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Today, the American Red Cross announced a major reform plan in response to stinging criticism of its disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. The Red Cross has also had an ongoing leadership crisis with four CEOs in six years.
NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: The last time the American Red Cross reorganized was just after World War II, when the nation's biggest private relief group decided to democratized. Local chapters gained influence with seats on the Red Cross board of governors, but the board's size and power made the CEO's job one of the least secure in American charity. The board grew to 50 members. Critics call it bloated, unwieldy and parochial. So the Red Cross wasn't fully prepared when Hurricane Katrina required the greatest disaster response in American history, says Paul Light, a professor of Public Service at New York University.
Professor PAUL LIGHT: (New York University): During Katrina there were many things the Red Cross did well, but there was a lot of confusion about how reported to whom and whether the chapters that were involved really had to pay attention and to whom they had to pay attention.
BERKES: Katrina victims in poor minority and rural areas had difficulty getting Red Cross help. Several members of Congress demanded reform and today the Red Cross responded with proposals including reducing the size of the 50 member board by more than half, srawing a fine line between the board and the professional staff so the staff manages and the board provides long term planning and oversight and getting members of the president's cabinet off the board because, well, they weren't helping much anyway, notes Jay Lorsch of the Harvard School of Business.
Mr. JAY LORSCH (Harvard School of Business): The expectation that the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense is going to come to the Board of Governors of the Red Cross, it just wasn't happening and probably never could happen. Each of the cabinet officers would pick a sub-cabinet officer who in turn would pick a general officer or admiral or somebody else, and pretty soon we're ending up with some people who are not at the level the legislation envisioned they should be.
BERKES: The cabinet members would move to an advisory board under the reform plan. There will also be a new process for Red Cross whistle blowers who complained during Hurricane Katrina that their concerns were ignored. The new process might include a Red Cross ombudsman, an independent arbitrator inside the group who was sought by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, who pushed hard for reform.
Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): They're very much a public institution so they ought to be operated more openly and transparent. An ombudsman is just one step and I think a very good step just to make sure they do what they say they're going to do.
BERKES: Grassley says he's satisfied that the Red Cross has made a good faith effort at reform. The group needs him to in act reforms because many require changes in the congressional charter that governs Red Cross operations. Senior Red Cross board member Ross Ogden says the reform plan may help the group respond better to disasters as massive as Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. ROSS OGDEN (Red Cross Board Member): Perhaps in some way maybe indirectly, the new constituted board with its greater focus on strategic oversight and governance would come to those questions earlier and do a better job anticipating what might happen in the future and making sure the resources were provided for the future.
BERKES: Details of the Red Cross reform plan will be released later this week. The group says it may be six years before it's fully implemented.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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