American Red Cross Spending for Sandy Relief Still Unclear

American Red Cross Spending for Sandy Relief Still Unclear

A year and a half after Superstorm Sandy slammed coastal areas of New York and New Jersey, it's not clear how the has spent the $312 million it received in donations for Sandy relief efforts, reports.

While Red Cross officials told ProPublica that the disaster relief organization had "spent or committed" $291 million on Sandy relief through the end of February 2014, they have yet to provide a breakdown showing how, where, and when the money was spent. In its (12 pages, PDF) report, released last October, the Red Cross gave a dollar-figure breakdown in eight categories — with food and shelter ($95,938,000), individual casework ($85,117,000), housing and community assistance ($44,229,000), and relief items ($11,700,000) accounting for 92.1 percent of the total. The organization also provided numbers for emergency vehicles activated, relief items distributed, overnight stays in shelters, health and mental health contacts, meals and snacks served, and workers and volunteers mobilized. Because these and other service categories are not aligned with the spending categories provided by the organization, however, it is impossible to calculate, to take one example, how much of the $95,938,000 spent on food and shelter paid for the 74,000 overnight shelter stays provided by the organization.

The Red Cross has faced criticism for its lack of transparency before — including after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Haiti earthquake in 2010 — and the effectiveness of its response after Sandy has been questioned. As donations for Sandy relief efforts poured in, residents of Staten Island and the Rockaways complained that the disaster relief organization was missing in action, while others criticized the organization for not spending the donations it received quickly enough.

It is impossible, however, to determine when those dollars were distributed, because in its reporting the organization combines funds that have been either "spent" or "committed." "Committed" funds are usually parceled out to a grantee over time, which means the dollar amount indicated is not necessarily put to work to help victims immediately. The Red Cross declined to provide Pro Publica with a breakdown of the "spent or committed" funds over time.

Doug White, who teaches board governance, ethics, and fundraising at program, said that while a lack of transparency is not uncommon among charities, the Red Cross stands out because of the scale of its operations and the predominant role it plays in domestic disaster relief efforts. "The Red Cross," said White, "is too big and too important to be allowed to be this secretive." 

Justin Elliott, Jesse Eisinger. "." ProPublica 04/11/2014.