Underwater & Under fire: The Charitable Controversy of Hurricane Harvey

Today is the International Day of Charity. And as floodwaters recede to reveal the devastating aftermath that Hurricane Harvey has left behind in its wake, and as thousands of eager-to-give samaritans search for a way to extend remote yet helping hands, today seems like a fitting time to talk about how we choose to value charitable giving in America.

Nearly twelve long days have passed since the Category 4 hurricane first slammed into Texas, wreaking destruction along its 200 mile path from Corpus Christi to Houston. Winds ripped buildings clear from their foundations. Storm surges filled coastal homes to the brim. As it stands now, there are at least 63 confirmed deaths as a result of the storm. Sadly, that number will likely increase as floodwaters continue to abate in the days ahead.

No matter which way you dice it, Hurricane Harvey has shaped up to be one of the most devastating natural disasters this country has ever seen. Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner might be reopening businesses today, but with tens of thousands still in shelters the road to recovery has only just begun. While President Trump implores Congress to make a down payment of $7.9 billion toward Harvey relief efforts, Texas Gov. Greg Abbot suggests the cost of recovery to be upwards of $180 billion.

Times of disaster and tragedy often reveal the humanity and compassion of those involved. While there were some who actually turned shelter-seeking survivors away from their doors, so many others decided to step up and pay it forward.

Dozens of food banks, shelter coalitions, medical aid specialists, animal rescue operations, and general relief groups converged to help people dry off and get back on their feet again (you can read a thorough list of these organizations to donate to here).

In the true spirit of charity, even a flotilla of boatmen and women came sailing to Texas all the way from Louisiana with a fleet of jon boats, motorboats, and canoes. Self dubbed the Cajun Navy in 2016 after rescuing more than ten thousand people during Katrina, these volunteers took to assisting with the overflow of more than 56,000 distress calls.

In the days following the storm, one thing remained certain: The Lone Star State was certainly not alone.

But while the media continued to document the mounting carnage and valiant efforts of grassroots heroes and charitable organizations alike, one of the country’s most prolific nonprofits received backlash regarding their efforts to help.

Less than three days after Hurricane Harvey struck the coast, false rumors began to surface that The American Red Cross (ARC) was charging survivors for their relief services. Time.com published a column advising readers on where else they should donate. NPR ran a headline accusing a Red Cross exec of not knowing where donations should be allocated for Harvey relief. They later amended their reporting with a statement explaining why they were so tough on the nonprofit.

In the days that followed, headlines continued to crop up out of the woodwork that cast further doubt on the ARC. Public skepticism grew. As the CEO of a small company aiming to help connect nonprofits with better resources, this point of contention is often brought up as one of the biggest discrepancies facing the nonprofit sector. Where is the money going? Should we simply trust that it’s making a difference?

Perhaps the most telling example of this collective scrutiny was penned by Slate writer Jonathan M. Katz in his article “The Red Cross Won’t Save Houston.” A provocative headline gives way to a brief history that outlines all of the missteps the ARC has blundered through during past disaster relief efforts: the Obama-endorsed 2010 campaign to aid victims of the earthquake in Haiti raised an astounding $488 million with little to show for it; the ARC’s response to Hurricane Katrina was so botched that it bordered on criminality; and the organization fell short of the mark again in 2012 with Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac.

It’s true that the ARC is far from perfect. The nonprofit collects an annual revenue of more than $2.6 billion, yet it remains surprisingly opaque about what it does with the money it raises for disasters. The ARC is far better equipped at handling smaller scale events, where it doesn’t become bogged down with superfluous funds that channel through accounting methods that have been self-admittedly described by representatives in the organization as “complex, yet inaccurate.”

There is an issue here though far larger than the ARC’s mismanagement of funding, and it’s the beginning of a systemic doubt in the power of charitable giving. Headlines like “The Red Cross Won’t Save Houston” don’t simply target a single organization; collectively, they undermine our faith in the entire process itself.

These types of articles create a dangerous narrative that not only undermines the power of the charitable sector, but fuels the already stigmatized nature of how nonprofits are spending, and how people outside of the sector have decided they should spend. The knowledge gap here when it comes to the public and their expectations of charity stunts the most important part of our economy, the part that saves us in our darkest hours, and the part that steps up to the toughest challenges.

