In the past three weeks, we’ve felt the fury of two record-breaking hurricanes and a magnitude 8.1 earthquake. The consecutive disasters devastated large parts of Texas, Mexico, the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. Photo and video tell the story far better than words.
With thousands displaced and entire cities destroyed, the need is enormous. Victims are counting on a heroic response from relief organizations.
But, we haven’t made it easy to be heroic—we’re holding relief workers to an impossible standard.
Journalists have questioned the role of big charities like the Red Cross, sparking a familiar outrage against overhead and compensation. Elected officials poured salt in the wound by publicly questioning the charity’s competence and integrity—despite an impressive on-the-ground response in Greater Houston. The result has been a predictable, but regrettable attitude: “Donate to local charities, because we can’t trust the Red Cross!”
Local charities are crucial to relief efforts. But, where would we be without the big ones? Should we really cut them out entirely?
The reality is that massive disasters create more needs than any single organization can handle. It takes all types of aid agencies to provide disaster relief and recovery services. Small charities have valuable grassroots connections, while big charities bring essential financial, logistical and manpower resources.
Critics argue that the Red Cross is ineffective and ill prepared during huge disasters. Most of that criticism is biased and misinformed, but let’s pretend it’s true. On a moment’s notice, how could we possibly expect small, local charities to do a better job?
The Red Cross brings assets that no other charity comes close to matching. They have a network of 35,000 employees and 500,000 volunteers. Each year, they respond to more than 60,000 disasters. They’re able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars quickly and cheaply, much of which they then deploy to local partners (see partnership breakdown for Haiti relief). If support for the Red Cross plummets, there’s simply no organization that can replicate their scale and sophistication. Disaster victims would pay a very high price.
Are they perfect? No. But, to dismiss the Red Cross as unworthy of donor support—especially under such urgent circumstances—is simply irresponsible.
In the past several years, there has been slow, steady progress on the “overhead myth.” Experts now agree that impact and performance are more important than financial ratios. But, the public hasn’t been brought up to speed; their understanding of charity work continues to be unrealistic and counterproductive. As a sector, we have a duty to fix this.
As pundits debate the theory of disaster relief, thousands of Red Cross staff and volunteers are on the ground, working to save those affected by Harvey, Irma and the earthquake in Mexico. How horribly demoralizing it must be—working in physically dangerous and emotionally draining conditions—to read such unfair criticism of their lifesaving work.
To those brave and caring individuals, the Charity Defense Council offers the solace of our favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Thank you, Red Cross staff and volunteers, for being in the arena. We need you there.