Compassion & Culture
America’s Response To Disaster: The 20th Century’s Imprint on the American Red Cross
The American Red Cross was founded as an independent nongovernmental organization but over time it lost its independence and became a quasi-governmental entity. This article examines how the group grappled with the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 and other disasters.
(Second part in a 2-part series.)
The Mississippi River flood of 1927 was the largest American disaster before Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina hit New Orleans some news articles about the 1927 disaster appeared with this story line: Back in 1927, a conservative president appointed a czar who pulled strings and slashed through red tape to make sure that flood victims received help. Therefore, today we need a government “disaster czar” to ensure that future victims get the help they need.
Some of this story is true. Calvin Coolidge did appoint Herbert Hoover to oversee flood relief. But Hoover was also a forceful advocate of private charity–and spent almost as much time fundraising as he did in issuing orders. What resulted was a largely decentralized effort that more closely resembled a public-private partnership or “government by network” than a top-down bureaucracy-driven enterprise.
In the winter of 1926 and the spring of 1927, the Mississippi River received an unusually high level of rain. In April 1927, the rain-engorged river began to crest over levees in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri. By May, seven states had substantial flooding. By the time the Red Cross ended its recovery efforts in early 1928, the agency had conducted flood relief operations in 39 of the 66 parishes of Louisiana and 19 of the 64 counties of Mississippi.
After the levees broke, residents were at first left to fend on their own. Author William Alexander Percy found himself the head of the flood relief committee and the Red Cross in Greenville, Mississippi. His first task was to get the survivors stranded on roofs or in trees to safety–but Percy had no boats. “We called on the Lord,” Percy said, and the Lord “performed one of his witty, whimsical miracles.”
Local bootleggers showed up, with a flotilla of swift, mobile boats. “No one had sent for them,” Percy said, “no one was paying them, no one had a good word for them–but they came. Competent, devil-may-care pariahs, they secured the back areas, the forgotten places, across fences, over railroad embankments, through woods and brush, and never rested until there was no one left clinging to a roof or a raft or the crotch of a tree.”
But of course it would take more than local rumrunners to restore the hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to the flood-ravaged counties of the Mississippi River Valley. So on April 22, President Coolidge urged Americans to contribute $5 million to the Red Cross, “the agency designated by Government charter to provide relief in disaster.” He also created a quasi-governmental commission, headed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, to assist the Red Cross in its efforts. Hoover was put in charge because of his efforts in aiding victims of World War I.
When the commission met- it made two major decisions. The Red Cross agreed to subordinate itself to Hoover’s command. And the representatives of other federal agencies also agreed that Hoover could acquire what resources he needed to help flood victims. For the remainder of his three-month term, Hoover was the second-most powerful man in America.
Historian John Barry gives the best description of how the Commission worked. The Flood Commission had taken over a Ford Motor assembly plant in Memphis. “Representatives from every federal agency, from the Army to the Public Health Service, and several governors” sat near the desk of Henry Baker. “When Baker needed something, he called to the appropriate man, who took care of it. Thirty yards away a Red Cross purchasing agent conducted a nearly continuous reverse auction; he stood on a platform and shouted supplies and quantities needed, and dozens of suppliers shouted back bids.”
Hoover asked that affected states also appoint “dictators” who would report directly to him and would do what he said. And Hoover made frequent trips into the field to check on local conditions. In his memoirs, Hoover recalled that the victims and staff he worked with faced the task of recovering from disaster with “a wealth of good humor.”
At one point, Hoover wrote, he was meeting with a priest in charge of a field hospital for a camp in Opelousas, Louisiana, that housed 80,000 flood victims. “Well, Father,” Hoover asked, “is there any trouble or excitement in the camp?”
“Not trouble, but some excitement,” said the priest. “We had an event in the maternity ward last night. One of the colored sisters gave birth to triplets. She named the first Highwater, the second Flood, and the third Inundation.”
Hoover, while clearly in charge, preferred to delegate authority as much as possible. He practiced a doctrine he called “humane efficiency.” Hoover would issue orders, but he expected most of the work to be done by county chapters of the Red Cross.
”I made ninety-one local committees in ninety-one local communities to look after the Mississippi flood [victims],” Hoover told biographer Will Hard. “You say, ‘a couple of thousand refugees are coming. They’ve got to have accommodations. Huts. Watermains [sic]. Sewers. Streets. Dining Halls. Meals. Doctors. Everything….So you go away and they get ahead and simply do it. Of all those ninety-one committees there was just one that fell down.”
