The heartbreaking images and stories coming out of Houston have mobilized the American people to help their fellow citizens. With reports of Harvey making landfall for the second time near the Louisiana-Texas border early Wednesday, the numbers of victims and people displaced by floodwaters continues to rise. Since most of us are not in a position to join the Cajun Navy to directly help on the ground, many of us have reached deep into our pockets to try and provide much needed financial support for first responders and disaster-response teams. But leaders, celebrities, and social influencers have it wrong: stop donating to the American Red Cross (ARC).
I admit, this sounds harsh. The ARC is one of the best known, most bi-partisanly loved brands in humanitarian relief. They are always one of the first groups on the ground, and it’s common to hear heartwarming stories of ARC volunteers sharing blankets and compassion. But the constant mismanagement of money and failed promises of shelter and basic resources has convinced me that my money is better spent elsewhere. And in light of Houston, I think it should be said that the Red Cross cannot and will not be the saving grace in Texas.
The ARC is touted by many well-known figures, with people like former President Barack Obama, Kim Kardashian West and Kevin Hart pledging large amounts of money to the organization. A lot of them, like the New England Patriots, have been pledging to match donations to the ARC in support of Hurricane Harvey relief. And it’s as easy as sending a text. The ARC is certified and claims that $0.91 of each dollar donated goes directly to help with Harvey relief. It sounds fantastic, but looking at the ARC track record should generate serious doubt as to how much help will actually come from the organization.
The most infamous example is the despicable job the ARC did after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. After the devastating natural disaster, the ARC instantly swung into action doing what it does best: raising money. I’ll freely admit, I donated via their text message campaign as well. It seemed like the least I could do when looking at those pictures of devastation. The ARC’s appeals, aided by endorsements from celebrities, raised a staggering $488 million.
It was an incredible feat, and boded well for emergency response and subsequent rebuilding. But the ARC had absolutely no idea what to do with the money. They had only three full-time staff in Haiti at the time of the disaster. Though it soon sent more and subcontracted staff from the local Haitian Red Cross, the truth became evident: they couldn’t do all that much.
The ARC doesn’t have a clear-cut goal when they head to disaster zones. They’re not Doctors Without Borders. They don’t do development work or specialize in rebuilding destroyed neighborhoods. As Slate notes, what the ARC does best is provide immediate assistance in the form of blankets, hygiene kits, or temporary shelter- and there was not half a billion dollars worth of tarps and hygiene kits to hand out. They ended up unloading the money to other aid groups after taking their customary 9% administrative cut with no accountability for where or how it was spent. An investigation by ProPublica and NPR in 2015 claimed that the agency had only built six homes with the almost $500 million it received. ARC found itself scrambling to explain why such a staggering amount of money made little to no difference in the lives of survivors.
And the ARC doesn’t just fail abroad. Their atrocious response to 2005 Hurricane Katrina bordered on criminal wrongdoing. An internal shuffle and re-commitment to doing things right did nothing when they once again failed the victims of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in 2012. As one Red Cross driver told ProPublica, the response was “worse than the storm.” Of course, we can’t forget the ARC’s 2015 response to the northern California wildfires, which was so bad that locals shunned the organization to focus on their own relief efforts. In that particular instance, the ARC showed up completely unequipped and unprepared, shutting down other volunteer operations and then failing to provide promised food and shelter on its own. And that seems to be a regular trend. In the same year the federal Government Accountability Office released a scathing report that noted, “no regular, independent evaluations are conducted of the impact or effectiveness of the Red Cross’ disaster services.” Makes sense, especially when just last year, after people in Louisiana were displaced by flooding, volunteers at the Baton Rouge Red Cross shelter said that they “had to pay for baby formula out of pocket- even though Red Cross received a truckload of it as a donation that could be distributed to the majority-Black population being housed there.”
As of Sunday, the ARC said it had set up 34 shelters in Texas, and claims 6,000 people stayed there. Bristel Minsker, the Red Cross spokeswoman in Austin, said that the organization is prepared to house up to 30,000 people who would be displaced by the storm. When asked how much money the Red Cross had raised so far for Harvey relief efforts, Minsker said those figures were not yet available.
“The size of this disaster is so huge, we’ve been focused on providing immediate needs to people, especially shelters,” she said. And yet Houston shelters are so overrun that thousands of people are fleeing to the downtown convention center and the local Gallery Furniture stores seeking shelter.
Look, I’m not aimlessly attacking a charitable organization. I do not doubt that ARC volunteers are doing the very best they can with what little direction they have been given, and they just want to help. We all do. I know some folks get offended by criticisms like this, claiming too much focus on the ARC’s downfalls when they only want to help. I get it. We are all witnessing the pain and devastation firsthand, and we only want to help. The victims of this storm deserve all of that and more. But given the ARC’s history, I would advise rethinking that quick donation to them. They do provide immediate assistance, but at this point with weather and flood conditions, the chances of the victims seeing this help are slim to none. There just isn’t the infrastructure to get these supplies to the affected area right now.
If you want to make a difference, take some time to research before just throwing money at the ARC. Charity Navigator is a great resource to check out whether an organization is not only legitimate, but also how well they score in providing assistance. Although I haven’t used it personally, I have friends who have told me GuideStar is beneficial in this capacity too. The Texas Tribune has compiled a fantastic list of resources for both victims and those who want to help. Several friends of mine who work for non-profits recommend All Hands, who is in contact with emergency management officials and has a 4/4 star rating from Charity Navigator. If you want to ensure a focus on particular minorities, Colour Lines created a list that includes ways to donate to the Living Hope Wheelchair Association and the South Texas Human Rights Centre. Although founded by religious groups, Islamic Relief USA and Samaritan’s Purse provide both physical and spiritual aid to people affected by disaster and poverty. And your best bet is to reach out to the local organizations right there on the ground, like the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund created by the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, or The Way Home who has been working in Houston, Harris County and Fort Bend County for years. Even better, we can start thinking of other organizations that can really help the victims, such as the Texas Diaper Bank, Houston Food Bank, Corpus Christi Food Bank, and the Houston Humane Society.
Whatever you choose, I advise rethinking that quick pocket-change donation to the American Red Cross. Make sure your hard-earned dollars are going to actually help the victims of Hurricane Harvey.