Q: I heard something concerning American Red Cross donations that I would like verified. The report said that the Red Cross was a good charity for disasters. But it went on to say that when donating, you should not specify that your money be used for a particular disaster, because if you do, it has to be used for that event. However, if the Red Cross no longer needs money for that disaster, your donation cannot be used for other purposes. True?
D.G., of Belleville
A: I fear this may be another example of the Cool Hand Luke Syndrome: What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. I’m not sure what you heard or the point the person was trying to get across, but it’s wrong.
“If you would like to support a specific disaster, please write the name of that event on the memo line of your check,” the Red Cross advises. “Designated donations for a specific disaster will be used for that event. However, in the rare case where donations surpass the Red Cross expense for that disaster, the remaining contributions will be put to use serving the recovery needs of the affected communities.”
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Considering both the immediate and long-term needs in the wake of both Harvey and Irma, your donation likely wouldn’t be returned even if Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates gave a billion or two to the cause. And if checks are too old-fashioned for you, you also can call 1-800-RED-CROSS, designate an Irma contribution online at www.redcross.org or send a quick $10 by texting “Irma” to 90999.
What seems to be a greater worry to both the organization and potential donors right now is whether you should donate to the Red Cross at all. If you’ve trolled social media lately, you may have run across messages like the one left by @BTSeffect: “ONE MORE THING: do NOT donate to The American Red Cross. ... Donate to local FL charities.” You’ll find the same concern raised in such major newspapers as the New York Times and USA Today.
The reason? They’re likely remembering both media and Senate investigations that uncovered shoddy practices in recent major disasters by this 136-year-old organization that people often think of first in times of national disaster.
For example, during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, disorganization on the ground led to numerous reports of chronic delays in aid distribution. Last summer, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, released a study stating that after the horrific Haitian earthquake of 2010, the Red Cross spent one-fourth of donations ($124 million) on internal expenses and that it could not account for how many people it helped.
In 2014, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, and NPR, citing internal documents, found that after hurricanes Sandy and Isaac in 2012, the Red Cross “compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by ‘diverting assets for public relations issues.’” They concluded that the organization may do well at collecting blood and helping in local fires and floods, but that it makes “dubious claims of success” about its major disaster relief efforts.
To this stinging criticism, American Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern has come out swinging, recently issuing a video stressing that 91 cents of every dollar donated goes to hurricane relief and just 9 cents of every dollar spent (not raised) goes to administration.
“Americans work hard for their money,” she said. “That’s why we’re committed to being the very best stewards of our donors’ dollars. We keep our expenses low.”
To prove it, the organization has been issuing timely updates on the work it has done with the $211 million raised since Harvey hit Texas late last month. During Irma alone, it says it has either set up or helped organize 480 shelters that provided temporary housing for 127,000 people affected by the storm. Trailers of shelter supplies with enough cots and blankets for 120,000 people were sent to impacted states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. The Red Cross has pre-positioned additional blood products and stocked many hospitals to capacity in the affected region.
So despite its stumbles, the Red Cross remains a charity worthy of your donations, according to organizations that monitor the performance of philanthropic organizations. It’s accredited by the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and, although it received only three of four stars, it is one of the 20 Irma charities listed by Charity Navigator. It is also given a B-plus by Charity Watch.
“It’s wrong and damaging to say don’t give your money to them,” Charity Watch founder Daniel Borochoff told USA Today recently. “The message should be give some to them for emergency short-term needs, then give some to groups that are able to address longer-term needs.”
What hurricane/cyclone produced the strongest wind gust? How powerful was it?
Answer to Monday’s trivia: As terrible as hurricanes Harvey and Irma have been, both formed, roared and died within roughly a two-week period. That’s just half the lifespan of 1994’s Hurricane John, which holds the record as the longest lasting hurricane (31 days) and the farthest-traveled (7,165 miles). In fact, because it meandered from the Eastern Pacific to the Western Pacific and then back to the Central Pacific, it had the rare distinction of being designated both a hurricane and a typhoon. Fortunately, it owed its long life to the fact that it barely touched land with minimal effects to the Hawaiian Islands and a few wind gusts topping 40 mph in the Aleutians.