As Hurricane Irma swirled toward Florida's southern coast, the American Red Cross continued to be dogged on social media by people suggesting that donations intended to help victims of the storm send their money elsewhere.
The American Red Cross, a 136-year-old institution that is usually among the first to swoop in and set up shelters, health clinics and mobile kitchens in times of need, is one of the big and traditional beneficiaries of donations when disasters happen.
Since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the Red Cross has collected $211 million. Recent criticisms of the organization on Twitter and Facebook — sentiments that can be summed up as "donate elsewhere" — recently led American Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern to issue a video statement insisting it does, with 91 cents of every dollar going to Hurricane Harvey relief.
"Americans work hard for their money," she said. "That's why we're committed to being the very best stewards of our donor's dollars. We keep our expenses low."
Her defense of the organization comes as the recent hurricanes have resurfaced stinging critiques. A congressional report and several media investigations have found fault with the Red Cross' management and performance, suggesting the organization spends as much as 25% of donations on administrative, promotional and overhead costs.
A study released last summer by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, claimed the Red Cross had spent $124 million — or a quarter of the money donors gave after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti — on internal expenses.
Since 2014, National Public Radio and ProPublica have teamed up for investigations into Red Cross spending. Those reports argue that the agency, whose main role is as a blood broker, spends just a small fraction of its money on its high-publicity disaster relief programs and has made "dubious claims of success."
The outlets' reports specifically slammed the agency's response to Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in 2012. And last year, the Red Cross came under more fire from the outlets, which reported that its response to flooding in Louisiana had drawn significant complaints from relief organizers who often were left without promised assistance.
Red Cross officials say they stand by the organization's work and spending policies.
"All elements of our disaster program, from purchasing supplies to training volunteers to maintaining staff, play a role in directly helping disaster victims," Red Cross vice president of communications Elizabeth Penniman told USA TODAY. "We only use a small amount of every dollar for fundraising, as well as the management and general expenses that are required to conduct the work of the American Red Cross."
Another charitable organization, Catholic Charities USA tweeted Saturday morning that 100% of its donations go Harvey and Irma relief.
In response to questions about its 91 cents claim, Penniman of the Red Cross said that "we say 'every dollar we spend' because we don’t apply the 9 cents for our management, general and fundraising expenses until the dollar is spent. We wait until the funds have been distributed, rather than when they are raised."
She pointed out that, according to its website's latest count, the Red Cross post-Harvey has so far has tallied 186,000 overnight stays, served more than 900,000 meals and had more than 3,000 workers distribute some 200,000 relief items ranging from diapers to toothbrushes.
Despite any shortcomings, the Red Cross is a massive first-response organization that remains worthy of donations, says Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of Charity Watch, which rates relief organizations and gives the Red Cross a B+.
"The Red Cross is necessary as a vitally important lead disaster relief agency," he says. "It's wrong and damaging to say don't give your money to them. 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."
One such group is the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which recently received a $1 million matching-funds grant from Facebook. The center's president and CEO, Bob Ottenhoff, was pleased with the social media site's gift, but adds he doesn't see it as a repudiation of the Red Cross.
"Like many charity organizations today, it faces issues around transparency and accountability, in part because the public is more demanding today in wanting to know where their hard earned dollars go," he says. "So the Red Cross may be in the spotlight, but those are issues for us all."
Ottenhoff lauds the Red Cross's role in handling "immediate recovery work," and points out that his organization focuses on needs that remain after the initial crisis has passed.
His biggest concern is simply whether the onslaught of recent disasters could lead to donor fatigue that will negatively impact all charities and, ultimately, victims.
"We have to start thinking more around planning and preparation and long term recovery," he says.
But in the short term, the needs remain great in Texas and soon in Florida. Those wanting to give might glance at a chart of the 10 best charities, for "financial performance, transparency, and accountability" compiled by Charity Navigator.
Direct Relief, Map International, The Conservation Fund, Rotary Foundation and the Carter Center top the list. For Houston-specific gifts, Charity Navigator recommends the Houston SPCA, Houston Humane Society, Houston Food Bank, Food Bank of Corpus Christ and the San Antonio Humane Society.
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