Hoover’s orders were mostly obeyed. But as Congressional Research Service analyst Kevin R. Kosar observes, “Hoover also made glaring mistakes, and made matters worse by refusing to admit his errors and make amends.” For example, he ordered the Red Cross to purchase enough seed to enable farmers to plant 400,000 acres of soybeans–even though agricultural experts Hoover consulted told him that it was too late in the season for the soybeans to grow.
There’s also some evidence that these locally-run camps discriminated against African-Americans. In most of the camps, victims were allowed to leave only when they were accepted for jobs. The NAACP charged that in some cases, camp owners would only allow planters to enter the camps–ensuring that sharecroppers had a choice of either returning to work with the planters or starving. NAACP investigators also found cases where planters accepted free supplies from the Red Cross, and used them to restock their company stores–which then would sell the supplies to the sharecroppers. It’s not clear how much Hoover knew about these discriminatory actions while they were taking place.
Hoover also insisted that much of the work in disaster recovery would lie with the Red Cross. Federal and state governments would provide some supplies, construct camps, and do necessary civil engineering tasks. But the Red Cross was charged with feeding people and getting them back on their feet.
To do this required enormous sums of money, and the Red Cross used every tool at its command. Donors gave amounts ranging from a few pennies to one gift of $250,000. This ensured that the Red Cross ultimately raised $17.4 million-–far more than its original goal of $5 million (subsequently raised to $10 million). “Children in the kindergartens brought their pennies to swell the total,” the Red Cross’s official report noted. “Newsboys gave of their small earnings; children sold their toys in order that the children driven from their homes by the Mississippi flood might have food; convicts in the prisons took up collections; inmates of institutions, where pocket money is ever scarce, insisted upon some contribution, no matter how little…Everyone wanted to do something and nearly everyone did something.”
To make sure that potential donors knew about the Mississippi floods, the Red Cross launched a massive public relations effort. Whenever Herbert Hoover went into the field, he was accompanied by a phalanx of journalists, ensuring, as the Red Cross’s report put it, that “the vast, monotonous pageant of suffering and misery” was presented to the public. The two national radio networks, NBC and CBS, were each less than a year old, but the Red Cross made sure that they were regularly informed about the state of the national flood relief campaign. Movie theatres also received a steady supply of newsreels and what we would call public service announcements about the Mississippi Valley disaster. (As an incentive, motion picture companies offered to give theatres films for free if they also showed the Red Cross-produced promotional materials.)
Some of the donations were unnecessary. National Geographic reporter Frederick Simpich found in one Mississippi town, flood victims were given dozens of hats that were nearly 40 years old. But these ancient hats, Simpich wrote, “served at least one good purpose, anyway; they brought a lot of mirth and laughter to tired mothers in the camps. Frolicking flapper refugees even posed in this prehistoric headgear to be photographed by one of the camera-carrying army that plagued the river country.”
”Not only did the Red Cross do a magnificent job of giving,” William Alexander Percy noted, “but I don’t think there was a church, a fraternal organization, or an organized charity that did not donate almost prodigally. Particularly I recall the generosity of the Masons and the Christian Scientists.” But Percy had harsher words for the behavior of recipients. “I have noticed that if you afford people a chance to give, they are little less than angels,” Percy wrote, “But if you afford them a chance to receive, they almost convince you somebody is right about the need of a hell…Our heroic people became mere people; they not only received, they grabbed. Everybody wanted what was coming to him and a little more.”
By the fall of 1927, the Mississippi Valley had slowly recovered. The Flood Commission disbanded in October 1927, and Hoover returned to Washington. The Red Cross stayed on in some areas until 1928. By the time they withdrew, the organization had assisted nearly 750,000 people and had helped plant or replant 2.4 million farm acres and 120,920 gardens. In addition, a million-dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation was used to hire doctors, nurses, and engineers to improve regional sanitation. These Rockefeller-funded public health officials worked with county health officers, and the collaboration dramatically reduced rates of such controllable diseases as pellagra, typhoid, and malaria.
Recovery from the Mississippi Valley flood, Herbert Hoover wrote in his memoirs, was due to “efficient and devoted organizations” that worked tirelessly to aid flood victims. The success of the recovery effort, he added, “was a special tribute to the peoples of these States.”
1930-31: The Arkansas Drought Shapes
The Red Cross’s Role
The drought of 1930-31 is less well known than the 1927 flood. But in many ways it is more significant–not so much because of the disaster itself, but because of the debate over whether or not the Red Cross or the federal government should be a national welfare provider.
