Image: American Red Cross president and CEO Gail McGovern
Red Cross via AP
American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern and Red Cross worker Matt Marek check on an injured Haitian at a first-aid post in front of the destroyed Haitian Red Cross headquarters in Port-au-Prince.
updated 1/21/2010 7:27:24 PM ET 2010-01-22T00:27:24

For the American Red Cross, a surge of donations to help its relief efforts in Haiti provides a dramatic chance to prove it learned from its flawed responses to Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terror attacks.

"People are watching what we do. We know that," said spokesman Roger Lowe.

Through Wednesday, the Red Cross had received by far the largest share of Haiti-inspired donations from the American public — a total of $137 million. That included more than $25 million from people making $10 donations by texting the word "Haiti" to number 90999 from their mobile phones.

It's a remarkable show of confidence in an organization that irked many donors by earmarking some 9/11 gifts for unrelated purposes and was widely criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Red Cross's in-house assessment after Katrina said problems included overwhelmed volunteers, inflexible attitudes, inadequate anti-fraud measures and too few strong partnerships with local charities and civic groups.

Those debacles prompted changes, and now the charity community is curious to see what transpires in Haiti.

"This could be a turning point, if they walk the walk that they say they're going to do," said Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, which monitors and evaluates U.S. charities. "Everybody is watching very closely."

'Clean up its act'
The Haiti quake is the first massive disaster to confront the American Red Cross since Gail McGovern took over as president in June 2008, after years of rapid leadership turnover. McGovern, a veteran executive and former professor of marketing at Harvard, is the fourth full-fledged president to serve since 2001, along with three interim leaders.

"Her mandate is clearly to make the organization clean up its act and become truly transparent — and all we're hearing is that they truly intend to do that," Berger said.

McGovern stressed that Haiti's recovery would be "very, very slow" and pledged that her organization would be there for the long haul, working closely with other relief groups and sharing its donations.

Video: Outpouring of aid to Haiti unprecedented "We learn from every single disaster," she told The Associated Press by satellite phone while visiting the ruined Red Cross office in Haiti this week. "What we learned from Katrina is that we can't do this alone."

"We have been working very hard to gain the trust of the American public," she added. "This outpouring of generosity is a sign of that trust and a very strong desire to help the people of Haiti."

Prior to the Haiti earthquake, one of McGovern's main challenges was restoring the financial health of Red Cross, which laid off one-third of its 3,000 employees two years ago while facing a deficit of $210 million. Since then, it received an emergency $100 million allocation from Congress and has whittled the deficit to $35.5 million while preserving its status as the No. 1 private disaster-response organization in America.

"They have resources that the rest of the charitable sector cannot approach, and we need to take advantage of that capacity," Berger said. "We hope they step up to the plate."

Competition for donations
Though major relief organizations try to present themselves to the public as selfless do-gooders, there is in fact tough competition for donations and publicity, accompanied on occasion by resentment. Relief experts say there is sometimes frustration that the Red Cross, in part because it is so well-known in the U.S., gets more money for international disaster relief than organizations which make that their full-time specialty and feel they have more expertise.

"The Red Cross has a particular responsibility because they are the brand of choice," said Kathleen McCarthy, director of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York. "Haiti is going to put them under the microscope — people are going to be asking much harder questions than during 9/11 and Katrina."

Lowe, the Red Cross's vice president for communications, said Haiti was providing an opportunity to apply several lessons learned from Katrina in regard to service delivery, management oversight and public accountability.

"We have bolstered our engagement with partner organizations at home and abroad," he said.

"We have become more donor-focused in the avenues we offer the public to give, like mobile texting and in our ability to communicate how their donations are used."

Help from big names
Lowe detailed how the Red Cross has spent or committed $34 million of the Haiti funds received thus far:

"This is only the beginning," Lowe said. "Right now, it's important to get relief there as quickly as possible, but also be thoughtful and responsible in how we spend the funds the American people have entrusted to us."

The Red Cross fundraising effort has received help from influential quarters.

The National Football League and the NFL Players Association are donating $500,000 to the Red Cross, and the league arranged for public service ads to run on its playoff telecasts last weekend. First Lady Michelle Obama also taped a Red Cross appeal, and she joined President Barack Obama on a visit to the Red Cross disaster operations center in Washington.

"You make us very proud," the president said.

Though based in Washington, the Red Cross operates largely through its more than 700 local chapters nationwide. It has a charter from Congress but is not a government agency; it responds to emergencies large and small across the United States, provides support for military families, and oversees the largest U.S. blood supply network.

It also is a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and teams with societies from other nations to help with international disasters.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Breaking the bottleneck of aid

  1. Closed captioning of: Breaking the bottleneck of aid

    >> ron allen in port-au-prince, thanks. unbelievable conditions on the ground. for days now, we've seen the outpouring, the donations, the flights, the aid, the effort to help haiti, so it's fair to ask, why is it that some people are dying from disease, lack of food and water? and some people haven't been helped at all yet? mike taibbi is at the airport in port-au-prince. the staging ground for most of the aid being sent there. mike, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. the aid effort, as we've seen, has been massive and heroic. one word we keep hearing to explain why that help isn't getting to the thousands who need it desperately, bottle necks. the biggest bottle neck is here at the quake-damaged airport in port-au-prince. it's hard to imagine that in this tent city on the edge of town you get these answers when asked about the help they are getting nine days after their lives upended. no food ever delivered or water or treatment for wounds festering? there have been continuing air drops of food and supplies. most people aren't helped that way, but it's better than nothing, and the sudden appearance of a bottle of water or carton of soap products. it's not that every relief product imaginable hasn't been aimed at haiti, it has. but flights are waiting to get in. and many supply flights have been diverted.

    >> civilian aircraft have to make sure they have the people onboard to offload, the equipment necessary to offload their argo.

    >> reporter: and that's one bottle. the ruined harbor, choking traffic, absence of adequate security on others.

    >> you are trying to stuff a large elephant into a straw. that's what you're doing.

    >> reporter: when the straw chokes off aid that's here but stuck, mercy corps doesn't begin its food distribution until more than a week later.

    >> it's just gridlock out there, so it really minimizes the amount of aid you can get out in a day.

    >> reporter: concern worldwide can only be apparent for its massive water deliveries, the crisis presenting unique challenges.

    >> the difference with this one is the entire city has been decimated. there is no infrastructure, no telephones, transport is problematic.

    >> reporter: the quick is killing its more fragile survivors.

    >> absolutely a lot of people died because of the logistical problems, but we are working on them and think we'll get it worked out.

    >> reporter: this is what life is now like for hundreds of thousands of human beings . a year old infant lying in the heat. an old woman singing from the book of "the songs of hope." some good news on the relief front, the harbor may be partially useable by the weekend. the air force , which is running that airport, says it's getting as many as 140 flights in and out every day. that's a big improvement, brian, that will get bigger once the temporary new air traffic control tower is operational. it's coming in pieces tonight to be assembled.

    >> otherwise, i don't know how much more they can take. mike taibbi at the familiar grounds of the port-au-prince airport.

    >>> we'll take a break. still

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