More reasons to gripe about the American Red Cross

Previous thread, now closed: http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=332692

Appalling news from Haiti of lost/misspent/unaccounted-for millions: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/red-cross-doesnt-know-how-it-spent-nearly-500-million-in-haiti_55ae7ec1e4b0a9b94852a1d0?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=WorldPost&section=world

What is wrong with them?

One of the cousins (my Dad’s generation) was a POW in WW II and he never had anything good to say about the Red Cross – anyone’s Red Cross. He did have a warm spot however for the Sallies.

(Salvation Army)

Some of these charities have questionable ethics when it comes to accepting donations. Oxfam got really annoyed at me when I gave them the details of someone with a severe mental illness who was planning to send them all her money (several thousand pounds). They said they would accept it.

In general the people working with the Red Cross seem to be good but I feel the national organization is just out for the money.

If they are “just out for the money,” then presumably someone is pocketing it? Otherwise, what would be the point?

Fancy offices for overpaid executives. Many of them are overpaid if they receive any pay at all.

Are you suggesting that the executives should be volunteers? Most people are not independently wealthy, so they need salaries to live on, and a large organization like the Red Cross needs competent leadership at the top. (Really at the bottom, too.)

Here’s my personal experience with the American Red Cross. I was a grad student in Hawaii (along with the future Mrs. Siam Sam) when Hurricane Iniki hit. It veered almost at the last minute before it would have slammed into Honolulu and the whole island of Oahu, hitting Kauai instead, minimizing the damage. But there was still a lot of damage on Kauai.

The Red Cross sent teams to the state, and out by Honolulu Airport they set up a phone bank for taking donations. I responded to a call for volunteers by the U of Hawaii to help man the phone bank. So out to the airport I went. I found the room and was plunked down in front of a telephone. There were five of us sitting in a row – two to my left, two to my right and me in the middle. The way it worked was the person’s phone on the end to my left was the first to ring, then if and when that one was busy the second one would ring with the next call coming in, then mine if both of those were busy and so on down the line.

Only the first two phones ever rang. Mine never rang. Two phones were enough. The two persons to my right and I just sat there the whole time, the better part of an afternoon, twiddling our thumbs. Not one single call did we three take. Finally we were all thanked for coming out and went on our merry way.

For the next year, and I mean a full 12 months, I was inundated with offers from the Red Cross to purchase this or that Hurricane Iniki Relief Effort merchandise since I had been “part of the team.” This was before e-mail, so this all came to me snail mail and kept filling up my mailbox. At special prices, I could have purchased a Hurricane Iniki Relief Effort coffee mug, or ballpoint pen, or lots of other stuff that I can’t even remember now. I (we) graduated, left Hawaii and returned to Thailand almost a year and a half after Hurricane Iniki, and for all I know, my old mailbox in Hawaii is still getting notices decades later.

This resulted in me being less-than-enchanted with the American Red Cross.

A half million to a million seems excessive.

This story might have something to do with it http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/07/13/156737801/the-cost-of-free-doughnuts-70-years-of-regret
"Go to any VFW hall, even today, and you’ll get the same story: During World War II, the Red Cross had comfort stations for soldiers overseas, with free coffee and free doughnuts. Then, in 1942, the Red Cross started charging for the doughnuts. Soldiers have held a grudge ever since.

Turns out it’s true.

“It keeps coming up, that they were charged for coffee and doughnuts,” says Susan Watson, archivist for the Red Cross.

The organization started charging only because the U.S. Secretary of War asked it to. British soldiers had to pay for their snacks, and the free doughnuts for Americans were causing tensions. So the Red Cross complied, after protesting to no avail. It didn’t last long — for most of the last 70 years, Red Cross doughnuts have remained free — but veterans haven’t forgotten."

TriPolar suggested above that Red Cross execs shouldn’t get any salary. Do you think that’s too little? Charity Navigator says that the president/CEO of American Red Cross gets a salary of $562,364. It also says that the group has expenses of about three billion each year. What do other for-profit and non-profit companies of similar size offer in salaries for their CEOs? Glassdoor says a phlebotomist at the Red Cross gets $14.16 per hour. How does that compare to other blood draw places? Should the phlebotomists work on a voluntary basis as well? Or should the Red Cross pay only minimum wage and hope enough competent people apply? Do you want the person poking you with a needle and drawing your blood to be paid as little as possible?

I don’t know enough about the situation to say what is going on. But I think there does need to be some perspective.

Imagine trying to start, say, a small manufacturing plant in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. How efficient do you think you’d be?

You need to find staff, which means drawing on severely depleted local resources, or trying to recruit people from the U.S. to go to a third world disaster zone. Then you have to set up some kind of functioning payroll system, somehow working with local banks than are no doubt in chaos, and find accommodations that your foreign staff is willing to stay in-- and there will likely be stiff competition go whatever livable space is still standing, driving up prices.

Then you need an office. Good luck with that one. You’ll need a lockable room, a bathroom with running water, and electricity most of the day to charge the laptops. With so much devastation and so many people setting up shop, this will be a challenge. Not to mention dealing with leases, local regulations, unreliable landlords, etc.

