Money Slow to Flow from Sandy Charities

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Businesses and ordinary citizens have given more than $400 million to Sandy-related charities since the storm and money is still coming in. But many of the charities have spent less than half of what they've collected so far.

Of the five charities that reported collecting the most money to the New York Attorney General's Charities Bureau—the American Red Cross, the Robin Hood Foundation, the Salvation Army, and funds set up by New York City and New York State—just under 40 percent of what’s been donated has actually been spent or committed so far.

The spending ratio is based mostly on data collected from 88 nonprofits that returned information requests. (In addition, New Jersey has its own relief fund, which is not included in New York's list. As of the end of December, it had received $28 million in pledges.)

Charity watchdog groups say the speed at which money should be distributed depends on the type of relief work an organization is engaged in. Ben Smilowitz, the executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project, was critical of the American Red Cross, which took in $249 million and spent $110 million as of the end of December. Smilowitz said the group should be spending money more quickly because the charity's primary role is to provide urgent relief.

"Ultimately, if there are still needs on the ground, which there are, it’s fair to expect organizations with a lot of cash still sitting in the bank to step up to the plate," Smilowitz said, "hopefully with the same urgency as their Sandy fundraising appeals."

But the American Red Cross contends its presence on the ground has been strong. Communications Director Sam Kille said there are still 1,000 Red Cross workers in the field, and on an average day, the organization is serving 33,000 meals. Kille added that the charity's next step will be to spend $60 million on 9,000 families who are in need of rent and utility deposits as well as home repairs. However, the charity could not say how long it would take to spend the money.

Charities have been providing the essentials such as meals, blankets, and water. They've also been providing more specialized items such as modular homes and medical and mental health services.

While Red Cross has received the most money by far, the Robin Hood Foundation is the next largest charity in terms of Sandy fundraising. It brought in more than $50 million from a Madison Square Garden benefit concert on Dec. 12. More money is expected to come in as CD's, DVD’s and iTune downloads are sold. That comes on top of another $17 million the foundation raised before the concert. Robin Hood says it spent roughly a third of all of its Sandy funds so far.

Smilowitz said Robin Hood was moving quickly considering it doesn’t provide direct services but provides grants to non-profits instead, a process that can be time consuming.

Patty Smith, Robin Hood’s marketing director, said the foundation has to vet organizations and make sure it is not funding groups that could be receiving grants from the government or elsewhere.

"If they submit a grant to us that is looking for help regarding a specific project we want to make sure that money couldn’t be found in some other way," she said.

Smith said providing relief to people on the ground requires a patchwork of funding from federal, state, and local governments, with charities filling in the gaps.

Tim Parsons said his group, Rebuilding Together, must also be careful not to interfere with government or insurance companies.  The non-profit helps repair homes. 

"People need to apply to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and get insurance money", he said. "If we touch [the home] first we may be harming their ability to take care of themselves."

Rebuilding Together has raised $850,000 and spent $125,000 so far. The group says it expects to use its remaining donations by fixing up to 180 homes between now and June.

Another group that has spent a small portion of what it has collected is Occupy Sandy. Volunteers from the group were visible in neighborhoods across the city almost immediately after the storm. The group was praised for acting quickly, and in several instances, for reaching stranded and desperate people before government did.

According to information from the New York state attorney general's office, Occupy Sandy has raised just over $725,000 and has spent roughly $112,000. The group did not respond to a request for comment.


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Comments [6]

cathy from staten island

with very little help from fema and the sba why are the funds not being distributed to those of us affected by this storm. People need funds so they can buy what they need, so much was lost. Fema gave me a big $9,000 and that was spent in a heartbeat on debris removal and mold clean up. Now what? I had to buy basement windows and a car.after losing two and no insurance help. red cross received the most money and robin hood foundation.> $50 million from the concert and $17 million before the concert. Where is it going?

Mar. 18 2013 11:31 AM
Carmen Torres from new york

I am a survival of hurricane Sandy and one of the first responders for the Island Park Fire Department. In Island Park, New York, the Fire Department was the only organization that step up to the plate and should be awarded with highest honor of valor but instead had been denied assistance and grant by organization like the Robin Hood Foundation who recedived over 50 Millions in donations. I am having a great deal of problems finding non-profit organization that can assist me with what Fema can't or won't cover for me but yet I still willing and ready to volunteer for any legitimate non-profit whom needs volunteers. Pls ctct me at 516-451-3319

Feb. 04 2013 11:19 AM
Mary O'Shaughnessy from NYC

I am a Red Cross volunteer, and I was involved in the pre-planning and immediate response from the Saturday before the storm hit. We are still on site, and we are providing funding to other agencies to provide food and supplies as well. (Everything I say here is as an individual and in no way represents official Red Cross positions on anything.)

We are not "going away," as we are New York residents ourselves, as well as volunteers from all over the country. Since Sandy we have also sent our local responders to more than seven hundred fires and other emergencies in the NYC and surrounding area--emergencies to which no other voluntary agency sends on-the-spot help.

Occupy Sandy does indeed have a publicly viewable spreadsheet. As of today, they have spent $76,000 on fundraising and sponsor fees, and have disbursed $95,000 of $933,000 raised. The Red Cross, since it operates on a far larger scale, has a broader but still current list of its expenses on its website.

Absolutely, Occupy Sandy has done terrific work and has shown other organizations, including the Red Cross, new ways to work. Yes, the Red Cross can improve--every human organization can. Volunteers with both Occupy and the Red Cross have had wonderful, as well as frustrating, experiences. There is still a lot of work to do, and for anyone to demonize any one group of dedicated people, is just wrong.

Jan. 23 2013 03:24 PM

Yes throw money at it, I'd be much more upset if the money had been spent and wasted then there is still money for this years long rebuilding. (by the groups meant to give to those that stay in the area, not the Red Cross and such which will be gone soon.) If they blew through it all that would be very dire. Silly complete lack of understanding of what is good.

And mentioning a group like Occupy Sandy that has focused on the volunteer effort, physical donations and registries for sending items NOT money for relief now and the little money saved to give to local recovery groups for the long term is either a lack of understanding of recovery or disingenuous to try to create news when there is none.

The good news is the money wasn't spent on overhead; its volunteers and volunteered space, its saved as there isn't going to be a lot more donations the way the media has decided to call this thing over, except to try and create news of the bad. Give the story at least some credit in that regards that it is pointing out there is still so much to do, and then these locations that didn't get aid needed help before the storm so I'm glad that there are now local community groups that these charities will give money to to keep recovery and community building going for years by people in the community.

Jan. 22 2013 04:21 PM

I feel like every time there's a disaster relief effort, Red Cross is slow to drag their feet when dispersing the donations they've collected. It happened after the Haitian earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and Sandy (just as recent examples).

It's just poor management on their part. It's become a sad reality for many non-profits that fundraising takes priority over helping those they've pledged to help. Don't over-inflate your headcount with needless positions, run lean. Instead of taking so many internal meetings discussing the direction of the foundation or money, go lend a hand. Take a few hours a week and find out what people actually need, don't assume you know best.

Occupy Sandy has been such an inspiring story for these very reasons. There's no bureaucracy. There's no board of directors. There's no fundraisers or payroll to back. There are just people wanting to help people and you know what? It works.

Just my two cents.

Jan. 22 2013 10:22 AM
Kristian Nammack from Brooklyn

I work with Occupy Sandy. You commented that nobody got back to you about how we are spending the money we raised. All the information is posted on our website, so no need to guess. We are the most transparent relief effort going when it comes to this. Feel free to contact me directly.

Jan. 22 2013 07:42 AM

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