Ben Smilowitz was a first-time volunteer for the American Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He was running operations in Gulfport, Miss., following procedures and even had a great evaluation — before being relieved of his duties.
He was told that if he spoke to the media again — and not direct them to public affairs staff — he would be sent home. Smilowitz was let go after CNN had paid a visit to his outpost.
“Three weeks in Mississippi, I was trying to figure out who was providing oversight for what was going on. That question just really bothered me. There was nobody other than the occasional news reporter asking questions about what was going on,” he said.
Laura Howe, vice president of public relations at the Red Cross, confirmed that Smilowitz was a volunteer for 22 days but could not immediately confirm whether — or why — he was let go as a volunteer.
Today, Smilowitz is executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project (DAP), an effort he began with the help of a social entrepreneurship fellowship from Echoing Green Foundation in 2008. Most of his 250 volunteers are law students, which he himself was when he started the cause.
As the name indicates, the project aims for accountability and transparency in disaster relief. Six months after the earthquake in Haiti, DAP distributed a survey to some 200 disaster organizations to report on their operations in the island nation, including their objectives, goals, evaluations and budgets. Slightly more than 10 percent of those organizations responded, and another almost half-dozen responded after the survey garnered media coverage. In addition to www.disasteraccountability.org, the organization is building www.reliefoversight.org, where organizations have a profile, with sub-profiles for each country.
The plan is to write reports about each organization and its activity while maintaining a database of information for the public to view. Eventually, Smilowitz hopes to be able to send teams to disaster areas and assess information for its accuracy.
“We want to be a clearinghouse of information – We want factual information on what groups are doing on a regular basis, and aggregates just won’t cut it. They don’t tell a story at all,” Smilowitz said.
He hopes to have a Web section where problems can be reported, which then would be investigated before they’re made public. “Citizen oversight is a necessity and there really hasn’t been an organization providing oversight of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency),” Smilowitz said. DAP’s telephone hotline received more than 100 calls within a week of Hurricane Ike, which hit Texas in 2008, and got results after bringing them directly to the attention of the responsible agencies and organizations, he said.
“The human cost is what motivates me. Are people suffering? Is the system working? It doesn’t make sense to focus on problems only after-the-fact. We spend a lot of time focusing on disasters, real-time, while they’re happening,” Smilowitz said.
Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator in Glen Rock, N.J., said there’s been an explosion in the number of information organizations or Web sites aiming to keep nonprofits transparent and accountable.
“On the one hand, people say choice and diversity is good and there’s value in that but the danger is that we get to a point that it’s almost chaotic, it’s hard for some people to wade through,” he said.
“Sometimes the reality is that the nonprofit sector is very resource starved. To have this many people running in different directions sometimes makes me wonder, where does ego and my having one great idea end, and where does the value of putting ego at the door and collaborating with other organizations begin,” Berger said. “Everyone seems to have that one great idea,” he said, recalling a conversation with a funder, who gets daily calls about someone finding “a solution to something.”
When systems appear to be stressed and things are not working as they should which is inherent to disasters Smilowitz said he’s more interested in figuring out why things are not working or what about an event is stressing responsible agencies and organizations. “How can they get better, in real time? Is it a capacity issue in one agency or organization that should be fixed? What is it about that event that’s causing systems not to work right? It’s important for that to be addressed internally and externally and immediately. We shouldn’t have to wait for congressional hearings and reports months later,” he said.
“We’re trying to make sure what happens after Katrina doesn’t happen again,” Smilowitz said. The organization is tracking post-Katrina recommendations presented in Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports to check if problems raised have been addressed. Not all may be implemented, but at least they should be addressed, he said, and if they are not, DAP aims to ensure a policy review to determine why.
“Our own people deserve a lot better than what they were getting after Katrina, I’m not sure even the Red Cross would dispute that. But in the moment, it was all donate, donate, donate,” said Smilowitz. Charities spend a lot on public affairs, tugging at heartstrings in their appeals, he said. If charities are fundraising at the same time as they’re coordinating disaster response, Smilowitz contends that they cannot be completely honest or it may hurt fundraising efforts. Still, some in the disaster relief subsector see the project as potentially redundant.
The problem with DAP is that it did not do appropriate “ground truthing” before starting its project, counters Tawana Jacobs, senior manager for public relations at InterAction. Its member organizations do field-based research and develop statistics and other information based on what organizations are doing, making it more productive, she said. “Other groups doing this type of work are much more effective,” Jacobs said, while DAP is “an idea that hasn’t been fully developed.”
Organizations that report to InterAction or the Humanitarian Accountability Project pay membership dues, a key difference to Smilowitz. “We are not membership based, we’re not asking these organizations to become members and pay us. I think that makes us objective,” he said.
Annual dues, which make up about a quarter of InterAction’s operating budget, range from $2,000 to $40,000 and are calculated annually from an organization’s expenses. Members must meet some membership and accountability standards.
Smilowitz is quick to point out that his criticism aims to be constructive. “I don’t want to come across as critical of individuals delivering relief on the ground because the criticism that we’re trying to bring is not directed at them, it’s really directed at the decision makers at organizations…that really decide how much money to spend, how much information to share, where to operate and what to focus on. I think those people are really the problem, they’re the ones we’re trying to fix here.”
Organizations that hold nonprofits accountable are a good thing, said the Red Cross’s Howe, and watchdogs have a place. “The best ones out there have a long history of being objective, being consistent in what they ask, and how often they report on organizations,” she said. They “come to the table with a mutual point of view, assess all organizations in the same way-have realistic expectations about the amount of details organizations are able to give,” and are transparent about how their own organization works. NPT