As you know by now, Hurricane Harvey drowned most of Texas. Hurricane Irma had its way with a score of Caribbean Islands and South Florida. And Hurricane Maria has devastated our friends in Puerto Rico. Worse still, Mexico suffered a lethal earthquake and 50,000 people in Bali are fleeing the Mount Agung volcano.
Dark days indeed.

My question is this: “What’s the best way to help?”

Red Cross Brand Problems

Giving money to the Red Cross used to be a no brainer. If you wanted to help, you stroked a check to the Red Cross.

But five years after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, NPR and ProPublica went looking for the results of the $500 million the organization received to provide relief. They found the organization had built only six homes and refused to provide information on where the rest of the money had gone. What’s more, they discovered that a quarter of all the money donated after the earthquake went towards internal spending — 124 million dollars.

Now seven years later, Newsweek and NPR report that little has changed. “The Red Cross is either unwilling or unable to disclose what percentage of donations will be allocated toward helping Hurricane Harvey victims.”

“On NPR’s Morning Edition, a Red Cross executive, Brad Kieserman, said the organization had spent $50 million on Harvey relief as of Wednesday morning, noting that the money went primarily toward 232 shelters for 66,000 people.”

“Host Alisa Chang asked, “Through donations, how much of every dollar goes to relief?”

“I don’t know the answer to the financial question, I’m afraid.” Kieserman answered.

Chang asked the executive if these types of issues were still occurring and whether such a “substantial percentage of donations [is] going to internal administrative costs rather than to relief.”

Kieserman didn’t have an answer to that, either.

But during a 2013 speech in Baltimore, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern expressed pride that “91 cents of every dollar that’s donated goes to our services.” But that wasn’t true. Auditors who examined the Red Cross’s tax documents found fundraising expenses have been as high as 26 percent.

Questions and complaints on a list of disasters the Red Cross has mismanaged include Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Isaac, and the floods in Louisiana.

Still, the organization knows how important their image is to their ability to raise money. According to ProPublica, “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.”

Regardless of the incompetence, “two weeks after Sandy hit, Red Cross Chief Executive Gail McGovern declared that the group’s relief efforts had been ‘near flawless.’”

Because, as former Red Cross disaster expert Richard Rieckenberg said, ‘the charity cares about the appearance of aid, not actually delivering it.’

Clearly the organization’s brand awareness has gone a long way to help it continue to collect large sums of money from a concerned and generous public. But such a powerful disconnect between their internal intention and abilities and their external image must eventually weaken even a century-old brand. Because as we’ve said so many times before, people don’t choose what you do, they choose who you are. And once Americans understand who and what the organization really is, their largess will be directed elsewhere.

With all the problems in the world right now, that probably won’t happen a moment too soon.