Red Cross: white knight?

or just another day at the office…..

(cue sfx: a knock at the door)

“Good afternoon sir, I am from Red Cross (flash ID/ flash smile) and may I say what a beautiful Audi car that you have in your driveway. Now I am not here to ask you for your beautiful Audi,” assured the zealous young man, a silent companion watched on obviously enthralled with his technique, ” no , no, I am just asking for a small donation to the Red Cross (strange, I heard exactly the same sales pitch when I opened the door to another fundraiser not long before that for an entirely different cause), because we have exhausted all our funds helping the people of Canterbury recover from the terrible earthquake disaster (pause, head bowed slightly, awaiting me to share the ‘amen’ moment)”. Then out came the very convenient direct debit form which, once signed, will mean I don’t have to think about it again because they will just dip into my account each month and withdraw the agreed amount of money without having to keep knocking on my door for further donations (unless of course they want me to increase my pledge). Its the gift that keeps on giving.

My first reaction is surprise. Why would a reputable institution like Red Cross employ such snake-oil sales tactics to raise funds? I may be wrong but these two did not have the appearance of the expected volunteer fundraisers, more like commission salesmen. Don’t I recall they normally put people on the streets when disaster strikes and we all come together as one community and raise huge sums for the emergency relief to provide food, water, clothing, shelter and medical support to help victims survive a crisis?

Red Cross certainly were impressive putting armies of collectors on the streets all around NZ within 24 hours of the big 2011 quake in Christchurch. But now that I think about it, and I hadn’t until now, what else can I recall of Red Cross throughout the first few crisis weeks of that earthquake?

bp1christchurch-earthquakeimagesRescue+workers+clear+out+remains+from+the+CTV+building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I most vividly recall watching videos of ordinary people doing the extraordinary, in frantic search for and assistance of  survivors; I remember all the Rangiora community cooking and flying in thousands of kilograms of hot meals by helicopter; our emergency services: the St John Ambulance crews, the police, firemen and defence forces seemed to be everywhere controlling traffic chaos, organising search and rescue efforts and transporting victims to either hospitals or the temporary morgue. I remember images of the urban search and rescue crews from a number of countries burrowing through demolished buildings. An Australian Army field hospital was set up in Aranui staffed with Australian medical teams. But my only recollection of the Red Cross, apart from the collection buckets, was vaguely recalling something about handing out thousands of torches that they presumably had stock-piled, on the night of the quake. But why did I have no vivid image in my mind of the Red Cross emblem in the trenches?

I told the fundraiser to come back later while I thought about it and meantime I consulted Mr Google. I found out from Red Cross online publications that they collected $128 million dollars in donations for Christchurch. I also found that most of this money was issued in grants to fund things like furniture storage costs, packing and shifting costs, providing independent advice including small business advice. Of course WINZ and Housing NZ were also issuing emergency grants for similar things as were the Salvation Army and other Church and community led projects of support. I admit I was surprised. In my mind Red Cross was a front line, in the trenches organisation when it came to dealing with disasters. I did not expect them to primarily be fundraisers and distributors of financial grants.  I wonder how much support the bucket collection would have gained if we had all known then that the intent of the money was for Red Cross to make social welfare grants at its discretion. Not that we would deny social welfare support, but simply that there are already enough experienced organisations in that field and we have no understanding of how Red Cross would add constructively to the existing social welfare infrastructure.

My impression is that in the field of humanitarian care, the Salvation Army is probably better than anyone so I checked Mr Google on their contribution during the earthquake. I first learned that they received $18 million in donations, noting that was only a fraction of the $128 million given to the Red Cross. But that in the immediate aftermath of the 22 February 2011 quake, Salvation Army Emergency Services served up to 4700 meals a day to displaced residents and emergency service workers, providing more than 75,000 meals from the truckloads of food and water donated by NZ companies. Around 1200 Salvation Army officers and staff, from as far away as Australia, converged on the city to join psychosocial teams that visited in excess of 100,000 affected households in Christchurch and surrounding areas

Since the September 2010 quake, The Salvation Army has spent around $8 million dollars in welfare support, including food, clothing, furniture, grocery, petrol and hardware vouchers, as well as the provision of $500 Care Cards for the financially strapped. Respite holidays have been provided for traumatised families and individuals needing to get out of the region for a break.

When domestic water and sewage services were in disarray, The Salvation Army provided $1 million to fund 20,900 chemical toilets. It also contributed three mobile, custom-designed shower units comprising 21 shower and changing cubicles, costing around $130,000 to build, ship and operate.

In addition, many salvation army centres around the country saw steep increases in demand for their help as thousands of individuals and families left Christchurch to seek refuge in other parts of the country. The Salvation Army operated Community Care Vans, supported by Westpac Bank. who also established a website to provide up-to-date information on the location of the vans.

I had a quick look at a major disaster in Australia, the 2009 Black Saturday Bush Fires. The Australian Red Cross was commissioned by the State Government to implement and manage the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund, based on its expertise and the ability to adapt its existing software. Once the Appeal Fund had received initial funds, the State Government established the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority with the role of planning and coordinating the relief and recovery activities, and authorising the distribution of the funds from the Appeal Fund.The Red Cross raised over $300 Million in donations. By comparison the Salvation Army raised $17.5 million for their work.

Red Cross staff processing grants in Christchurch March 2011

Red Cross staff processing grants in Christchurch March 2011

This review of the Red Cross’ role in one of our worst natural disasters was an exercise well worth undertaking. I think I understand it better now. The modern Red Cross is quite a different organisation to the one I thought I knew. No doubt the Red Cross today are professional, very organised and very impressive fundraisers in major disasters. If supported in that role by government then it is probably to reduce pressure on government tax-funded budgets to finance the recovery programme. All very understandable from government’s point of view, I guess. Otherwise it would make balancing the books much harder in government and that often means a change of government. But it all just has the feel of a well-organised, political fundraising operation, using a specialised, professional fundraiser at a time when the donors are feeling at one of the most compassionate points of their life. To the donors it is a very human moment, but to the Red Cross, it seems that this is their business. The raising, managing (does that include investing?) and dispensing of hundreds of millions of dollars. It may be a necessary function for medium and long-term recovery, but that is just not the role I expected the Red Cross to be doing.

When the Red Cross fundraiser returned for his pledge he was sent away empty-handed. I have no idea what they achieved with $128 million of New Zealanders’ donations to the Christchurch Earthquake, their reports are just too much like a consolidated corporate annual report to get a real feel of what impact they had at a humanitarian level. I assume it was all legitimate and accounted for to whatever Government body they were accountable. The Salvation Army didn’t come knocking, but they don’t have to. I have a pretty good idea what they do, and it just feels like they are in the same humanitarian mindset that I am in at such times. I now know where my donations will now go and why. It’s good to sort that out in my mind before the buckets or direct debit forms are next thrust under my nose.

footnote: The President and CEO of Red Cross America is on a salary of $US651,957 plus expenses. Mmmmm, if it looks like a business, markets like a business has a highly paid CEO like a business, then……

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