9 Things We Learned from the Red Cross Haiti Fiasco

9 Things We Learned from the Red Cross Haiti Fiasco

From Haiti to Cambodia

Show me the money…It’s complicated.

If you’ve ever been involved in any sort of non-profit work you know that there is always a tension between fundraising/marketing and programming. On top of that when it gets down to actually helping people things can be….well…complicated.

moneyI’m sure many of you have heard or read about the Red Cross fiasco in Haiti that’s gone viral on the internet—In Search of the Red Cross’ $500 Million in Haiti Relief.  To help people understand the problem, they boil it down to one helpful anecdote, “The Red Cross spent five years and almost half a billion dollars in Haiti — and built six homes.”

The writers of the article decided to look into these efforts based on some things they noticed about the Red Cross’ response to hurricane Sandy. You can read that article here.

The Red Cross and others for their part have responded to the entire investigation claiming the investigation lacked “balance, context, and accuracy.”

At the end of the day, it’s complicated.

At CIF we take these kind of things seriously. We greatly appreciate the people that give and pray for this organization, and so we want to do our best to be good stewards of the support we receive. So we take things like the Red Cross fiasco as teachable moments. What can we learn here?

Here are 9 things we came up with. Some are short, some are long…be sure to make at least to #6.

1. Work with the Local Community

Whether it’s Cambodia, Haiti, or East Baltimore, with any kind of community based work, there are always many stakeholders. Donors, service organizations, churches, local government officials, regional and federal government officials, community groups, law enforcement, etc.


Part of the problem that the Red Cross ran into in Haiti was that they did not thoroughly engage local stakeholders to be a part of the decision making process. Especially when it comes to building a neighborhood, there are a lot of people who need to be involved in the process. Making a big claim for the sake of getting people pumped up is one thing, but getting all layers of government officials, land title offices, neighbors, etc. to align around re-building a neighborhood can be hard.

After the Earthquake in Haiti, everything was in disarray, and some people say that the government lost almost 1/3rd of its workforce in one day. It’s really hard to align a diverse set of stakeholder interests amidst the chaos of cleaning up after an earthquake, but it’s how it has to be done.

At CIF, even though it slows us down, lowers our key metrics and sometimes gives us a lot of headaches, we try our hardest to work to get people aligned. Local community leaders, other non-profits, even the government. It’s not easy, especially for a small organization….but it pays off in the end.  That’s what happened in our “It Takes a Village” story.  

2. Math can be a funny thing

mathA lot of times when people give to a non-profit they look for the percentage of the money that is spent on admin. If the percentage is too high, it can be an indication of poor and inefficient management, etc. 

At the end of the day though, numbers can be a funny thing. For instance, we have staff members who spend 95% percent of their time visiting families and encouraging children. We would call that a program expense, not an admin expense. But these staff members have insurance, and need to drive to the client homes, etc. If they couldn’t drive to the homes to visit kids, then how could they do their job, and how could they ensure the children at CIF are receiving the highest quality care? So is gas a program expense or an admin expense?

Different organizations answer that question in different ways. At CIF we do our best to be honest with the numbers and give you the clearest picture possible. If you have questions after reading our annual report….shoot me an email.

3. The Catch 22 of Marketing/Fundraising/Programming

Without marketing, no-one will know who you are. If they don’t know who you are and what you are doing, they won’t give. If they don’t give, you won’t have the funds to help others. If you can’t do that….well then what’s the point.neon-lights-226174_640

There is always a tension between fundraising and programming. For us it comes down to donor visits. We would love to take donors into the homes where our clients live. We’d love to allow genuine people the chance to hug kids who have survived terrible abuse and tell them how precious they are. But we can’t because we need to protect their privacy and act in the child’s best interest, even if that means loosing some donations. The kids come first. That’s our tension.

4. Take care of your people.

One of the biggest problems that both the reporters and Red Cross agreed on, was the fact that their senior manager for Haiti quit half-way through his job. All the relationships he build and good-will he established, especially in a relational culture, was gone. It’s almost like the Red Cross had to start over in several ways.oksign_web

At CIF we do our best to take care of our staff, which is primarily made of Cambodian nationals.  The longer they stay on, the more stability we have with our children and families. The better stability and higher quality staff the better outcomes for these children who have been rescued.

5. There’s no such thing as a quick easy fix

People love big, audacious visions and goals. It what gets them out of bed in the morning and excited for their work. It’s essential, and it can help you raise more money.

At the same time, we have to be careful, sometimes those goals can come back to bite you. Because these situations are so complicated and involve so many people, sometimes you have to be able to adjust on the fly. If you’re beholden to a master “Vision statement” that you used to raise money, then you’ve set yourself up with some pretty rigid boundaries.

waterwellGoals are good. Check out our infographic on where we hope to go. Without vision people perish. But messy situations often require humility and flexibility. We try to hold both in tension.

We love the work of charity:water.  And they’ll tell you first hand, that it’s not enough to drill a water well.  You also have to work out water rights, usage, maintenance, etc.   It’s complicated, even with water, there’s no quick and easy fix. 

6. Focus on your core strengths

The Red Cross does a lot of things well. But no one organization can do it all really well. One of the assertions in the investigative report against the Red Cross was that they didn’t have the right expertise in place to do what needed to be done.  Is the Red Cross better at collecting blood and providing blankets or at building neighborhoods?  Again if a big vision statement is what drives you, sometimes you end up over reaching.

At CIF we have this same temptation. Helping children out of vulnerable situations is messy business. And you’re naturally thrown into questions about education, and healthcare, and poverty, etc. It’s very hard to say no to certain things. But at the end of the day, we want to become experts at placing vulnerable children in loving families.

7. Bigger isn’t necessarily better…smaller isn’t necessarily better

This point is obvious, but stay with me here. The bigger you build something, the more work you have to keep it alive. If you want a program to cost $50 million to run, then you have to go out and raise that $50 million every year. That means you need good marketing and fundraising and need to constantly rally people around newer, bigger, and better vision statements. Which, as we’ve seen can get you in trouble.

At the same time, if you’re too small, you run into other problems. The government doesn’t take you seriously, it’s harder to raise money, etc. So, what’s better bigger or smaller?

At CIF, we commit to care for the lives of children for years and years. That means we have to think very hard about how many children we can accept in a year. That’s why you should donate!  Sorry had to throw that in there. The Red Cross fiasco is just another reminder of how bigger isn’t necessarily better.

8. Transparency Matters

While people might not understand the ins and outs of foreign relief and development, donors are not dumb. And donors have obviously shown that they care. So, why not just be open and transparent? It may be complicated, but why not share challenges and issues with donors so that they will understand better if things get pushed back, or you have to take a different road.

At CIF, besides protecting the privacy of the children in our care, we want to share everything.  So go ahead, ask away!

9. Remember what you’re about

It is so easy for media attention, donations, and lots of pats on the back to replace the core vision of who you are. At the end of the day, I doubt most people in the Red Cross or any nonprofit for that matter, joined because they wanted to be rich and well known. They joined because they wanted to help people.


For us, this whole story helps us to always remember who we are and why we work. Sure we are trying to do a better job telling our story, and we are trying to raise more funds to help kids. You have to get yourself out there to do that. But at the end of the day…we’re here to place vulnerable children in loving families.

9 Things We Learned from the Red Cross Haiti Fiasco