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Charities Concerned about Red Cross Dominance

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Everyone, including President Bush and rock stars, seems to be urging people to donate to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but the message has too often come down to: Give to the American Red Cross. The massive relief agency is written into law as the first responder to natural catastrophes, but as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, some are beginning to worry that the Red Cross is receiving too much of the pie.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Marketers say that the American Red Cross is one of the most powerful symbols on the planet, and if people on the streets of Washington are any reflection, that may be true. To find out, we asked people where they had sent their donations. Mark Buckman(ph) was typical.

Did you donate?

Mr. MARK BUCKMAN: Yes.

HAGERTY: And who'd you donate to?

Mr. BUCKMAN: To the Red Cross.

HAGERTY: Why Red Cross?

Mr. BUCKMAN: Because everyone knows them.

HAGERTY: One person after another, it was the same answer.

Unidentified Woman: I gave to the Red Cross.

HAGERTY: This unscientific survey actually turns out to be pretty accurate. The Red Cross has garnered well over a half a billion dollars in the past two weeks thanks to public service announcements, celebrity fund-raisers. Even the president recited its toll-free number. More stunning perhaps is how the Red Cross has cornered the disaster relief market.

Mr. TRENT STAMP (Executive Director, Charity Navigator): I have never seen a disaster relief effort in this country or any other where over 80 percent of the donated funds went solely to one group.

HAGERTY: That's Trent Stamp, the executive director of Charity Navigator, which rates charities according to their financial responsibility. He says the Red Cross has come a long way since the days of 9/11 when it collected too much money and initially channeled it to other programs such as flood research and a fund for future terrorist disasters. Americans were furious, the head of the charity lost her job and the Red Cross changed to a more transparent system. Since then, Stamp says, it's also burnished key alliances, most importantly on the Internet.

Mr. STAMP: They're affiliated with Google. They're affiliated with Yahoo! They're affiliated with MSN. And this is the first time in history where over 50 percent of the donations that have come in for a recovery effort have come in online.

HAGERTY: Red Cross spokesperson Carol Miller says they need every cent. Katrina dwarfs all other domestic disasters. After 9/11, for example, the Red Cross served 57,000 people; with Katrina, up to a million.

Ms. CAROL MILLER (Spokesperson, American Red Cross): We're spending money as fast as we're taking it in just about right now and we're just trying to get our hands around what are the current needs, how long will those needs last knowing that people can't move into places like New Orleans for quite some time and what will the Red Cross role be as we move further into the operation.

HAGERTY: That's a question others are asking as well. Richard Walden, who heads a small medical charity called Operation USA, worries that the Red Cross will, quote, "vacuum up all the donations."

Mr. RICHARD WALDEN (Operation USA): You've got an image of a wonderful brand of a helping and service organization that does pretty good work frankly in their shelters and the things that they actually do, but the public has no clue as to the limitations or range of the Red Cross' activities.

HAGERTY: The Red Cross provides food, water, shelter, emergency medicine, but it does not build people's homes or find them jobs. Walden believes the groups that specialize in long-term relief such as World Vision, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, CARE and Save the Children will find their cupboards bare. For its part, the Red Cross says it will let Americans know when it has enough money to complete its work, emergency work that it believes will take months or even years.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.