Explainer: The Red Cross Slims Down in NJ, While National Criticism Continues

Tara Nurin | October 25, 2016 | Explainer
The Red Cross has been subject to complaints nationwide for its response to emergencies. But apart from criticism of its post-Sandy role, few in NJ are dissatisfied

red cross
The numbers don’t look so good. In 2004, the American Red Cross (ARC) paid 211 employees to staff more than two dozen chapters in New Jersey. Eleven years later, the picture appeared quite different, with just 80 employees working for six chapters across the state. After criticism of the international relief organization’s response to Hurricane Sandy and news reports harshly critical of its response to more recent disasters around the United States, Americans are wondering just how their donation dollars are being spent.

Last month, NJ Spotlight conducted research into the Red Cross’ New Jersey operations amid a nationwide news investigation supported by the independent, nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, along with a federal bill to force more transparency on the relief group. Findings showed that while elected officials and public emergency coordinators in other states are voicing troubling complaints against their local branches of the organization, civic leaders in New Jersey express no concerns at all. And as for those aforementioned numbers, officials for the organization say there’s a very good explanation behind them.

Why has the Red Cross closed offices? In 2008, a new international executive director, Gail McGovern, took over. She decided to restructure operations to reduce duplication of services and created a centralized system where all donations come in to the charity’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and get disbursed according to global need, as determined by top decision-makers. Previously, local chapters raised and spent their own money, amassed their own volunteers, real estate and equipment, and responded chiefly to the needs of their own territory.

As part of her consolidation plan, McGovern deemed it unnecessary to pay for 19 New Jersey offices, given that many were simply being used for storage while staffers fulfilled most of their obligations from the field. She ordered six buildings sold and two leases cancelled. Today, the group runs its New Jersey work out of 15 offices, five of which are owned and 10 are donated.

“Blood drives go on at public libraries; our classes are held everywhere (including online); and services for armed forces are taking place on base and in veterans’ homes.… There is no Red Cross in Newark but volunteers are activated from their houses,” said New Jersey Red Cross spokesperson Diane Concannon. “So how we can make better use of the donor dollar?”

Changing mission: In 2014, the Red Cross started shedding some of its offerings in earnest after struggling to stick to its mission in a time of growing demand for its core services. What is that mission, exactly? Concannon responds, “Disaster response, recovery and preparedness; health and safety training; emergency communications and other services for the military, their families and our veterans; and blood services.” In New Jersey, that means responding to an average of 850 emergency incidents that impact more than 1,300 families per year. Ninety percent are home fires.

Small-scale incidents: After a small-scale incident, Red Cross volunteers who work around the clock get dispatched to the scene to give victims money to rent a hotel room if they need it and buy supplies like food and clothes. On average, victims use the lodging assistance for three nights in a hotel of their choosing, some of which offer Red Cross discounts. Volunteers can also hand out comfort kits containing items like a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo. Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services professionals may show up, and volunteers might give outside referrals for long-term assistance.

Large-scale disasters: In the case of a large-scale disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross runs shelters, provides approved meals, and sometimes arranges short-term housing. During and after Sandy, many would-be donors and volunteers complained bitterly that their offers of food, clothes and help were turned away by the Red Cross. Said Concannon, “Even though they’re well-intended, we are a national organization. What if there are 20 cookies and 80 people? I’ve seen a shelter load up with used clothing that’s not appropriate for the people who need it, and when it comes in it needs to be cleaned or sorted. Other organizations do that.”

Working to avert disasters: The Red Cross also works to avert disasters. Since last October, it has coordinated with fire departments, municipalities and community partners to send educators into neighborhoods deemed to be at high risk of fire. Fire officials install free smoke alarms where needed and volunteers help customize and practice escape plans at each house. They also steer residents to fire-prevention information on the Red Cross website and on a free new app that interactively trains users what to do before, during and after a fire or other disaster.

Its blood services and various CPR and emergency response classes are well known. However, the number of people taking those courses dropped from 227,600 in 2004 to 117,000 last year. (2004 numbers may include students enrolled in more than one class.) Concannon defends those numbers by explaining that around 2014 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration relaxed its standards to allow workplaces that require trained safety managers to recertify them every two years instead of one.

Emergency messages and Braille: Lesser known are the emergency messages the Red Cross sends to and from members of the military 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the Jane Bente Braille Center in Fairfield that trains volunteers to transcribe textbooks into braille for blind children. Every year, north Jersey volunteers transcribe more than 1.3 million pages and 3,000 textbooks.

Still, the New Jersey Red Cross has dropped other services — most notably its shuttles for the elderly and disabled. Concannon says transportation doesn’t fit with the organization’s core mission and that volunteers and employees spent months notifying clients of the changes and providing contact information for alternatives in their area.

