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Casting corporate bread upon the waters

Amid flood damage from hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, some big corporations are bankrolling a reportedly inefficient disaster relief organization—and discriminating against employees who support better options

Casting corporate bread upon the waters

Volunteers receive a briefing at the George Brown Convention Center that was turned into a shelter run by the American Red Cross to house victims of Hurricane Harvey. (Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

HOUSTON—Before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast on Aug. 25, a fleet of trucks from evangelical nonprofit Convoy of Hope (Springfield, Mo.) was on the road loaded with water, food, and hygiene kits. Two disaster teams from Samaritan’s Purse (Boone, N.C.) headed out on Aug. 26. Southern Baptists, with churches scattered throughout the affected area, quickly activated chainsaw teams that cleared roads and removed fallen trees.

National media noticed. A USA Today headline trumpeted the work of religious charities: “Faith groups provide the bulk of disaster recovery … at essentially no cost to the government.” Even The New York Times praised “Samaritans of all cloths—family members, friends, co-workers, volunteers from near and far, and an array of faith-based groups. … Those who appeared within hours … as if by spontaneous generation, ranged in age from 6 to 77. … Many were evangelical Christians.”

Governmental leaders—Republicans like Vice President Mike Pence, Democrats like North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, and emergency management pros like FEMA head Brock Long—referred potential volunteers and donors to National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. NVOAD is the umbrella organization for 62 disaster relief groups, including some—like Samaritan’s Purse and the PCA’s Mission to North America—that require staffers to agree with a statement of belief.

Those groups were winners in the race to help the hurricane-ravaged. The big loser was the American Red Cross. Over the past 12 years critics from both left and right have pummeled the Goliath-sized organization because of its inept response to Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and the Haiti earthquake. Its well-funded but mediocre response to Harvey led both Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to lambast the legacy nonprofit, which took in more than $300 million after Harvey and Irma.

Houston city councilman Dave Martin was blunt about Red Cross failure: “I beg you not to send them a penny. They are the most inept, unorganized organization that I’ve ever experienced. … So, if anyone wants to send them money, don’t waste your time, don’t waste your money. Send it to other causes.” The story got worse when local station ABC13 sighted Red Cross vans parked outside the 5-star St. Regis Hotel. The nonprofit acknowledged it had housed 20 volunteers at the luxury hotel, and a Red Cross spokesman admitted, “It probably does send the wrong message.” (The rooms cost $179 per night, a discount rate, he added.)

‘If anyone wants to send [Red Cross] money, don’t waste your time, don’t waste your money. Send it to other causes.’ —Dave Martin, Houston city councilman

Yet, one sector of American society kept delivering bags full of money to the Red Cross. A week after Harvey, CNN Money published a list of 158 major corporations that had pledged $157 million for Harvey relief. About 75 percent of the companies directed donations—including their matches of employee contributions—to the Red Cross. These successful companies would not keep writing checks to suppliers that produced faulty materials, so why do they support mediocrity in disaster relief?

TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION we need to peer into what may be the 21st century’s greatest lobbying success story so far. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBT-advocacy group, owns a 60,000-square-foot, glass-walled building on Rhode Island Avenue in the heart of Washington, D.C. Inside, 150 HRC staffers over the past 14 years have planned the campaigns that helped to change American hearts and minds. The organization’s website says the building, which includes a “state-of-the-art multimedia production facility, … serves as evidence that HRC is here to stay.”

Few observers of the past two decades doubt that. In 2002, the group issued its first Corporate Equality Index, a survey of 319 large companies. HRC gave high grades to companies with domestic-partnership health insurance and nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Only 13 companies scored 100 percent. The next year, 21 companies received perfect scores.

In those early days, HRC talked about fairness to all employees. A high score showed companies were interested in recruiting talent regardless of sexual preference. Each year more companies filled out the survey. In 2006, HRC rated 446 companies, and 136 earned a 100. Companies issued press releases to announce their perfect scores.

Then HRC raised the bar, adding transgender-inclusive health coverage and more comprehensive domestic partnership benefits to the criteria. Corporations received points for LGBT marketing and ad campaigns and official corporate support for LGBT rights. Over time, HRC moved from advocating LGBT equality to demanding that corporations discriminate against suppliers, charities, and local and state governments that don’t bow to their demands.

