Editorial Roundup for Sunday — December 18, 2005

• The Red Cross: Charity, Inc.


The Red Cross: Charity, Inc.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 15, 2005:

On Tuesday, the ink wasn’t yet dry on Marsha Johnson Evans’s resignation letter as president of the American Red Cross before spinners for Ms. Evans and the Red Cross board of governors were denying Hurricane Katrina had anything to do with it.

But if Katrina hadn’t blown a big hole in the Red Cross’s image, Ms. Evans might well still be in charge of one of the nation’s largest and best-known charitable organizations, a $3 billion-a-year agency that provides most of the blood used in America’s hospitals and the one designated by the federal government as the primary agency for feeding, sheltering and providing medical care to disaster victims.

Ms. Evans, a retired Navy rear admiral, had been feuding with the Red Cross board of governors, a prestigious but unwieldy 50-member panel that leans heavily to politicians and politically connected philanthropists. Not coincidentally, her predecessor, Bernadine Healy, also had been feuding with the board of governors before resigning in 2001, as had Dr. Healy’s predecessor, Elizabeth Dole, now a Republican U.S. senator from North Carolina.

The question for the public, whose donations fund the Red Cross, and for President George W. Bush, who appoints the board of governors, is whether there are fundamental problems with the way the Red Cross is governed. The Red Cross would be better served with a smaller board, one more focused on the agency’s mission and less on micromanaging and internal politics.

In the wake of 9/11, the Red Cross was criticized for raising vast sums of money for a relief operation that never really materialized. So the funds were diverted to other programs — useful programs, but not the ones for which the money was given. The opposite problem materialized during last summer’s hurricanes — a relief operation of unprecedented size and scope. The agency was criticized for slow and uneven response, for passing out money to people who didn’t need it, for shortcomings in its dealings with state and federal disaster offices and for its dominance of charitable fundraising.

The Red Cross collected $1.2 billion in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, spent every dime and borrowed $300 million more. Because of its reputation and high profile, the Red Cross soaked up charitable donations. Smaller, less well-known charities and those dedicated to purposes other than short-term relief complained about being shoved aside.

Nobody is charging that the money was misused, only that greater preparation and coordination were needed, both inside the organization and outside.

Disaster victims, of course, couldn’t care less about the politics and governance of the Red Cross; nor do blood donors and hospitals. But governance problems affect how things get done or don’t get done. The Red Cross and the nation can’t afford a reputation as a political snake pit.

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