Then you need to actually do the work. You get to navigate import-export regulations for whatever equipment you need. I hope you know a lot about shipping. And that you have some way to unload stuff from the docks and transport it to where you need it. And that you can get the electricity that you need to run the stuff. And every step of the way you’ll have corrupt local officials, opportunists, and outright thieves to deal with.

You may want to contract out some of your work. It can be cheaper, it builds local capacity and makes things more sustainable, and is overall a good best practice. But how much oversight? Too much, and you end up paying double for the same work just to watch them. Not enough, and some money will no doubt be lost.

And through this all, your staff will be mourning, getting sick, and fully immersed in the reality of the disaster.

Again, the Red Cross story is making the news in development circles, and it does seem the alleged waste is more than normal. But the idea that you can run an airtight program without waste in a disaster zone is unrealistic.

From what I’ve been reading/hearing - the problem is that the Red Cross has no experience in development/reconstruction, but decided to give it a go in Haiti, and fell right on their face.

It’s possible they’ll get better at it, but there are other organizations that specialize in that sort of work. Red Cross should leave it to them, most likely.

I read his comment as though certain executives are worthless. Any pay is too much because they are incompetent.

Of course in any organization, some people at all levels are worthless. But we’re talking about the American Red Cross. Here is the bio of the president and CEO. Is she worthless? Is she worth what she is being paid? Should the American Red Cross pay salaries to attract qualified candidates?

Exactly. Someone making 500K a year let that money go to waste in Haiti.

The RC has a pretty high percentage of donations going to victim relief; something on the order of 91%, last I looked. I am a firm believer in a decent working wage for anyone who has a job (so your inferences as to my thinking are incorrect), but CEO salaries are out of control. The present director made over a million dollars the first year she was there, and about half that the second year. I don’t know if that was a voluntary reduction or not. Comparing her salary with the salaries of other executives is a meaningless exercise, when those salaries are so inflated. I give here somewhat of a pass, since such a large percentage supposedly goes to relief efforts, but my own experience with the RC hasn’t been positive.

I mostly concur with this. Like even sven, I don’t know enough about this particular story to say much about it. But I worked for the Red Cross in disaster relief back in the late 90’s. I only did domestic disaster response, and even that was very difficult. Getting volunteers from all over the country to converge in an area in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when the extent of it is still unknown, and setting up the equivalent of a multi-million dollar company in a couple of days, is going to be messy. They often over-respond, staffing a relief operation with more people than they need, because the alternative is a flood of displaced people overwhelming an understaffed operation.

That said, it does sound like the Red Cross has performed badly in recent years. The Red Cross has a Congressional charter to provide disaster relief services. It sounds like they need to face some more serious oversight. I think the Red Cross has a valuable role to play, but they have to be held to account. They can refuse to answer reporters’ questions, but they can’t shake off a Congressional inquiry so easily. I don’t know if such an inquiry is in the works, but it might be a good idea to spin one up.

As an aside, keep in mind that the majority of the Red Cross’ domestic disaster operations are devoted to responding to local disasters, from tornadoes and flash floods down to the level of single-family fires. While their performance in major disasters seems to be worthy of criticism, it doesn’t represent the full scope of ARC services.

When I worked there, I was surrounded by a lot of dedicated and selfless people who wanted to do good work. Like any other organization, there were bozos and people who didn’t care. But at least in my experience, the majority of the people doing the grunt work (and overwhelmingly they are volunteers) were True Believers who made a lot of sacrifices to carry out the Red Cross mission. In a lot of organizations, the people at the top can squander the dedication of their people. Unfortunately, the Red Cross seems to be trying hard to do just that.

If I were to hand-pick a CEO for the Red Cross, the first candidates I would ask to interview would be people who may have worked for USAID, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, the USO… those types of organizations. I’m not sure how I would come to the thought that we should interview executives (successful though they may be) from the telecommunications and financial industry.

I, too, would be slow to judge accounting and auditing efforts in the aftermath of a major natural disaster. Heck, in the aftermath of Katrina, there were a lot of folks in an uproar that the government was handing out debit cards to people who didn’t need them. Obviously, we shouldn’t try to waste money, but I’d rather push out aid to disaster victims as quickly as possible, rather than insisting that someone who just fled from their homes show proper ID, backed up by proof of residence and maybe some tax returns, before getting aid.

If someone told me that their strategic vision of disaster relief was to push as much aid as possible as quickly as possible, knowing that there will be waste, but that anyone committing fraud will be tracked down and have their shit thoroughly prosecuted to the full extent of the law once things calm down, I’d be generally okay with that.

I agree. I can’t find a list at the moment, but I seem to recall that the Red Cross has been through a ton of CEOs recently. I’ve never been the CEO of either a major corporation or a major charity, but I don’t see how being a corporate CEO really translates into running an aid agency either. The goals are just so different. Sure, both want to be efficient and maximize resources, but beyond that, they are just not that much alike. When I got my MBA, I don’t really recall the program having much relationship to my experience working in the non-profit sector. We didn’t sit around in class and talk about how to improve people’s lives and be good stewards of donated funds and live up to a public trust. We talked about how to sell as much stuff as possible.