HRC continues to raise the bar. To earn a 100 in 2017, companies have to show both internal and public support for LGBT demands. They have to pledge to extend their pro-LGBT policies to global operations, although how that works in Muslim countries is not clear. For decades most large corporations, unsurprisingly, have not made grants to churches, but to satisfy HRC demands they must prohibit philanthropic giving to relief or anti-poverty groups that maintain Biblical standards.

HRC now demands that corporations consider LGBT persons part of a “Protected Class.” Companies that follow HRC’s line include household names such as McDonald’s, State Farm, DuPont, UPS, Allstate, Caterpillar, FedEx, and Apple—but there are a few exceptions. Home Depot listed Operation Blessing and Convoy of Hope among the groups receiving its $1 million post-Harvey donation. Walmart listed Convoy of Hope as among nonprofits to which it would send cash and products. Pharmaceutical company McKesson donated to World Vision.

I contacted HRC to ask what philanthropic policies it expects corporations to follow after natural disasters. It did not respond by press time.

Based on the written record, it’s clear that corporations desiring a top score have to go way beyond fairness in employment. They have to discriminate against Christian organizations and label those groups as discriminatory. They have to take public positions against legislation HRC sees as anti-LGBT. They have to pressure suppliers and philanthropies to adopt HRC’s view, and cut off those that decline.

The 515 corporations that earned a perfect HRC score in 2017 have incorporated strict bans on donations to groups HRC calls “discriminatory.” When HRC applies this requirement to relief organizations, it’s important to note that this isn’t discrimination in helping: None of the NVOAD groups, religious or secular, turn away anyone in need. The “discrimination” lies in insisting, for example, that a Christian should head a Christian organization.

Knock out evangelical groups, though, and the result is a huge gap. Many consumers expect big companies to step up in times of need, and many corporate executives want to do so out of a desire to help, a desire to gain public relations points, or both. That’s why the American Red Cross enjoys heavy funding, despite its poor record in disaster after disaster. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales, children learn that the great lion Aslan, a stand-in for Jesus, is not safe, but he’s good. The Red Cross now is not good, but from a corporate perspective it’s safe.

THERE’S A SAD HISTORY HERE. In the 19th century the cross was a significant part of the Red Cross name. In the 20th century the organization secularized, but a corporate contribution to it would still help both people in need and a company’s reputation. In the 21st century many see the Red Cross as a bloated bureaucracy, but those not in the know think better of a company that gives, even if ineffectively.

Those in the know say the American Red Cross is not clear on what it does with annual revenues in excess of $2.6 billion. In 2015 the federal Government Accountability Office reported, “No regular, independent evaluations are conducted of the impact or effectiveness of the Red Cross’s disaster services.” Informal evaluations have been scathing.

‘No regular, independent evaluations are conducted of the impact or effectiveness of the Red Cross’s disaster services.’ —From the 2015 federal Government Accountability Office report

Nevertheless, the list of corporations that played it safe with HRC after Harvey by writing a check to the Red Cross is long. Here are just five of the M’s listed by CNN Money: Mastercard, Mazda, McDonald’s, MetLife, and MillerCoors. We’re not talking about small change: PepsiCo, Phillips 66, Shell, and Valero each threw $1 million into Red Cross coffers.

In defense of those companies, the American Red Cross does do some useful things, despite what critics say. On Sept. 21 a spokeswoman responded to WORLD inquiries by saying the Red Cross had deployed more than 2,900 disaster workers in Texas and Louisiana. That number included volunteers from faith-based groups like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Seventh-day Adventists. When the Red Cross asked Southern Baptists to cook food for people staying in Red Cross shelters, it paid for that food. The Red Cross sometimes served as a pass-through to smaller front-line organizations, and took a 9 percent cut for overhead.

Many companies try to combine helping outsiders and improving the morale of insiders by matching personal contributions (and sometimes volunteer hours) of employees, but even here American Express, Campbell Soup, and other companies insisted on Red Cross or nothing, according to CNN Money. QVC and TD Ameritrade reportedly went even further, saying they would match some customer or client donations—but only if those donations were to the Red Cross.

