Why I won’t donate to the Red Cross

American’s biggest disaster relief organization is a disaster. And American’s richest university doesn’t need your money. Two June 3 stories of incompetence and extreme wealth signal time to re-evaluate and re-direct charitable giving.

Red Cross disaster

The Red Cross makes money on disasters. When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010, the Red Cross collected almost half a billion dollars. Then it failed. Pro Publica and NPR investigated and reported on June 3 that the disaster relief was a disaster. Among its findings:

“In late 2011, the Red Cross launched a multimillion-dollar project to transform the desperately poor area, which was hit hard by the earthquake that struck Haiti the year before. The main focus of the project — called LAMIKA, an acronym in Creole for ‘A Better Life in My Neighborhood’ — was building hundreds of permanent homes.

“Today, not one home has been built in Campeche. Many residents live in shacks made of rusty sheet metal, without access to drinkable water, electricity or basic sanitation. When it rains, their homes flood and residents bail out mud and water.”

This report follows an equally devastating critique, published in 2014, of Red Cross failures in the United States. In 2012, the Red Cross raised hundreds of millions of relief of victims of Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf and Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Pro Publica reported that relief efforts were repeatedly botched, from delivering pork meals to a Jewish home for the elderly to allowing sex offenders to play in the children’s area of a shelter. According to the 2014 report:

“Red Cross officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C. compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by ‘diverting assets for public relations purposes, as one internal report puts it. Distribution of relief supplies, the report said, was ‘politically driven.’ …

“During Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.”

So next time a disaster strikes, I’m looking for local agencies, groups that are already on the ground, working and helping people. That might take a little research, but hey, what’s the internet for?

America’s richest university

Hedge fund billionaire John Paulson gave $400 million to Harvard University this week. Harvard is pretty happy. That’s the biggest donation the university has ever received. In gratitude, Harvard will rename its engineering school as the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Over at Vox, Dylan Matthews is most definitely not happy:

“Let me be extremely clear: Harvard is not a charity. If you want to donate to it as a bribe to help your kids get in, go nuts. It’s not the absolute worst thing you could do with your money. Kidnapping people and making them fight to the death in gladiator pits would be worse. But if you want to make the world a better place, your dollars are better spent literally anywhere else.”

Matthews doesn’t necessarily think Harvard is evil, but he thinks that getting a giant tax deduction for supporting the education of some of the smartest and wealthiest kids in the country is “obscene.” Instead, Matthews writes:

“Literally any other charity is a better choice. Paulson could give $400 million to distribute bednets in sub-Saharan Africa, a highly cost-effective way to save lives. He could give $400 million directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda through GiveDirectly. He could give $400 million to deworming efforts that spare children ailments that can cause immense pain and poverty. He could give $400 million to the Open Philanthropy Project or the Gates Foundation or another group doing careful, rigorous work to determine the best ways to use charitable resources to make the world a better place.”

If you have a spare $400 million, or even a spare $20, any of these places could use it well. Your local food shelf could probably use some help about now, too. Many get lots of contributions around the holidays, but have trouble keeping food on the shelves during the summer. Many people need help and many organizations can deliver — problems with charitable giving should inspire us to give smarter, not to give less.

1 Comment

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One response to “Why I won’t donate to the Red Cross

  1. Eye-opening facts about the Red Cross, but I think it’s unfair for Matthews to paint Harvard as nothing more than a finishing school for the super-elite. It’s a major research institution where life-saving discoveries are made—and he’s criticizing a donation to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, no less! What does he think they do there, design better Cartier watches? I’m certainly not saying the other charities he names aren’t fine causes to support, but it seems needlessly provocative and willfully ignorant to suggest that donating to Harvard is a waste of money.


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