American Red Cross is in need of an overhaul
A prominent senator is urging the American Red Cross to reduce its board membership and become more efficient.
MORE than a mammoth charitable organization that responds to disasters, the American Red Cross was chartered by Congress and designated by the government to do so. The organization needs to be more accountable to Congress, and Congress needs to be more aggressive in ensuring effectiveness in the Red Cross performing its vital function.
A report two weeks ago by a House committee was harshly critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Hurricane Katrina, but it also scolded charities for being unprepared. "Like FEMA," the report said, "the Red Cross did not have a logistics capacity sophisticated enough to deal with a catastrophe of Katrina's size."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, now is bearing down on the Red Cross, asserting that it cannot continue "business as usual." In a letter two months ago to Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, the Red Cross chairwoman, he questioned the organization's competence.
Grassley was particularly critical of the organization's 50-member governing board, far too large to be effective. He suggested that it follow the lead of the Nature Conservancy Board, which is reducing its membership to 18 from 51, prompted by a Finance Committee investigation. The committee's review found that "when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge," the senator wrote.
Grassley said a a top concern of charities and his colleagues "has been the Red Cross' poor working relationship with leaders of local charities" -- concerns that "were not made of other major charities, such as the Salvation Army." Those concerns should be shared in Hawaii. The Red Cross will need to work closely with local charities and public officials next time a hurricane hits the islands.
McElveen-Hunter responded that Katrina "presented challenges in working with local charity leaders to best identify and deploy resources to meet community needs." She said the Red Cross plans to "expand its commitment to collaborative partnerships." Those plans should be implemented in Hawaii as well as the Gulf Coast and other zones of vulnerability.
Former Red Cross employees and volunteers told Grassley of a culture of inefficiency, bureaucracy and resistance to change. In dozens of letters, they cited volunteers staying in expensive hotels instead of shelters, orders for food far in excess of need and travel booked at retail price.
When they raised concerns about misuse of donated funds or property, including suspected criminal activity, Grassley added, "the volunteers were ignored, told to leave or otherwise made to feel like the skunk at the picnic."