It’s important to note that Christian disaster relief organizations are not out begging for corporate funding. But since corporations advertise matching grant programs as part of corporate good citizenship, it’s odd they would tell one group of employees, “Groups reflecting your beliefs don’t qualify.”

WORLD contacted UPS, Microsoft, Pfizer, Delta, DuPont, State Farm, Caterpillar, and FedEx for clarification on what groups they exclude from matching grant programs. None of them responded by press time.

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” Chapter 11 of Ecclesiastes advises, “for you will find it after many days.” Good advice for individuals, but corporations that cast bread only to HRC-approved activities often see negative results. So, a question: Since leading companies have not become successful by wasting money within their business activities, aren’t executives a little abashed when they do so regarding disaster relief and other nonprofit activities?

—with reporting by Bonnie Pritchett

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is a book reviewer, story coach, feature writer and editor for WORLD. She has authored eight historical novels for children and teaches twice a year at World Journalism Institute. Susan resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @susanolasky.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 09/27/2017 08:27 pm

    It's almost as if God is beckoning from the corner, "Psst!  They don't know what they're doing.  Give your bread to me.  I'll feed THOUSANDS with it!"

  •  Bruce's picture
    Posted: Wed, 09/27/2017 08:31 pm

    I would like to post a Tweet for this article, but this statement at the end seems rather general and likely to be troll-bait:

    "Good advice for individuals, but corporations that cast bread only to HRC-approved activities often see negative results."

    I'm not sure where in the article the latter half of this sentence is supported.  Is there something I'm missing?


  • Janet S
    Posted: Thu, 09/28/2017 11:49 am

    Is that not what the article was about?

  • Tuck
    Posted: Thu, 09/28/2017 11:53 am

    In 2009 southern Oklahoma endured a rash of wildfires. Thousands of acres burned along with many homes and businesses. I am a volunteer fireman and I witnessed firsthand various agencies and their responses. The Salvation Army, Red Cross, FEMA and Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief were the biggest responding relief agencies. The Salvation Army and OBDR were on scene early and stayed many weeks after the fire was out. They were effective and performed amazing work. The Red Cross was disorganized and seemed more inclined to setup when the TV cameras were rolling and to pack up as soon as the cameras did. FEMA was useless. 

  •  Bruce's picture
    Posted: Thu, 09/28/2017 12:39 pm

    JanetS, the way I read the article, Ms. Olasky is talking about how HRC is upping the ante and making it more difficult for rated corporations to receive a good rating without aligning more strongly with LGBTQ+ advocacy goals held by HRC.  The article doesn't seem to be actually describing how this is causing these corporations to have negative results other than how HRC is now grading them on whether they make donations to non-profits that are based on faith/values that do or do not align with HRC policies.

  • Eutychus2
    Posted: Fri, 09/29/2017 10:52 am

    So what is the ARC score from HRC?

  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Fri, 09/29/2017 11:33 am

    Around 20 years ago I lived in an area that was affected by severe flooding and I learned then that the Red Cross was a joke.  They did very little and were not interested in doing more.  People in trouble need help right now, not Red Cross bureacracy.  The heavy lifting was done by the churches, families and friends.  I put the Red Cross over there, with the looters.

  • TWH
    Posted: Tue, 10/03/2017 10:32 am

    Add to this much of the media recommending the Red Cross. The St Louis Cardinals even set up a text number after Harvey so you could easily and quickly give $10, and I doubt if they were alone among sports teams. 

  • TWH
    Posted: Tue, 10/03/2017 10:51 am

    When I Googled 'Southern Baptist Disaster Relief' right after Harvey I was shocked to find that the Red Cross had a sponsored ad putting them first on the page of returns. The Red Cross was spending money from donations to keep others from giving to a Christian relief organization! Out of curiosity I substituted other denominations followed by 'disaster relief' and got the same result.

    Also interesting - when I repeated that exercise this morning, the Red Cross sponsored ads are gone. 

    Also interesting - Bing first lists ads for Compassion International and The Red Cross when I enter 'Southern Baptist Disaster Relief' this morning.