Money Slow to Flow from Sandy Charities

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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.