross.

And that's fine. So long as it's made clear and no deceptive practices are engaged in to mislead.
posted by rushmc at 8:03 PM on November 20, 2001

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