The summer of 1930, by all accounts, was exceptionally hot and dry. Particularly hard hit states included Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Kentucky. By September 1930 it was clear that crops in these and other states would wither and die, leaving farmers without an income and destitute.
Many urged the federal government to do something to help the starving farmers. But President Hoover, a strong advocate of voluntarism and traditional charity, did not want the federal government in the business of handing out doles.
The Red Cross was in a somewhat ambiguous position. As historian Nan Elizabeth Woodruff points out, the Red Cross’s Congressional charter said that the organization had the task of “mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other national calamities.” Was a drought a “natonal calamity” or was it just a normal risk all farmers take?
Moreover, as Foster Rhea Dulles writes, the Red Cross had in 1921 adopted a policy that it was not in the business of aiding the unemployed, since its investigators would be unable to determine whether a claimant was out of a job because of hard luck or because he “willfully or maliciously” chose not to work.
But under President Hoover’s insistence, the Red Cross agreed to supply some help. By the fall of 1930, Hoover had created the National Drought Relief Committee to use federal and nonprofit resources to fight the consequences of the drought. The committee included loan officers from the Departments of Agriculture and the Treasury, representatives from the American Railway Association to supply discounted shipping to struggling farmers, bankers to offer below-market rates to farmers, and American Red Cross workers to supply the destitute with seed and limited amounts of food. The committee provided, in effect, the first national disaster plan, although Hoover was proud that the committee only cost $3 million and did not add to the federal workforce.
Like all organizations during the Great Depression, the Red Cross’s resources were strained, but it agreed to set aside $5 million to aid drought victims, and began to supply small amounts of food and seed to affected regions.
The National Drought Relief Committee’s success was limited, however. Banks only offered limited loans, railroads abandoned their discounts and the Red Cross help was also strictly limited.
By January 1931, cotton farmer H.C. Coney in Lonoke County, Arkansas was fed up. His family–and his neighbors’ families–had struggled for months. A neighbor told Coney that her children had received no food in two days.
Coney had had enough. He went to the home of the head of the county Red Cross. But late in December the Red Cross agencies in Arkansas had run out of ration forms and orders came down not to hand out any food until new forms were issued. Coney was turned down.
Undeterred, he gathered 47 men and went to England, Arkansas, to ask storekeepers to give them something to eat. “We’ll ask for food quiet like,” Coney said, “and if they don’t give it to us, we’ll take it, quiet like.”
By the time Coney’s crew reached a store in England, 500 supporters had gathered to cheer them on. G.E. Morris, chairman of the Lonoke County drought committee, promised everyone that if they would be patient, they would be fed. Meanwhile, Red Cross officials in Little Rock, having received several frantic calls, agreed to accept a storekeeper’s invoice in lieu of the missing ration form. Eventually everyone received their food and went home.
Woodruff notes that newspapers around the world reported “wildly varying accounts of the incident.” Sensational accounts stated falsely that there was a riot or that Coney and his men were armed (they prided themselves on not carrying any guns). Communists also used the incident as propaganda; Whittaker Chambers, at the time a hard-line Communist, turned the incident into a short story, in which the farmers, after looting the Red Cross, stoically wait to be slaughtered by the capitalist militia. The head of Vassar College’s experimental theatre department turned Chambers’s story into a play.
But the incident catalyzed Washington into action. President Hoover, in his capacity as head of the American Red Cross, announced a $10 million fund raising campaign for drought relief. As part of the campaign, NBC donated an hour of time for a show in which entertainers urged Americans to give. Speakers included President Hoover, former President Calvin Coolidge, actress Mary Pickford, and comedians Will Rogers and Amos and Andy. In what might be a first, the entertainers broadcast from different cities.
As in the past, Americans of all classes gave generously. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. gave $250,000; Mrs. Stephen Harkness $100,000; and J.P. Morgan, Jr. $50,000. Thomas Edison donated his 83rd birthday cake, which the Red Cross auctioned off for $107. Prisoners at the Tennessee State Penitentiary gave $51. Someone stole a stock certificate and tried to donate it, but the Red Cross returned it. The $10 million goal was eventually met in March, two months after the drive began.
Congress also responded to the emergency. A bill that would have provided $40 million for loans and supplies was slowly wending its way through the House. But after the incident, Sen. James Robinson (D–Arkansas), who was from Lonoke County, inserted a clause that would have provided $25 million for the Red Cross to be used for food.
