There’s more to it: Don’t be so quick to judge Red Cross “failures”

Two weeks ago, ProPublica published an article, “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes“, and has since, blown up the spotlight on the Red Cross regarding their “failures in Haiti”. My topic of discussion is not whether or not the Red Cross did something wrong or failed, but more about the responses from the public.

(NOTE: I am not siding with or against the Red Cross, or excusing any of their actions.)

The 438+ comments that were left so far has allowed readers to engage with each other on their feelings towards the Red Cross and, for the most part, leave their disgust for how an organization could handle donors money this way. Everyone has their own opinions on the matter, but similar to my sentiments in a post last year, about society holding back nonprofits and Dan Pallotta’s work, I urge you to gather more information before you write off the Red Cross as an organization full of failure, that misappropriates funds.

I read many comments stating that 100% of funds should go to building houses, to check their 990s and make sure the salaries of the employees aren’t too high, that they are thieves who only want to work a 9-5 job, that they didn’t hire competent people, etc., all of which trouble me. There is no doubt that there is a problem here, and that there are many notable failures along the way, but I believe that some of these problems have been exploded by the pressure placed on nonprofits and the lack of knowledge by the public, of what it really takes to run aid initiatives. Donors need to know where their money is going; the transparency is beneficial both for the donor and the organization, but that transparency needs to also come with understanding and flexibility. NGOs and humanitarian organization should be striving for social change, not just a band-aid approach (see previous post Pitfalls of Social Change), and that takes work!

A few things that we should pay attention to are; overhead, staffing, community, and obstacles.

  1. Overhead: This is a never ending debate of what salaries nonprofit professionals should or shouldn’t be paid. The term non-profit does not mean that the organization does not make money, it means that the money earned is going back into the organization (this includes staff salaries), not to a group of shareholders. You cannot, and should not have to, pay drastically less than the for-profit sector and assume you will have the same quality talent. To make the strides and impact you want, you need high quality, experienced leaders, and that takes money. The idea that 9% overhead is too much to spend is crazy.
  2. Staffing: Teams have problems. They can be dysfunctional, hard to manage, and sometimes just a pain to work with. Have you ever hired an employee that turned out not to be the best fit? Yes! Everyone who has ever interviewed, hired, or fired someone has. Team dynamics of staff greatly affect productivity, and if you did not hire the right talent, the job may not progress the way you had hoped. Nonprofits are no different. They may have setbacks, miss deadlines, or have to backtrack if there is turnover. Finding the talent with the passion for the mission, and who are willing to take the low salary (that we say they should have), is not easy.
  3. Community: Granted this should have been done prior to making plans in Haiti, but building community takes time. You cannot waltz into a country and “fix” their problems. Local and national governments are hard to work with, and there are often many hoops that need to be jumped through, corruption is a real thing. International aid organizations face difficulties with this every day. Getting the buy-in from local people is a difficult task that requires trust, and collaboration, not just money and a proposed solution from an outside organization.
  4. Obstacles: They happen. Permits rejected, construction crews quit, the estimated quote for service fees goes up. Plain and simple.

If we are holding nonprofits to unattainable standards, and show no flexibility for problems that arise or unanticipated costs accrued, then there are never going to be lasting changes in the community, just temporary solutions. There are serious concerns for the work that the Red Cross has done (or not done) in Haiti, no doubt about it, but trying to understand where some of the issues stem from is key to being sure you are an informed citizen, not just judging the Red Cross as a corrupt and money hungry organization right off the bat.

For more on my thoughts about the standards NPOs are held to, read- How to Not Stunt a Nonprofits Growth and look at the 5 ways nonprofits are discriminated against. #3 “Taking Risk”,”NPOs are in fear of taking any sort of risk towards revenue generation. Worried by what the community will think if something flops, many nonprofits do not have the luxury of innovation.”

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