This month's epic flooding in Louisiana, which destroyed roughly 60,000 homes, is the worst natural disaster in the United States since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. And just like after Sandy and other disasters, local officials have been troubled by the Red Cross' response.
Louisiana's governor has been so concerned by the charity's relief work that a spokesman said even amidst improvements, the state plans to "reevaluate its partnership" with the organization.
But that hasn't dissuaded Apple, Amazon and T-Mobile from soliciting flood relief donations on behalf of the charity, and, indeed, making the charity the exclusive conduit for giving.
Apple has links on its website, iTunes and App Store allowing users to directly donate to the Red Cross. U.S. Bank has a similar set-up for direct donation using its nearly 5,000 ATMs in two dozen states. T-Mobile allows its customers to donate by texting the word "LAFLOODS" to a five-digit number called a shortcode. Brooks Brothers promises to match customers' donations to the Red Cross, using the clothier's Golden Fleece Foundation.
In each case, the Red Cross is the only charity offered as a way to help.
The exclusive solicitations are problematic, said Doug White, the former director of the nonprofit management program at Columbia University. "They promote the idea that the Red Cross is America's charity and the go-to place for disasters despite its history of fumbles."
None of the companies gets any money from the arrangements. But they do benefit by being seen as companies that care. The Red Cross is one of the country's most recognized and venerable charities. "It speaks to what type of message these corporations want to convey," said White. "It's about branding and image."
Apple and others have long-standing relationships with the Red Cross. Apple, for instance, deployed one-click donation buttons after several disasters, such as last year's earthquake in Nepal.
Apple's exclusive arrangement with the Red Cross is particularly notable since the world's largest tech company has strict guidelines barring nonprofits from collecting donations inside iOS apps. All donations must be handled in a web browser outside the app or via text messages. This is part of Apple's "required user experience," it tells developers. (The latest version of ProPublica's iOS app was initially rejected by Apple's App Store review team earlier this year because it had a native button allowing people to donate to us.)
Apple declined to comment on the special status it gives the Red Cross.
Other companies said they're proud of the work they're doing with the Red Cross. "We've worked with the Red Cross for a number of years because they are trusted and they're able to provide timely emergency relief around the globe," said T-Mobile in a statement. (See each company's response below.)
The Red Cross said in a statement: "Cause marketing partners have a long history of generously supporting the Red Cross." The charity also said 3,200 Red Cross workers and volunteers "have tirelessly supported relief efforts in Louisiana." (Read the Red Cross' full statement.)
The Red Cross has suffered steep declines in charitable giving over the past year. A joint investigation by ProPublica and NPR starting in 2014 showed the charity has bungled relief efforts after major disasters, failing to deliver on promises made after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and again after Sandy. In some cases, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies, even while championing its own work, and ended up giving donated money to other relief groups.
Similar problems have surfaced in its more recent disaster relief efforts. In the first 10 days after flooding began, it received roughly $7.8 million in donations and pledges, according to the Red Cross, far short of its $35 million to $40 million estimate for its ongoing relief efforts.
And new crowdsourced upstarts have eaten into its pool of potential donors. The New Orleans Times-Picayune is offering several options for donations on its website and GoFundMe, the world's largest online fundraising website, which allows users to create individual donation pages, has raised $10 million for Louisiana flood victims, a record for disaster relief in the platform's six-year history.
The Red Cross sent out an urgent call for donations to help fill the gap. It got quick support from its vast network of corporate sponsors to encourage donations. But after two weeks, the total donations are still less than half what the Red Cross says it needs.
The Red Cross and its corporate partners declined to provide a breakdown of its contributions. But T-Mobile said it was "very pleased with the results."
Here's a full breakdown of the companies helping the Red Cross, what they're doing, and what the companies say about their work with the charity:
What it's doing: Apple is giving the Red Cross banner advertisements on its website, iTunes and App Store portals, a so-called "frictionless" system that allows users to donate money directly to the Red Cross
Apple's response: Apple declined to comment.
What it's doing: Exclusive banner advertisements on its website and a shopping list of needed supplies, such as globes, trash bags and shovels.
Amazon's response: None.
What it's doing: Exclusive advertisements on its ATMs in the Dallas and Houston metro areas and the state of Mississippi, allowing customers to donate directly to the Red Cross
Wells Fargo's response: Wells Fargo said it had no comment on the criticisms of the Red Cross beyond a statement by its commercial banking head, Doug Kilton, saying the company is "proud to support the hard work of the American Red Cross as it assists those in our community in need of recovery, cleanup and rebuilding."
What it's doing: Exclusive advertisements on its ATMs nationwide, allowing customers using its nearly 5,000 ATMs in two-dozen states to donate directly to the Red Cross
U.S. Bank's response: "The Red Cross is one of many organizations we support, including the United Way and other relief agencies."
What it's doing: Part of the "Text to Give" program, allowing customers to send the shortcode, LAFLOODS, to a five-digit number and donate $10 to the Red Cross by adding the money onto their phone bill.
T-Mobile's response: "We've worked with the Red Cross for a number of years because they are trusted and they're able to provide timely emergency relief around the globe."
What it's doing: Donations made through Brooks Brothers go directly to the Red Cross and the clothier's nonprofit charity, the Golden Fleece Foundation, will match contributions, up to $50,000.
Brooks Brothers' response: None.
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