Liberals cheered this move. Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia (R–New York), proposed adding another $25 million for food aid to cities, since people were starving there too. But for Herbert Hoover–and his allies in the Republican-controlled House and Senate–this aid crossed a line. Hoover had a deeply held belief that the federal government should not be in the business of handing out doles. Fighting poverty, Hoover believed, was the duty of charity, not the state.
”My own conviction,” Hoover stated in February 1931, “is strongly that if we break down this sense of responsibility of individual generosity to individual and mutual self help in the country in times of national difficulty…we are faced with the abyss of reliance on Government charity in some form or other.”
Writing in his diary, Secretary of State Henry Stimson said that “for Hoover, the issue comes to fundamentals…if Congress makes this precedent of donating money to the Red Cross for charity, it will be the beginning of the dole in this country and will also mean the end of the wonderful activities of the Red Cross.”
Also opposed to the grant was Red Cross president John Payne. Payne declared late in January 1931 that if Congress voted the $25 million grant the Red Cross would refuse the money. Payne and his colleagues, notes Foster Rhea Dulles, believed that if the Red Cross began to take government dollars for its operations that such subsidies “would involve the Red Cross in work duplicating those of other agencies, impose responsibilities that could not be adequately met, and completely destroy the voluntary character of Red Cross activity.”
”Once the Red Cross is destroyed, as it must inevitably be by a federal dole,” thundered House Majority Leader John Q. Tilson, “and our local charities paralyzed, as they will be when the Federal Government takes over responsibility for charitable relief, the appropriations that must follow as a consequence of such a policy would stagger belief.”
The opposition of the Hoover administration, the House leadership, and the Red Cross caused the $25 million Red Cross grant to be defeated in committee. Supporters of the measure then tried to get the grant approved by saying that it could go to the Salvation Army, the War Department, local charities, or the states. This measure was also defeated. Congress ultimately passed a $20 million measure that provided farmers with loans, but not with cash or food.
Late in March 1931, the drought-afflicted regions found some relief in the arrival of hard soaking rains. The crisis gradually eased.
But Hoover’s victory was Pyrrhic. As historian Michelle Dauber notes in an unpublished dissertation, the notion that the government should provide welfare because it provided aid in emergencies was a persuasive one that was repeatedly used in debates over New Deal welfare programs.
During the 1931 debate over aiding drought victims, Sen. Robert La Follette (R–Wisconsin) asked the Library of Congress to compile a list of every effort by the federal government to aid disaster victims. The library supplied a list of 135 instances, beginning with a grant in 1812 to aid victims of an earthquake in Caracas, Venezuela. Sen. La Follette repeatedly referred to the list when arguing for welfare programs. When the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933, the first of the New Deal welfare programs, became law, the list Sen. La Follette commissioned was included as an appendix.
Thus it became a popular notion among New Dealers that because the government supplied temporary help during disasters, it should supply permanent help to the poor. During the debate over the Federal Emergency Relief Act, Rep. Henry Steagall (D–Alabama) said that there was nothing “socialistic in this legislation. There are abundant precedents to support this policy of having the Government supply aid, to supply food and clothing and shelter to relieve citizens in distress. We have done it for people in foreign lands; we have done it in various instances for our citizens at home. That is all we are doing now.”
After the New Deal: The Awkward Red Cross Position
Thus by 1935 the position of the Red Cross in disaster relief and recovery was largely settled. It would remain the only organization mandated by Congress to alleviate any American disaster, large or small. That position would be formalized, in civil defense plans of the 1950s, emergency management plans of the 1970s, and recent homeland security plans.
Of course Red Cross methods changed. Red Cross disaster relief planners cut down their estimates of how long it would take a community to recover from a disaster. In the 1930s, the Red Cross estimated that it would take up to six months for a recovery; by the 1950s they cut the estimate to three months or less. “The high tempo of life today,” former Red Cross disaster relief director Robert E. Bondy noted in a 1957 article, resulted in “the expectation that disaster relief operations, including the rehabilitation process, be speeded up and up.”
Another dramatic change in Red Cross operations took place in 1970. Until then, the agency had determined that aid needed to be given using a rule of “need, not loss.” Everyone who suffered in a disaster and wanted Red Cross aid had to fill out reams of paperwork and wait until the agency investigated their case and determined the appropriate award.
