Why I’m not donating to the American Red Cross this year

As the end of the year approaches, I’m revisiting my old strategies for donating money, and deciding where to donate this time around. This year, I’m starting with where not to donate, starting with the American Red Cross.

ProPublica and NPR recently teamed up to produce a troubling expose about the American Red Cross’s lack of effectiveness during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac.  (Here’s a podcast with the report’s author.) A few particularly outrageous details about their use of emergency supplies for PR:

During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls….

During Sandy,emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.

(Note: The Red Cross responds that these claims are inaccurate.)

Some of the other findings are also very troubling, but it’s not clear to me whether another organization beside the Red Cross could have done better; there’s presumably a degree of chaos and poor conditions that are unavoidable in a disaster:

After both storms, the charity’s problems left some victims in dire circumstances or vulnerable to harm, the organization’s internal assessments acknowledge. Handicapped victims “slept in their wheelchairs for days” because the charity had not secured proper cots. In one shelter, sex offenders were “all over including playing in children’s area” because Red Cross staff “didn’t know/follow procedures.”

According to interviews and documents, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies like food, blankets and batteries to distribute to victims in the days just after the storms. Sometimes, even when supplies were plentiful, they went to waste. In one case, the Red Cross had to throw out tens of thousands of meals because it couldn’t find the people who needed them.

The Red Cross marshalled an army of volunteers, but many were misdirected by the charity’s managers. Some were ordered to stay in Tampa long after it became clear that Isaac would bypass the city. After Sandy, volunteers wandered the streets of New York in search of stricken neighborhoods, lost because they had not been given GPS equipment to guide them.

As I noted above, the Red Cross claims at least some of these findings were inaccurate, or isolated and unavoidable incidents. They also claim they’ve improved since then. But ProPublica and NPR are good investigative sources, and if they’re alarmed, I also think it warrants further serious investigation — even if the Red Cross turns out to be right about mitigating circumstances. The best way to figure out how the Red Cross can & should improve is for them to be transparent about how they’ve spent their money, and what reforms they’re making. Unfortunately, the Red Cross has been fighting against requests for transparency, calling their Sandy spending a trade secret.

All this in mind (plus the fact that so much Red Cross money gets earmarked for specific disasters instead of being used where it’s most needed) I will not be donating to the American Red Cross this year. I’m willing to forgive some inefficiencies, because in the field of disaster relief particularly, there are a few large, well-known NGOs that have the international reputation and clout to move in quickly in the wake of a disaster, and do much good, and the Red Cross is one such organization.  Still, these findings are too troublesome for me, and I’m not donating more without more transparency about their spending and efforts to reform.

I will be donating to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and considering additional options, which has received consistently high reviews from various charity evaluators. I will also be looking deeper into the effectiveness of various other disaster relief options, including Oxfam and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (an umbrella org which should not be broadly impugned by this report.)   Are there other disaster relieve orgs I should evaluate?

For more general purpose donations, as in the past, I will be consulting the recommendations of GiveWell and Innovations for Poverty Action to direct a large portion of my donations. (Note: GiveWell is updating their recommendations within the next week with this year’s top picks.) I’m also always on the lookout for other empirical evaluations of charities — or meta-evaluations of charity evaluators; I’ve done some such evaluation round-ups myself in the past) — do you know any other great resources? I’ll try to update my previous lists of my recommended charities soon.

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