The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 revealed that charities were no more prepared to respond to domestic terrorism than anyone else.
Unfortunately, the appearance of relief fundraising abuse has led to calls for further government control of private charities, putting private charities — bastions of volunteerism — in danger of becoming more and more an arm of the government. If state control of philanthropy is tightened, a unique and valuable aspect of North American culture may fade away.
It is true, efforts by the Red Cross and the United Way to help families victimized by the World Trade Center disaster became lost in a maze of uncoordinated bureaucracy. Six weeks after the attack, less than 10 percent of the $1.4 billion donated for relief had reached families.
One of the charities should have acted as a clearinghouse. But no one was prepared. From individuals to agencies, everyone had to evolve new procedures on the spot.
Charities also made some bad decisions. The Red Cross established a special "Liberty Fund" into which more than half a billion dollars in donations flowed. People reasonably expected that all money donated to the special fund would go directly to victims. The Red Cross did not loudly announce that only a fraction of the money — by some estimates as low as one-fifth — would be used in that manner.
But the agency was not being duplicitous. Direct assistance has always been only one aspect of the Red Cross' disaster relief. Much of the money was earmarked for projects such as expanding the organization's capacity to store "strategic blood" for future disasters.
Nevertheless, donors' expectations were clearly out of sync with Red Cross operations and this gave the appearance of abuse. The impression was strengthened when Bernadine Healey subsequently resigned as president of the Red Cross.
But as an active volunteer for charities in my community, I cannot agree with critics like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly who are calling for greater government involvement.
O'Reilly turns to Congress for a solution. He writes: "J.D. Hayworth, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, wants that body to directly oversee the distribution of the donated money. I pray Congressman Hayworth can convince his colleagues to take action."
I applaud Mr. O'Reilly for highlighting the coordination mess that constituted the fundraising effort. But I believe his proposed solution endangers the already shrinking private sector and runs counter to the very spirit of charity.
Let me state a few of the reasons.
Greater government involvement will not make private charities more fiscally accountable. Private charities are already held to standards of accountability higher than those applied to government, as outlined in the Better Business Bureau's Report on Charities, and have already proven themselves to be more responsible with money than government.
The amount of money spent on overhead by the Red Cross is about 10 percent; about 13 percent for the United Way. Now contrast those figures with spending at government agencies that provide social services. According to the Washington-based Cato Institute, "70 cents of every dollar goes not to poor people, but to government bureaucrats and others who serve the poor." Further government intervention will only decrease the amount of money that reaches intended recipients.
"What government agencies don't understand is that the more they regulate us, the more we have to spend what little money we get on business people and secretaries," commented Bill Chiaradonna of Catholic Charities in Boston.
Government regulation also changes the nature of charities, many of whom enjoy such freedoms as the ability to promote a particular religious view.
Consider the impact government involvement had on the organization Catholic Charities, as reported by the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute.
"As state and federal governments made money available to non-profits for alcohol and drug treatment programs, Catholic Charities shifted its emphasis to this area," Sirico wrote. This shift came, he wrote, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of "clients" could not use the programs.
Other endeavors, such as soup kitchens, were neglected. When Catholic Charities shut down one of its thrift shops, Sirico commented that workers and board members believed the change reflected "the legislative agenda." A disillusioned board member told the local newspaper, "We have lost the heart and soul of the agency."
That's the essence of private charity — heart and soul.
Last week, my husband walked into the local Red Cross office to touch base on a simulated emergency that he — as a member of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service — was planning with that charity. In the back room, a frustrated and bone-weary volunteer sat rolling pennies. When he stopped to chat, she bemoaned the pennies as being more trouble than they were worth.
Then she smiled and added, "but school children all over the county have collected pennies to send to New York. What are we going to do? Shove the coins back at them and say 'we don't want your help?'"
So, unpaid and without fanfare, she went on rolling.
With respect, I say O'Reilly has gotten it backward this time. Government should be taking lessons from the Red Cross.
McElroy is the editor of Ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women(McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.