This policy was, understandably, highly unpopular. Victims chafed at the amount of time it took to get a check from the Red Cross. Others complained that the agency’s formulas tended to give proportionately more to unemployed people who were destitute because they had no savings while giving somewhat less to working people who suffered greater financial losses because their homes were destroyed.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Camille in 1969, these complaints reached a crescendo. The Red Cross changed its rules so that all aid was dispensed according to a mathematical formula that left no room for discretion. The decades-old practice of investigating each case ended.
The Red Cross also faced a national competitor in the disaster relief business. The Salvation Army had helped disaster victims for nearly as long as the Red Cross. When Clara Barton stepped off the train outside of Galveston, for example, she was serenaded by a Salvation Army brass band. The Army played a more substantial role in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, largely because the organization had a substantial presence in the Bay Area. The Army collected $11,000 for San Francisco relief, including a $1,000 donation from its founder, General William Booth. By the time San Francisco recovered, the Army had helped–and eventually recruited–so many Chinese immigrants that they were able to set up a special “corps” (or church) just for Chinese speakers.
But until the 1960s, disaster relief was not a separate division of the Salvation Army; the army’s officers and staff just volunteered when help was needed. “The Salvation Army has not publicized its disaster work,” Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr. noted in a 1955 history, “because it has never felt that it has the financial resources to be a Disaster Relief Agency.” The Army’s philosophy in disasters, Wisbey added, “is that it is prompt on the scene of disaster, efficient without red tape or formality, and is not ostentatious.”
But in the 1960s the massive expansion of the welfare state meant more government grants and contracts for faith-based nonprofits, and the Salvation Army expanded its disaster relief efforts to the extent that it became the alternative national disaster agency. The Army formally became a component of the federal government’s national disaster plans, although less so than the Red Cross. By the mid-1970s, the Army had opened a “National Public Affairs and Disaster Relief Office” in Washington. And in 1975, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army issued a joint statement saying that they would not duplicate each other’s services in disaster relief.
”We’ve been bumping into each other, and we’re trying to get away from it–it can be quite expensive,” Red Cross spokesman Donald Coble told the New York Times. “We’ve had cases of people getting clothing from one organization and then getting the same thing from another.”
But the Salvation Army’s tax-funded growth, notes historian E.H. McKinley, came at a price. The Army is both a church and a nonprofit, and until federal funds began to come in, the Army put no barriers between its dual roles. The Army believed that its goal was both alleviate suffering and win souls for Christ. As federal funds began to increase in the 1970s, McKinley writes, the “internal tensions” between the Army’s social service programs and its evangelism “had become acute and remained so” for several decades. Federal grants, he adds, forced the Salvation Army “to divide its programs for budgetary purposes into ‘religious’ and ‘social’ activities, which was distasteful to them and antithetical to the Army’s long-standing tradition that its social and spiritual work could not be divided.”
Despite this partial forced secularization, the Salvation Army continued to aid in disaster relief for most major American disasters. Without the large bureaucracy of the Red Cross, it continued to provide flexible, adaptable aid when necessary. World magazine editor Marvin Olasky noted the Army’s successes after the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, when it served 300,000 meals to survivors of the attack within 72 hours of the building’s collapse. He writes that the Army offers “a striking alternative to [the] bureaucracy-based hesitancy” of the Red Cross.
As for the Red Cross, it suffered from a basic fundraising problem. Americans give generously for major disasters. But when a disaster occurs the Red Cross spends money in the hopes that its future expenses will be met by national fundraising campaigns.
After September 11, the Red Cross was rebuked when it announced that it would set aside $200 million in donations for a reserve to be used for future disasters. The revulsion among donors for this prompted the Red Cross to change its mind and spend all the money it had raised on survivors of 9/11. Red Cross president Bernardine Healy resigned over the incident.
Anyone who looks at the Red Cross closely will find that its behavior after 9/11 is not new. For decades, Red Cross fundraisers have realized that national disasters are their most potent source of donations. In 1996 the Red Cross commissioned the Russ Reid Company, a fund raising consultancy, to survey donors about why they gave. Russ Reid found that 93 percent of Red Cross donors surveyed primarily gave because of the agency’s role in disaster relief, and that “disaster relief is the single greatest motivator of donor support.”
”When I think of the Red Cross,” one donor said, disaster relief is “what I think of. I think the funds need to be there to aid people who have been put out due to a hurricane or a tornado.”
