« Marketing Tech for Nonprofits: A Refresher Course for 2020 | Main | Weekend Link Roundup (January 25-26, 2020) »

Losing the Red Cross Would Be the Real Disaster

January 23, 2020

Red cross(Ed note: this post originally was published on PhilanTopic in November 2014 and is being republished as criticism of the Australian Red Cross for allegedly holding back donations for bushfire victims mounts.) 

As a disaster researcher and scholar of nonprofit management, I've followed the (well publicized) travails and (hardly publicized) successes of the American Red Cross over the years.

I've met its national staff at research conferences and local staff at state and county emergency management meetings, where I've served on the board of my local Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD). I participated with hundreds of other invited experts in the governance audit that resulted in the "American National Red Cross Governance Modernization Act of 2007." I’ve monitored the commentary after a ProPublica/National Public Radio exposé of the Red Cross appeared last week. And based on my observations, I have developed a healthy respect and sympathy for the Red Cross.

Bet you didn't see that coming.

There's no disputing the fact that the public needs better results from the Red Cross. The organization has been essential to our welfare since the day it was chartered by Congress to be our national disaster response agency — primus inter pares among hundreds of agencies known collectively as voluntary organizations active in disaster. In fact, the Red Cross predates the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by seventy-nine years.

Congress has entrusted a good part of disaster-related mass care and sheltering to the Red Cross. Somewhat less rationally, Congress imposed this public mandate on the Red Cross without much aid; the agency is expected to meet our nation's disaster relief needs largely through the philanthropic generosity of Americans.

Further complicating matters, the Red Cross has been plagued for years by leadership issues — issues that aren't easy to resolve because they are rooted in a number of larger, systemic problems:

Greater forces of nature. Climate change makes it harder for all disaster relief agencies to achieve their mission. In the ProPublica/NPR story, a Red Cross executive observes the challenge of "scaling up" for Sandy, a storm that covered an area half the size of Europe. The organization's inability to do that was due to climate change, not internal organizational problems. In 2005, disaster relief agencies reached the same conclusion when they reported that the impact of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina was many times larger than their capacity to deal with back-to-back disasters. The lesson is clear: As disasters get larger and more complex, we all have to work together to scale our disaster-response capacity.

Shortage of experienced staff. An increase in "superstorms" demands better frontline staff. However, internal reorganizations and massive layoffs triggered by a drop in donations have increased turnover and demoralized staff at the Red Cross. In my county last week, the national Red Cross laid off three of its four paid staff, including one of the state's most experienced disaster response professionals. That trend must be reversed. This is a unique and challenging profession. There are no easy substitutes. Disaster responders are trained to be flexible and resourceful because, as they often point out, every disaster is unique. Thus, disaster researchers and other observers note the challenge of getting it right every time. It takes training and experience, which depends, in turn, on stable, consistent funding to keep high-quality, experienced chapter staff (one of the Red Cross's most important assets) on the front lines.

National leaders at odds with grassroots base. The Red Cross traditionally has had a strong internal culture that fosters staff commitment ("lifers"). Any organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, that finds itself at odds with its grassroots base is in trouble. There's no denying the impact on morale of the systemic leadership problems at the Red Cross, but they go much further back than the current CEO's tenure. Before Gail McGovern was hired, the Red Cross cycled through more than a half dozen CEOs and interim CEOs in as many years. Friction between national and chapter staff isn't new, and it's clear that, to some degree, the organization's national leadership has been in denial about it. The solution is for the national board to recognize its responsibility to improve the organization's culture and to invest in the base. The board began that process with a governance restructuring six years ago and has followed up with a healthy investment in inter-organizational collaboration and public transparency initiatives. The tone is changing, and I am encouraged by that fact. But more needs to be done.

Shirking our collective responsibility to be prepared. Unfortunately, public criticism of the Red Cross has not been accompanied by an equally vigorous public discussion of our responsibility as citizens to prepare ourselves in advance. Ask any emergency responder what he or she wants from us, and you'll get the same answer: "Make a plan and assemble a kit. We can help you best when you help yourself." One of the most active Red Cross campaigns is about family and workplace emergency preparedness (see also FEMA's excellent resources at www.ready.gov).

I'm a scholar but also a citizen. From a rational point of view, the most dangerous outcome of the ProPublica/NPR story would be a second "disaster" in the form of an escalating public mistrust of the Red Cross, resulting in fewer donations and an even weaker paid and volunteer force that is demoralized by the public's lack of understanding about the good work they do every day. Increased turnover will worsen the kind of staffing issues the organization faces. More political and media scrutiny is likely to result in more, not less, questionable decision making at the top (e.g., diverting assets for public relations junkets).

So what can we do? First, get yourself prepared. Second, be generous. This is not the time to withdraw support from the Red Cross. The organization operates like an army but on exponentially less funding. McGovern runs a $3.5 billion enterprise on a fraction of the salary of a college football coach. And she does it with largely volunteer (albeit well-trained) labor. Disaster agency budgets go through "feast" or "famine" periods. Try holding on to a good workforce when faced with that kind of budget uncertainty. An operation with twenty-nine thousand staff and four hundred thousand volunteers needs stable funding if its job is to deploy anywhere in the United States after any disaster and help any citizen, regardless of age, disability, creed, or race, who needs it.

Local Red Cross employees are not only highly respected, they are some of the hardest-working people I know. Sit in an emergency planning meeting with them in any local community, and they will have their phones/radios on, ready to leave for a house fire, flood, ice storm, or tornado on a moment’s notice. Some day that house might be yours.

The Red Cross should be held accountable for problems of its own making. We should hold ourselves accountable for the rest.

Headshot_beth_gazleyBeth Gazley is associate vice provost for faculty and academic affairs at Indiana University's Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. This post was first published here on PhilanTopic in November 2014 and is being republished as criticism of the Australian Red Cross for allegedly holding back donations for bushfire victims mounts. 

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

As giving/NP researchers in Australia it is great to see this story reprinted. We are in that inevitable - and scrutiny-wise, important - part of the post-disaster media cycle where the angles turn towards the recovery effort. This is even though multiple fires are still burning, homes are still being lost, and in some states our official fire season has yet to start. Likely there's more tragedy to come. Our domestic media is a mix of ill informed charity-bashing as well as good accountability questions. Outrage sells papers and creates clicks and reasoned logic is getting scant coverage.

Despite being a land where natural disasters abound, we are lax at giving for disaster preparedness. Who gives money for cyclone or fire shelters ahead? But we are also lax at explaining the complexities and realities like those you mention, Beth.

Years ago Dr Adrian Sargeant from the UK set up a Charity Facts website there to dispel some charity myths head on. We need to be doing more like that because while monitoring disaster relief is important, educating ahead trumps it. As you say, Red Cross et al have got better things to do right now than hose down inflammatory stories. Thanks to all from North America and beyond who have supported Australia's unprecedented and ongoing disasters. It really helps.

Dr Wendy Scaife, Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies

We should pay attention and say thanks to Redcross employees because these people are working hard and they doing their best to protect the community. In times of disaster, they are always there for us.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."


    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

Subscribe to Philantopic

Contributors

Guest Contributors

  • Laura Cronin
  • Derrick Feldmann
  • Thaler Pekar
  • Kathryn Pyle
  • Nick Scott
  • Allison Shirk

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »

Filter posts

Select
Select
Select