Why does the Red Cross have a black eye? Because it has forgotten lessons taught by the organization's founder, Clara Barton, who was born on Christmas day 180 years ago.
Barton became known as "the battlefield angel" during the Civil War, risking her life to save the wounded. Instead of listening to the adage that "fools rush in where angels fear to tread," she founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and kept rushing in. When the 1889 Johnstown, Pa., flood left 2,200 dead and many more homeless, Barton -- at age 67 -- rushed there with 15 doctors and numerous nurses, working in large tents set up as hospitals and refuges. She and other Red Cross workers stayed five months.
Clara Barton was 78 on Sept. 8, 1900, the day 6,000 Texans died as a hurricane hit Galveston, but she and Red Cross volunteers rushed in again and stayed two months. The organization threw all its resources into relief, and the Red Cross treasurer complained that funds were being distributed too rapidly. Barton responded that work "at the field of dying or dead, sick or starving, is not the work of a bank, and cannot be squared by its rules and still be worth maintaining."
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, though, American Red Cross officials acted like self-serving bankers, holding back over half of the $543 million they had raised for terrorists' victims. Only after receiving horrendous publicity and congressional pressure did Red Cross leaders push out the organization's president and pledge that just about all of the money (minus $49 million for overhead, of course) would go to those for whom it had been given.
If that were the only Red Cross problem, maybe we could all say, "Ho, ho, ho," and forget about it. But frugal Clara Barton would not have been thrilled with the salary of $450,000 annually that the last Red Cross president received. Visit, sometime, the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Md., and see how her house served triple duty as home, dormitory and warehouse. Blankets, bandages, rakes,and hoes filled closets built into the main hallway. Some staff members and volunteers, often from wealthy families, slept on cots in storage rooms.
That was in accord with Barton's toughening-up plans: "It will not be an elegant house, but it will well serve the purposes that we believe are necessary." Over a century, though, her Red Cross became rich and soft. Helping people often requires some money, but the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil in the charitable world and elsewhere.
What's the solution? Not ad hoc organizations. Remember Hands Across America 15 years ago? It received great publicity when 4 million Americans held hands across the continent. But a big chunk of the expected $50 million in payments and pledges never materialized. Three months after the event, half of the $32 million that came in had gone to pay for expenses. Organizations that bypass existing community groups seem to reinvent bureaucratic wheels, an even more costly procedure than oiling existing ones.
Barton also would not approve of Washington dominating the charitable world, because even in her time she saw how political power drives government funding. We've also seen that, in recent years, multibillion dollar AIDS expenditures have come at the expense of work on less-publicized plights and on protection against bioterrorism. Trends change from year to year, but the trendiness of those who think politically seems to be almost a constant.
No, we need groups like the Red Cross, but they need to return to the don't-hold-back mercy of Clara Barton, the Christmas angel who always rushed in. All their staffers need to learn and remember her instructions to the helpers she supervised, "You must never so much as think whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it."