Los Angeles Times: Americans have opened their hearts and wallets wide since Sept. 11, donating at least $1.2 billion to help the families of those lost in the terrorist attacks. Now, weeks later, getting money to the thousands of families unable to duck bills any longer is proving to be a nightmare for relief agencies. And for victims, getting that help has often heaped humiliation onto grief, sending them from agency to agency, overwhelming them with paperwork and making many feel like beggars.
The Red Cross, the agency most visible since the attacks, has had particular trouble coping with the flood tide of money. Late last week, growing turmoil within the agency led Dr. Bernadine Healy to announce that she will step down at the end of the year as Red Cross chief. Her resignation has highlighted some lessons for charities and victims' families alike as this massive relief effort proceeds.
Coordination: First, coordinate. After the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, a committee of 45 private charities was created to streamline the relief process and expedite aid to victims and their families. They created a database of individuals and assigned case managers to make sure their needs were met without duplication.
In the New York area, with thousands of victims, the relief task is vastly more daunting than in Oklahoma City, making coordination even more important. The United Way and the New York Community Trust have created the September 11 Fund, which alone has already received $320 million in pledges and contributions. The fund, in turn, is working with dozens of established local nonprofits that provide services and direct financial aid to those who need it. Some families have already received checks and services, such as grief counseling, from these agencies. However, many others, such as widows who can't find their marriage licenses, are caught in a knot of red tape. That's why the New York attorney general's call for creation of a database there is sensible.
Accountability: Second, these agencies should remember they are accountable to the public as well as to their boards of directors. The Red Cross has taken heat in recent weeks for television pleas featuring images of Manhattan. The ads imply donations will go toward the World Trade Center victims when, in fact, the Red Cross expects to distribute only a portion of the $500 million it has collected since Sept. 11 directly to families. Charities like the Red Cross historically take in more money during a disaster than in quiet times. They count on a portion of these funds to cover their legitimate ongoing infrastructure needs -- but they have an obligation to be up front about it.
Finally, agencies need to hold some of their funds in reserve for the longer-term psychological needs of victims -- for grief counseling or parenting problems, for example, or for treating depression and drug and alcohol abuse.