The Incompetence of the American Red Cross

Via bobby b in the comments at Samizdata, I find this rather comprehensive report on the failures of the American Red Cross in their response to hurricanes Sandy and Isaac.

The report highlights a catalogue of failures including spending more efforts on PR and fund-raising than actually helping people, e.g. by driving empty trucks around for the benefit of news crews:

Top Red Cross officials were concerned only “about the appearance of aid, not actually delivering it,” Rieckenberg says. “They were not interested in solving the problem — they were interested in looking good. That was incredibly demoralizing.”

Allow me to scan the article in search of a possible cause. Ah, here we are:

The Red Cross has endured patches of trouble in the recent past. It faced allegations of financial mismanagement after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina and a series of chief executives were forced to resign. Congress forced an overhaul. The Red Cross recruited [Gail] McGovern to the top job in 2008.

McGovern had spent her career as an executive at AT&T and Fidelity and was teaching marketing at Harvard Business School. “This is a brand to die for,” she said in an early interview as the Red Cross’ chief executive.

A failing organisation recruits as their CEO a telecoms marketing power-skirt now working in academia. What could go wrong?

While often praised as a stabilizing presence by those outside the Red Cross, McGovern initiated a series of changes inside the organization that roiled the venerable charity. She executed layoffs and reorganizations that closed local chapters and centralized power at national headquarters in Washington.

With the glaringly obvious exception of fundraising, would you like to take a punt on whether McGovern was more interested in processes or outcomes?

But this was a few years ago now. How are things today? Well, McGovern is still in charge, and Bayou Renaissance Man points us towards this report:

Residents across Texas are expressing their outrage at The Red Cross after Hurricane Harvey victims and relief volunteers witnessed mismanagement and apathy from Red Cross workers … At Wednesday morning’s Houston City Council meeting, Councilman Dave Martin, who represents flood-ravaged Kingwood, had a very clear message to prospective donors of The Red Cross.

“I beg you not to send them a penny,” he said. “They are the most inept unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced. Don’t waste your money. Give it to another cause.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett was also uncomplimentary of the organization. Judge Emmett admitted that he asked a local nonprofit to manage the shelter at NRG Park, because he didn’t trust The Red Cross to do a good job.

And government officials are far from the only ones voicing their disapproval. We’ve seen story after story of Red Cross mismanagement expressed by both evacuees and volunteers across Texas. In fact, we’ve been hard pressed to find a positive story. When we do find one, we will update this article.

This comes as absolutely no surprise. The major charities long ago became vehicles for the ambitious middle classes to climb the greasy pole and enrich themselves while basking in the virtue which comes when people assume you’re working for a good cause. Why anyone still donates to them is a mystery to me.

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17 thoughts on “The Incompetence of the American Red Cross

  1. The major charities long ago became vehicles for the ambitious middle classes to climb the greasy pole and enrich themselves while basking in the virtue which comes when people assume you’re working for a good cause.

    This seems like a possible extension to Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy which Peter Grant (a.k.a. the Bayourenaissenceman ) also quotes. Being perceived as “doing good” while not doing anything particularly strenuous seems likely to add extra strength to the iron law of the Bureaucrats edging out the actual doers.

  2. In the UK, the Red Cross have been getting rid of paid paid local organizers (who do things like training new people, organizing medical cover for public events etc.) and relying totally on unpaid volunteers.
    Compare and contrast with the extravagant headquarters, executive salaries and the virtue signalling CEO who thinks the organization is too white. Well, if the overwhelmingly white unpaid volunteers walked out his wish would be fulfilled. The cost would be the collapse of the organizations work in the UK and the raising of questions in the minds of donors as to what exactly their money was being spent on, but at least he would be armed with the correct right-on credentials for his next lucrative gig as the head of another NGO/quango or safe seat as a parachuted-in MP.

  3. I once had a presentation from a chap from Oxfam as part of a course on humanitarian logistics. Afterwards in the bar the university lecturer running the module pointed out to me that the first slide to follow the title slide didn’t talk about the charity’s mission, philosophy, the stuff it was doing or even its history but rather its turnover. I had noticed the throwaway line that when 2 NGO types meet in theatre one of the first things they ask each other is, “What’s your per diem?”

  4. With the exception of the Lifeboats — as I am in awe of anyone willing to put to sea either in a storm or to deal with idiots unaware of the danger of open water — I stay well away from ‘charities’ which as has been pointed out, exist only to make money for the people who run it.

    Happily, I see fewer chuggers at my door these days, usually some bright eyed youngster who is/was full of compassion for the world and had to explain to me how millions, even as we talked, were dying. If I countered with maybe the charity should stop giving themselves plush new headquarters or handing so much to Il Presidente so he can buy a new jet for his forty wives to go shopping in Europe, there would inevitably be some argument. Except I was right.

