The American Red Cross, a charitable organization founded to provide disaster relief and emergency assistance, is coming across like a questionable Kickstarter campaign in the face of Tropical Storm Harvey. As NPR reports, the humanitarian aid group has already spent $50 million helping those affected by Tropical Storm Harvey, which sounds impressive and dedicated enough until you learn that key members of the organization have no idea what percentage of total donations that reflects, or exactly how that money was spent. But that’s what Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics, admitted to the Morning Edition’s Ailsa Chang yesterday. When asked just how much of every donated dollar goes toward relief, Kieserman gave this confidence-undermining response.
Yeah, I don’t think I know the answer to that any better than the chief fundraiser knows how many, how much it costs to put a volunteer downrange for a week and how many emergency response vehicles I have on the road today. So I think if he was on this interview and you were asking how many relief vehicles in Texas, I don’t think he’d know the answer and I don’t know the answer to the financial question I’m afraid.
Now, Kieserman is more involved on the logistics side than on the fundraising end, so it’s understandable he wouldn’t know exactly how much money had been spent on the trucks and tents and such. But his description of how the different departments seem to operate without much interaction with each other is a bit alarming, in part because they’re supposed to be helping the victims of flooding, after all, but also because the Red Cross hasn’t always made the best use of donations. NPR cites a 2016 study that showed the charitable organization spent 25 percent of the total donations received for earthquake relief in Haiti on “internal expenses.” That’s $124 million, $69.6 million of which the Red Cross claims went toward “oversight and evaluation of projects in Haiti.”
Granted, the Red Cross has set up 232 shelters in affected areas in Texas, which have helped 66,000 people so far. But the Red Cross has a history of questionable allocation of donations, as well as a lack of transparency—the organization didn’t seem to think the U.S. Government Accountability Office had the authority to look at their books—which NPR and ProPublica have covered over the last two years. When asked if the Red Cross continues to earmark donor funds for internal use, Kieserman continued to throw his hands up:
Chang: Is that still happening? Such a substantial percentage of donations going to internal administrative costs, rather than to relief?
Kieserman: It’s not something I would have any visibility on. I can talk about what it costs to deliver certain relief services.
Kieserman: But the way the internal revenue stream works, uhh ...
Chang: You don’t know what portion of that amount.
Kierserman: Not really.
Chang: You don’t know what portion of that total amount is for relief.
Kieserman: No, I really don’t. I wish I could answer your question, but it’s not something I have visibility on in the role that I play in this organization.
If you want to help those affected by Harvey, The New York Times has a list of resources and tips to help make sure your donations end up in the right hands.