There Has to be a Better Way to Help.

There Has to be a Better Way to Help.

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.

By | 2017-09-26T15:24:50+00:00 September 26th, 2017|10 Comments


  1. Randy Gage September 27, 2017 at 11:42 am - Reply

    This isn’t a branding issue; it’s one of integrity. The sad truth is, the brand they are milking donations off of doesn’t exist in reality. I hope people will be mindful where they donate and make sure it has the maximum effect for those suffering. -RG

  2. Jane Carrie September 27, 2017 at 11:50 am - Reply

    Bruce, I am so happy for this email. I did donate to the Red Cross then found out the information you shared. I am trying to find another means of donating where the money will actually go to the people who need it most. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

  3. Mace September 27, 2017 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    I believe it’s a federal or state law, that when charities solicit donations by phone, they must answer the question, “What percentage of donations go to beneficiaries.” My wife has been asking this question for over 20 years when someone calls. It has been as low as 8 cents on the dollar! In almost every case, the calling organization (business) keeps the lion’s share with some going to a charity’s administration costs. It seems like a problem with big charities like The Red Cross, United Way, American Heart Association, etc. is that they’re big! Their admin costs are huge and execs usually get huge salaries and benefits. It’s difficult to identify the right sources, but it feels better to donate to beneficiaries directly or those who can pass it on without taking a cut. Unfortunately, when one charity’s brand becomes negative, it’s somewhat contagious to others.

  4. Keith Harmeyer September 27, 2017 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this piece, Bruce. Important and obviously timely. It’s a topic I feel strongly about. Ever since the 2010 “scandal,” I have stopped donating to the Red Cross (not even a dollar when I check out at Publix – since I now know that at least 75 cents will go to fund the organization and its leadership…those in “want,” rather than those in need).

    The Red Cross clearly failed miserably in terms of making it ALL ABOUT THEM. And as a result, I doubt I’ll ever believe or trust them again. Yet still, remarkably, I’m asked almost daily, by someone, online or off, to donate to their efforts.

    There are many charitable organizations that really are charitable. A quick search on Google will show you plenty, and almost certainly one that fits your beliefs and values.

    Especially at this troubling moment in time, it’s so important that we give to help others. It’s even more important that what we give, does the work it’s intended to do.


  5. Richard Kane September 27, 2017 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    We have been flying supplies to the Keys, PR, and VI and returning with evacuees. That’s the one certain way to help – load and deliver the supplies yourself! Not just pilots and aircraft owners – volunteers are coordinating collections and filling shipping containers. Its sad there isn’t an overarching organization to help fund and organize a quick response but volunteers and direct action will outperform bureaucracy every time – people motived to help.

  6. Ted Ristaino September 27, 2017 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    the last time i donated to the Red Cross was after Katrina
    at which time i found out all donations go into the RC general fund. they had/have no “restricted fund” category.

    i now give to NGO like Catholic Relief Services and other Church sponsored groups or local charities.

    any charity with overhead higher than 10% gets no $ from me

  7. Gayle Carson September 27, 2017 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    If what you say is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, it is a very sad state of affairs. It would be helpful if a meaningful TV show did an expose on this as I am about to give them a huge check from a dear friend’s estate and I would hate to think it is being wasted.

    • Bruce Turkel October 3, 2017 at 2:47 pm - Reply

      Such a good idea Gayle. I’ve been reaching out to the various shows on HGTV that rebuild and remodel homes (Property Brothers, Flip or Flop, etc.).One famous and very accomplished TV producer I know very well told me: “You know I’m going to give it to you straight. As dire his circumstances are and as heart-rending his story is, the media oxygen is being gluttonized by stories with far more fire and far more heart rending. I don’t see any appetite for Bob’s story at this time. Sorry.”

  8. Jeanna Hofmeister September 28, 2017 at 11:35 am - Reply


    I’m donating here:

    I think it would be good to spread the word that there are some powerful and accountable people behind this disaster relief fund.

    Frustrating how a good brand can cover the bad behavior of the organization behind it. Shame on the Red Cross.

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