- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — As its hurricane relief donations near the $1 billion mark, more than double all other charities combined, the American Red Cross is encountering sharp criticism of its efforts and mounting pressure to share funds with smaller groups.

The complaints — that Red Cross operations were chaotic in some places, inequitable in others — have stung deeply within an organization that is proud of its overall response to Hurricane Katrina, by far the most devastating natural disaster confronted on U.S. soil.

“It’s frustrating to our thousands of volunteers out there every day, away from their families, helping people,” said spokeswoman Devorah Goldburg. “We never said we were perfect — we’re trying to do our best under extraordinary circumstances.”

The frustration stems partly from Red Cross having worked to avoid a recurrence of the fundraising controversy that flared after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

At the time, the Red Cross raised about $1.1 billion — its record for a single disaster — but the organization was assailed when donors belatedly learned that $200 million from their gifts were being earmarked to prepare for future crises rather than to help victims.

Red Cross President Bernadine Healy resigned, the money was shifted back to the September 11 Liberty Fund, and the organization promised greater accountability in future fundraising campaigns.

Because of that experience, Miss Goldburg said, the Red Cross is determined to use its massive donations for purposes its donors were asked to support. These include emergency shelter and food, plus short-term financial aid, but not longer-term recovery or rebuilding. Such efforts have never been part of the Red Cross mission.

“After 9/11, we learned we had to be very specific as to where our money is going,” Miss Goldburg said. “Our donors are saying to us, ‘We want this money spent on Katrina right now.’”

The Red Cross estimates that it will need $2 billion to finance Katrina-related emergency services. Even if the goal is reached, Miss Goldburg said, any policy change that would allow support of recovery programs would have to be authorized by the Red Cross board of governors.

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said he has been impressed with the Red Cross’ adjustments after September 11 and its emergency response to Katrina.

But he is among numerous specialists and activists who think Katrina’s effect is so severe that the Red Cross should depart from tradition and help finance the long-term recovery.

“A lot of small nonprofits in the Gulf Coast are staring at deficits and will be hoping for partnerships,” he said. “The Red Cross would be wise to invest in them.”

A coalition of black-led community groups called Saving Our Selves is urging the Red Cross to consult with their leaders as attention shifts to recovery.

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