Last week I encouraged you to donate to any of several local nonprofits helping the people of Maui following the horrific wildfires there. Today I’d like to talk about one nonprofit I didn’t mention, despite the fact that they are one of the most widely known and respected charities in the US and they are currently fundraising for this very catastrophe: The American Red Cross.
The American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton in 1881, after she had visited Europe and worked with the Red Cross there during the Franco-Prussian War. There are now 192 Red Cross-affiliated organizations around the world, so note that this video is not about 191 of them. I’m only going to be talking about the American Red Cross, but I’ll just say “Red Cross” from now on because it’s easier. Yes, I could say “ARC” but no one here calls it that so, whatever.
The Red Cross is actually in the news right now not for their fundraising but for a huge change in their rules regarding who can donate blood. They supply almost half of all blood donations in the US, with the rest coming from local clinics and hospitals. For decades now, they’ve faced a lot of criticism from people for not accepting blood donations from men who have sex with men. In 1983 in response to the AIDS crisis, a policy was set that any man who had ever had sex with another man since 1977 was permanently banned from giving blood. Even one roll in the hay resulted in a permanent ban from blood donation. Permanent! At the same time, a man who has unprotected sex with a female prostitute, or a woman who has sex with an HIV+ man, and other people doing higher risk activities, would be able to give blood one year after the activity in question.
You might think that THAT is my major problem with the Red Cross, but you would think wrong! Because prohibiting gay men from giving blood wasn’t actually the Red Cross’s policy–it was the official policy of the US Food and Drug Association, and NO organization in the country could legally ignore it. In fact, the Red Cross actually petitioned the FDA to change this policy back in 2006, and when they refused, many other government and nonprofit organizations continuously begged them to remove the lifetime ban. Not only would that put the focus back on risky *behaviors* rather than *identities*, but screening has improved drastically over the decades to the point where they can detect HIV within 11 to 33 days after infection. So, it would make sense if someone were blocked from donating blood within three months of engaging in an activity that increases their risk of bloodborne illnesses.
At the end of 2015, the FDA finally changed the policy to allow men to give blood if they hadn’t had sex with a man in the past year, which, okay, I guess that’s a little better. But thanks to a drop in donations during COVID, they finally updated the guidelines this past May to say that a person of any gender shouldn’t give blood if they “report a new sexual partner or more than one sexual partner in the past three months AND anal sex in the past three months.” So now, a man who has lived with his partner for the past ten years in a monogamous relationship would rightly be considered to NOT be engaging in risky sexual activity.
Following that change at the FDA, the Red Cross has announced that they will be implementing that policy, which I see as an unqualified good. That’s it! Nothing more to see here, folks! Just a happy ending.
Oh hold on, you might be wondering why I pointedly did not recommend donating to the Red Cross in my Maui video. The reason is this: the American Red Cross appears to be a wildly mismanaged clusterfuck of incompetent doofuses and giving them your money will be as likely to help the people of Maui as throwing it into the Pacific and hoping it floats in the right direction.
In addition to their blood donation work, the American Red Cross has throughout its history responded to disasters both in the US and internationally, from hurricanes to wars to earthquakes, and it’s an earthquake that provided them with the opportunity to really show how badly they could fuck things up.
In January of 2010, a devastating 7.0 earthquake struck 10 miles off the coast of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince, resulting in a staggering 200,000 deaths and millions of people displaced. Over the next 18 months, the American Red Cross raised half a BILLION dollars for relief efforts like building hundreds of new houses. They claimed that they provided homes to more than 130,000 people. But in 2015, a blistering investigation from ProPublica and NPR found that the actual number of homes they built was six. Yes, six. Not six-ty thousand. Not 600. Six houses. With a half billion dollars. Meanwhile, organizations on a fraction of that budget built thousands of houses (though it still wasn’t enough).
They also claimed they helped more than 4.5 million Hatians get back on their feet, which the Prime Minister at the time said is simply “not possible,” seeing as the entire country is only about 10 million.
The Red Cross refused to show ProPublica’s journalists any of the projects they claim they completed in Haiti, so they flew there themselves to find communities still in disrepair, with leaders the Red Cross put in charge stunned to learn how much money the organization had budgeted to their projects and completely unaware that the organization was ending the supposed projects the following year.
Internal documents from the Red Cross show an organization in complete disarray, wildly searching for ways to spend the money they had raised while sending ex-pats with cushy salaries to run projects in a country where they didn’t even speak the language. When a cholera outbreak happened a few months after the earthquake, the Red Cross couldn’t even follow through on a plan to distribute soap. While they eventually did set up a cholera mitigation effort, their own internal report found that “Response to this epidemic was too slow, especially for a relief and emergency response organization.”
And when Hatians, politicians, and journalists ask the Red Cross for transparency on where all the money went, the organization stays tight-lipped–most likely because according to more confidential internal documents, even they have no idea.
Lest I leave you with the assumption that Haiti was a one-off problem that was later corrected, the American Red Cross went on to fail Louisiana in 2016, where “People at one shelter had “no food or water for 24 hours over the weekend,” wrote the head of a local nonprofit eight days after the flooding began. “A woman gave birth with no medical assistance.” Another day, the shelter served only 195 meals out of 500 because Red Cross workers showed up late.” And “A truckload of formula was donated by a manufacturer and delivered to a temporary Red Cross warehouse nearby but was left unused for days.”
And in Texas in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey hit, the Red Cross launched their fundraising but then just didn’t show up: “In DeWitt, a county of 20,000 where Harvey ripped apart the roof of a hotel, Emergency Management Coordinator Cyndi Smith upbraided a Red Cross official in a Sept. 9 email:
“Red Cross was not there as they were suppose[d] to be with the shelter and again no communication to what this is actually about and that you have been in DeWitt County doing anything.”
With fewer than 24 hours’ notice, Micah Dyer, a school superintendent in DeWitt County, was forced to run a shelter on his own in an unused district building that would eventually house 400 people. For the first three days the shelter was opened, only two Red Cross volunteers were there — neither had any experience running a shelter, Dyer said in an interview.”
In Colorado County, west of Houston, a local official told colleagues on Aug. 30 the charity had simply failed to show up at a shelter as promised.
“Persons needing intermediate-term shelters have been transferred to the Red Cross Shelter in Sealy. Red Cross approved the shelter, but the promised shelter management teams and the supply trailer never arrived, nor do they know where they went,” Charles Rogers, the county’s emergency management coordinator, wrote.”
And then there’s this gem:
“Many others singled out the Red Cross for criticism. At a public meeting earlier this month, Houston City Councilman Dave Martin let loose on the charity for being the “most inept, unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced.”
Martin urged Houstonians not to donate. “I have not seen a single person in Kingwood or Clear Lake that’s a representative of the Red Cross,” he said, referring to two hard-hit areas. “You know who opened our shelters? We did. You know who sent water and supplies? We did.”
In an interview with ProPublica, Martin said he ran into Gail McGovern, the charity’s CEO, in a parking lot several days after Harvey hit. When he raised his concerns to her, Martin said she responded: “Do you know how much we raised with Katrina? $2 billion. We won’t even raise hundreds of millions here.’ I just thought, ‘Really, Gail? That’s your response to me?’”
Look, disaster relief isn’t easy and no single organization is going to be able to swoop in and save the day. But I’d like to think that one of our most famous organizations, established for more than a century, that raises billions of dollars, can do better. And so we can do better with our donations. When disaster strikes and you want to help, like with the Maui wildfires, look for the people who are already in the community doing what needs to be done. Not the big name brand that’s more interested in fundraising than saving lives.