    Still, their relative absence recently stops me having to say: “I already gave.”

  5. “Why anyone still donates to them is a mystery to me.” We don’t any more. Local only.

    My wife once had a notion that she’d donate some money to a university – Edinburgh, she thought. Who exactly got the use of the money would be settled by competition – the Principal and Deans Egg-and-spoon Race.

  6. Top Red Cross officials were concerned only “about the appearance of aid, not actually delivering it,” Rieckenberg says. “They were not interested in solving the problem — they were interested in looking good.

    I remember reading – at Bayou Renaissance Man, funnily enough – that this was what they did during Katrina too. So maybe the problem runs deeper than the power skirt.

  7. Yeah, the power skirt is probably more a symptom than a cause of the Red Cross’s incompetence. It’s not really a new thing either, my dad used to talk about how useless the Red Cross was from his experience as an insurance adjuster in the 1960s. He thought the Salvation Army was much better, but who knows, maybe they’re useless now too.

  8. So maybe the problem runs deeper than the power skirt.

    Indeed, the organisation was in trouble long before she turned up. But whatever the question was, a power skirt was clearly not the answer.

  9. I had a good deal to do with Oxfam about 20 years ago. It was clear to me then what a racket it was becoming.

  10. McGovern … was teaching marketing at Harvard Business School. “This is a brand to die for,” she said.

    Which neatly encapsulates the view from the top tier, not only for the Red Cross but other major charities. The priority is marketing the brand. Any supposedly humanitarian purpose is a post-script at best.

  11. It really is gut wrenching when you see folk losing everything and others taking an opportunistic position on it, you can only imagine how fucked it would be to watch everything you own being washed away or worse and some cunt doing make up for the media shoot.

    Did anyone sense a level of disappointment in the media that Hurricane Irma was not as devastating as they wished it would have been.

    And as for those zombies that were looting in St Martin, why the fuck were they not shot on site?

  12. ” He thought the Salvation Army was much better, but who knows, maybe they’re useless now too.”

    No. I’ve dealt with numerous aid-in-a-crisis agencies over my decades, and the Sallies remain one of the very best. Them and the Mormons. If you feel like donating to disaster relief, both of those are very worthwhile choices.

  13. MSF in their various guises under different flags are very straightforward and there are one or two other that also really have the balls to do the front line stuff.

    The posting I’m on at the moment is in a town massively dominated by INGO’s and UN in various capacities – the waste, profligacy and lack of real progress in what many of them are trying to achieve has been astonishing to me in the last few years that we have been living here. In particular many of their senior staff have UK based contracts so take full advantage of using maternity leave IN COUNTRY taking up a house and leave while another covers for them on full salary in another vastly expensive property, perhaps on family status as well and UK employment law to live the life of Riley subsidised by the efforts of all of the well meaning volunteers and donations sourced by people rattling boxes in the UK and elsewhere.

    Many of them appear to be little short of parasites, fighting over funding to sustain their existence while maintaining a holier than thou attitude towards those of us vulgar enough to work in commercial or industrial sectors – they certainly don’t view any development achieved through sustainable development / CSR initiatives from industrial projects as valid, that’s for sure.

    As a final point it’s interesting to note that most of those that donate would consider themselves as being passing on their efforts for “charity” and those that are supported by this invariably describe themselves as working for “INGOS” or “NGO” – a catch all term that goes from front line trauma surgery in Syria to vanity projects teaching street children to juggle.

  14. I have a friend who has spent a year working part time for a charity, not one of the big ones, and she has become completely disillusioned. The fund-raising activities mainly support the charity offices and keep the CEO (child of the founder) in a very pleasant lifestyle.

    Similarly, I have noticed the growth of ‘non-profit’ businesses, which usually have some sort of community/hemp-weaving/stuff women like angle. They might well make no profit, but generally because the management are creaming off the cash in salaries and benefits.

  15. MSF in their various guises under different flags are very straightforward and there are one or two other that also really have the balls to do the front line stuff.

    Yeah, I’ve heard MSF are one of the better ones. For now, at least.

    Many of them appear to be little short of parasites…

    That’s a lot of people working for big organisations now, mate.

  16. They might well make no profit, but generally because the management are creaming off the cash in salaries and benefits.

    Exactly. A few months ago when I was doing research for my book I browsed the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of the feminist nutters in Brooklyn. They were the usual crowd, turquoise hair, faces full of metal, horn-rimmed glasses, tattoos, etc. all working mundane admin jobs or calling themselves artists. Anyway, a lot of them were looking for positions on the board of a non-profit. I suspect quite a few of them found one, too.

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