Big decline in New Jersey volunteer numbers: What’s gone unanswered, though, is why the number of volunteers has declined precipitously in New Jersey, especially at a time when McGovern is boasting about relying more heavily than ever on volunteers. According to Concannon, slightly more than 9,000 state volunteers served the Red Cross in 2004, while just 5,800 residents volunteered last year. (2004 numbers may include volunteers who served more than one chapter.)

Money raised in New Jersey: Where does it go? It’s hard to miss the statistics trumpeted across Red Cross marketing materials: more than 65,000 disasters responded to yearly and a five-year average of $0.91 of each dollar spent on humanitarian services and programs. In March, the organization reported $2.9 billion in spending for FY 2015 with just $303 million going toward fundraising, management and general expenses.

To break it down further (quoting the Red Cross website):

  • $1.9 billion – Collect, test, manufacture, and distribute 7 million units of blood products
  • $357 million – Respond to disasters
  • $147 million – Deliver preparedness, health and safety courses like first aid and CPR
  • $130 million – Fund international relief programs
  • $49 million – Provide more than 352,000 emergency services to our armed forces and their families
  • $43 million – Fund community services (e.g., food banks, transportation programs)
  • Skepticism about the charity’s figures: Some news organizations and lawmakers remain skeptical. ProPublica, which has partnered with National Public Radio to report on the Red Cross in-depth for more than two years, writes on its website, “We have found official statistics from the Red Cross to be unreliable at times. For example, we previously reported on widespread skepticism among Red Cross staff and volunteers about the accuracy of the charity’s figures, including how many meals and snacks it serves after disasters. The Red Cross has stood by its data.”

    The very publishing of the (audited) financial data comes as something of a surprise. After reading ProPublica reports on “how the charity failed to deliver promised relief following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and even more modest disasters like last year’s fires in California and the recent flooding in Mississippi” because of thousands of job cuts and hundreds of chapters closed, staffers for Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) looked into the organization’s spending and its resistance to a previous Congressional inquiry.

    Having being told that despite its mandate from Congress the private non-profit doesn’t have to share its data, Grassley introduced a bill to create the American Red Cross Transparency Act of 2016 (S-3128) in July. The bill would compel the Red Cross to open its accounting to governmental oversight. It follows a similar bill Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) introduced in the House of Representatives last year.

    On the day Grassley introduced his bill, ProPublica wrote, “Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern tried unsuccessfully to kill a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into the group’s disaster response efforts … McGovern later told Grassley’s investigators that the Red Cross ‘gave [the GAO] everything that they asked for’ – a statement the investigators later concluded was not true.”

    In that article, ProPublica noted that, “A Red Cross spokesperson said in a statement the charity ‘will review the proposed legislation and make our views known to Congress at the appropriate time.’”

    What NJ thinks of the Red Cross: For all the negative press the Red Cross received after Sandy and continues to receive elsewhere, all but one of the approximately two dozen New Jersey lawmakers, public officials, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, housing advocates, social workers, church-based philanthropists, and private citizens contacted by NJSpotlight said they’d never experienced or heard of any problems in-state that didn’t relate to the 2012 hurricane.

    The one dissenter, a former Somers Point firefighter, lamented the organization was housing fire victims in sub-par motels. He didn’t know, however, that the organization now allows clients to select their own accommodations.

    Barry Eck, emergency manager for the borough of Sayreville and president of the New Jersey Emergency Management Association, may have more reason than anyone in the state to field complaints about the Red Cross. And yet, despite his counterparts in other states telling the media that they no longer count on the Red Cross to provide disaster assistance or even return phone calls, he hasn’t personally seen or heard of such a lack of response.

    In a response that sums up NJSpotlight’s conversations on the subject, he said, “I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the Red Cross. They’ve been responsive to my every call. If I have a fire, within an hour I have somebody standing next to me. People expect the world but there are limitations as to what they can do.”

    Where it all began: The charity that eventually would turn into the massive organization it is today was created by Clara Barton in 1881. Barton, who had served as a nurse in the Civil War and was a supporter of civil rights and suffrage for women, founded it with the purpose of giving “volunteer aid to the sick and wounded of armies in time of war,” as well as disaster relief. It began as an ad-hoc group of local chapters launched by private citizens who wanted to make a difference in their communities. Chapter leaders raised and spent their own money, amassed their own volunteers, real estate and equipment, and chiefly responded to the needs of their own territories. When it grew apparent in the mid-20th century that this model was no longer working efficiently, chapters merged. The organization’s evolution has continued under McGovern’s watch.