But the Red Cross has also been guilty over the years of misleading donors. Those who thought they were aiding the victims of a disaster found their money used for the Disaster Relief Fund. A “disastergram” sent out in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in the late 1980s said:
“URGENT! THE AMERICAN RED CROSS IS APPEALING TO YOU TODAY FOR A CONTRIBUTION TO OUR DISASTER RELIEF FUND, HURRICANE HUGO HAS LEFT THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE IN THE CARIBBEAN AND THE SOUTHEASTERN UNITED STATES MAINLAND WITHOUT FOOD, SHELTER, AND OTHER BASIC NEEDS.
THE RELIEF EFFORT CURRENTLY UNDERWAY IS SO GREAT THAT OUR ENTIRE DISASTER RELIEF FUND HAS BEEN EXHAUSTED. THAT MEANS UNLESSS WE ARE SUCCESSFUL IN OUR APPEALS TO PEOPLE LIKE YOU, THE RED CROSS WON’T BE ABLE TO CCONTINUE MEETING THE NEEDS OF DISASTER VICTIMS FROM ALL OVER THE NATION WHO COUNT ON US IN TIMES OF CRISIS.”
The donor is not told that his contribution will not be used to aid victims of Hurricane Hugo, but will be used for the Disaster Relief Fund. This became official Red Cross policy in 1991. A memorandum from Red Cross Chairman George F. Moody stated that, while the agency would honor donor intent for donations made to aid victims of a specific disaster, “the following language must be used on solicitation materials to encourage donations to the relief fund: “You can help the victims of ________ and other disasters by contributing to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.”
“When contributions received exceed the cost of a job, ” Moody added, “contributions designated by donors for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and not designated for a specific job will be placed in the fund.” The Red Cross dutifully followed this policy after 9/11 and got into a great deal of trouble.
The 9/11 policy followed a common pattern. In1989 the Red Cross raised $52.5 million to aid victims of the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. It spent only $12 million. After numerous complaints, the agency agreed to spend the remaining $42.5 million on earthquake victims rather than use the donations as a reserve for future disasters. San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos told Business Week that the Red Cross was still selling “Earthquake Relief Fund T-Shirts” several months after the quake, but the t-shirts did not say, “We may or may not use this money for the earthquake.”
In 2003 the Red Cross announced that its disaster relief reserve fund was in crisis, falling from $68 million in 2002 to $5 million in 2003–the lowest level since 1992. The reason, Red Cross spokeswoman Dana Allen told the Chronicle of Philanthropy, was “a series of low-visibility disasters” that drained the fund. “When smaller disasters nickel-and-dime the fund,” Allen said, “then donations don’t come in.”
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Lessons From History
What can donors and grant makers learn from this survey of a century of disaster relief aid? Here are five lessons.
1. Stop believing that Americans won’t give. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, far too many commentators claimed that the debacle showed Americans’ stinginess and greed. “The world looks on in stunned amazement,” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson wrote, “unable to understand how a once great nation has grown so indifferent not just to its poor and its blacks but even to the most rudimentary self-preservation.”
These notions are false. Americans gave generously after Hurricane Katrina, just as they have after every major disaster. And, as studies from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy have shown, giving for disasters supplements, but does not displace, other giving.
2. Scrutinize the Red Cross more. For an organization as large, as prominent, and venerable as it is, the American Red Cross has received surprisingly little scrutiny from the press. While its fundraising mistakes have been rightly criticized, no newspaper or magazine has investigated of the Red Cross in a way comparable to major stories on large corporations. With the exception of one book about the Red Cross blood program, no one has written an independent analysis of the Red Cross’s strengths and weaknesses.
The Red Cross should not be above criticism. An investigative journalist looking at the agency would no doubt find plenty to write about.
3. Search for alternatives. When the Red Cross was granted its quasi-governmental status in 1905, the third sector in America was tiny. There are now so many disaster relief organizations in the U.S. that they have their own trade association,the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
Perhaps in future disasters the Red Cross could shed some of its burden to its rivals, such as the Salvation Army. Perhaps large Christian charities such as World Relief can play a bigger role.
4. Improve fundraising. The Red Cross, as we’ve seen, gets large contributions after disasters but struggles before each calamity. Its time-honored method of misleading donors should end. But surely fundraising experts could come up with ways to persuade donors to contribute before a disaster. The first step, of course, should be absolute honesty with donors about how their contributions will be used.
5. More analysis. There has been surprisingly little attention paid by the academic world to the performance of nonprofits in disaster relief. Because outsiders don’t analyze disaster relief nonprofits, we don’t know how these agencies can improve.
When the next major disaster strikes America, charities will respond, often admirably. But these suggestions might help America’s disaster relief nonprofits do even better.