Katz goes on to write about realizing “what a costly mistake the focus on donating anywhere can be.” Near the end of the article, he concludes that “the sooner we stop debating the best place to send $20, the better off all of us will be.”

While Katz is certainly better informed than most critics of nonprofits like the ARC (he ran the Associated Press bureau from 2007 to 2011 and reported the ARC’s relief efforts firsthand in Haiti), his suggestion to do away with our current system of charitable outreach doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better one. It’s not only the nonprofit sector that needs to hold a mirror up to itself, but it’s also us as a society.

For eight years now, 1 in 3 Americans has had no confidence in charities. This disparaging figure won’t improve if we continue to condition the public into believing that their efforts won’t make a difference. No dollars means no relief.

This fallacy perpetuates the notion that nonprofits are ineffective, mismanaged, and quite frankly a mess, which only continues the nonprofit starvation cycle and stops these organizations from having the scale they need to be as effective as they know they can be.

Much of the controversy regarding nonprofit spending seems to circle back to perpetuating the overhead myth that ultimately forgives corporations to do as they please with their spending (at times at the expense of others) while nonprofits undergo insufferable scrutiny. The ARC retains 9 percent of donations necessary to cover management and administrative costs, and investigative reports are quick to scrutinize the efficacy.

The charitable sector however, is a way to scale solutions to our communities most dire issues. It’s equivalent to building a company like Coca Cola which, had it been forced to succumb to the restrictions charity does, might still be a lemonade stand on the side of the road. And that’s how many of these nonprofits feel on a daily basis, we request they tackle large, complex problems like disaster relief, homelessness, hunger, and poverty, yet give them the resources of a lemonade stand and slap them on the wrist when they attempt to use our donations to scale instead of serving single glasses of lemonade (or in this case, single life jackets) to people forever.

Critics continue to focus on efficiency, but the real kicker is capacity. With the massive scope of a disaster like Hurricane Harvey, capacity becomes critical. How many other organizations are truly capable of around the clock emergency support, of supplying almost 33,000 people refuge in hundreds of shelters across the state of Texas? How many other nonprofits would it take to provide shelter supplies for upwards of 85,000 people, to serve half a million meals since the storm even started? How many of those would be prepared for such capacity if we had allowed them to preemptively scale their solutions? Hire more people, launch more programs, spend more “overhead”.

The issue with the ARC isn’t black and white, and it can be tough to defend an organization that has mismanaged resources so blatantly in the past. But it’s important that we don’t allow ourselves to forget that charitable giving is what makes disaster relief possible in the first place. As we approach fundraising season in the nonprofit sector, and today on International Day of Charity, let’s remember that putting our faith in helping someone else is what allows everyone to take a step forward, together.

On International Charity Day, I feel compelled to question what our world would look like if our charitable efforts could become more proactive instead of reactive, and if we stopped policing every penny spent on a salary or the hiring of people who actually run these programs. What if the public realized that the “admin” they’re so desperate to slash IS the relief in so many cases, and started regarding it that way? Would we have the fair and just world we all so urgently want?

Charity is more than the self relief or satisfaction of knowing that you did the “right thing.” It’s about placing faith in humanity when others won’t, with strangers you’ve never met; it’s about saying someone else’s’ life matters and meaning it with every fiber of your being. It’s one of the few acts that can eradicate the borders that divide us, and perpetuating mistrust of the people who put their whole lives toward these acts is a dangerous game to play. The private sector, government, and the public all actively turn to charity in our deepest hours of need, and charity is fueled by you, the public, and your giving back.

Whether it’s the Cajun Navy or a twenty dollar bill sailing to some distant shore, it’s the united effort that will always matter in the end.

If you want to donate to organizations helping with disaster relief, here’s a good place to start:

  1. United Way Houston (@HouUnitedWay)community
  2. Feeding Texas (@FeedingTexas) poverty
  3. Austin Pets Alive (@austinpetsalive) animals
  4. TransAdvocate (@transadvocate) lgbtqa
  5. Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (@tejasbarrios) environment
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