Skip to main content
On the Record

Interview With Paul Light [on American Red Cross, its inefficiency after 9/11 and other blunders]

O’Reilly: In The Factor “Follow-Up” segment tonight, how bad did the American Red Cross get hurt because of inefficiency after 9/11 and other blunders, such as not allowing a choir to sing “God Bless America” in San Diego?

A poll taken after 9/11 says just 41 percent of Americans have confidence in the Red Cross. However, another poll found that more than 90 percent now think their donations to 9/11 charities are being used wisely. Joining us now from Washington is the man who monitored some of the surveys, Paul Light, the vice president of governmental affairs at the Brookings Institution and author of the book “Pathways to Nonprofit Excellence.”

Well, we just heard that the Red Cross made mistakes in giving money to scam artists, $250,000 to one Michigan man.

But I don’t hold them accountable for that as long as they’re following up now, because you don’t want to grill people, and the vast majority of people needed the money, you didn’t want to put them through the third degree. So if you’re going to err, err on the side, and then get them later.

But that being said, I think the—a lot of damage has been done to the Red Cross because of the chaotic environment in which they tried to siphon off some of the money for other causes. Am I wrong?

Paul Light, Brookings Institution: Well, I think the Red Cross certainly was damaged in October, November, and December. I think there’s been a substantial rebound since then. I think they’re in the process of getting their act together. There’ve been a number of changes at the Red Cross that I think bode well for the distribution of monies in the future…

O’Reilly: Like what?

Light: Well, they’ve changed their leadership, obviously. They’ve changed their board a little bit. They’re working hard to scrub down the organization. They’re bringing in outsiders to take a hard look at their internal management systems.

I think the Red Cross is now quite aware that you need to invest in administration so that when disasters strike like this, that you can respond quickly…

O’Reilly: All right. But they still make…

Light: … and efficiently.


O’Reilly: … unbelievable mistakes like a couple of weeks ago in San Diego, kicking out the high school choir because they wanted to sing “God Bless America.” I mean, once that hit the national airways, I mean, people are rolling their eyes going, “What kind of organization is this?”

Light: Well, the Red Cross is rather like a gigantic aircraft carrier. It takes some time to change directions. This is the brand name in the charitable sector. And I think they’re working very hard to improve, under very significant pressure, and I take as good faith their commitment to doing so.

O’Reilly: Why would you do that, though? I mean, they almost have a 900—they almost have $1 billion that Americans have generously given them. And they’re still collecting money, by the way, for—go ahead.

Light Yeah, and I’ve seen some of their public service announcements still out there. Some local television stations…

O’Reilly: Yeah, they almost have $1 billion. They’ve given about 55 percent of that to the families. And they’ve got 45 percent, you know, earning enormous amount of interest in the bank.

Now again, I’m not begrudging them for doing that. It looks to me like they have righted the aircraft carrier, as you put it, that they’re organized now, their data base is there now, and that the people who need money have gotten the money.

And they have actually said we have enough. We have enough. Even though as you said, they’re still asking for it. I don’t know what that’s all about. But I’m not as confident as you are. And I’ll tell you why, Mr. Light.

I’m not as confident as you are about their total change of direction and all of a sudden their eyes are open.

Light: Right.

O’Reilly: Because when we call them to ask them a question, we still run into an unbelievable bureaucracy, who you know, don’t really want to tell us what we want to know. We have to pry it out of them.

Light: I don’t doubt it. I mean, I think this is a very large, very bureaucratic organization that needs to go through a fundamental, cultural change in order to right itself.

But I do believe that they’re headed in the right direction. I think the Red Cross story at the end of the day is one about the need to invest in the organization, the training, the staffing, of big agencies on which we rely. And I think that story is one that has yet to be told in its full…

O’Reilly: But it has to be also a story about a point of view on the organization. If the organization is mired down in you can’t sing “God Bless America,” that’s never going to work. They’re never going to get it, because that’s stupid.

Light: Well, the Red Cross is certainly in a period of great challenge and under a great deal of pressure. I mean…

O’Reilly: Am I responsible for all this, Mr. Light?

Light: I’d say that you get a lot of responsibility for having pushed this issue forward.

O’Reilly: All right, you know what? I don’t feel bad.

Light: I don’t think you should.

O’Reilly: I think the organization needed to be turned upside down, because as I said in the “Talking Points” memo, we need the Red Cross. But I think it’s got a long way to go. And…

Light: Right. You know, I want to invite you to continue to work on the issue of building the administrative capacity of these organizations. Keep pushing on the issue.

O’Reilly: I will. I mean, we’re going to do a thing on their salaries. I mean, these guys are making, some of them, $400,000 a year. I don’t know if this is, you know, in a nonprofit—I don’t know. We’ll see.

Light: Well, but take a look at the issue of how their computers work. Take a look at the issue of how they’re structured. Keep pushing on improving capacity.

O’Reilly: All right. I will, Mr. Light. And we thank you very much.

Upcoming special prosecutor Robert Ray has issued his final report on Whitewater. It says the Clintons did not tell the truth. We’ll hear about it in a moment.


Get daily updates from Brookings