05/03/2007 09:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Big Push-Off: Time to Probe Government Reliance on Charities and Volunteers


Remember when this was the extent President Bush asked us to get involved in Katrina aid? Cut a check to the Red Cross, and you'd done your duty. Thank God so many people, if they could, did more. I'm thinking of the "Cajun Navy" -- everyday men who gassed up their boats and sailed across town, or across Lake Ponchartrain, and rescued the stranded. Or those who loaded up U-Hauls and brought in supplies. Or those who put sheets on the guest bed and opened their homes and their hearts to evacuees.

The more I talk to Katrina survivors, the more I know that if you're looking for what went right, look to the grassroots. And if you really want to get verklemt, look to churches. Churches deserve special mention. Churches large and small committed their time, resources, and armies of volunteers. They didn't worry about liability. They didn't play wait-and-see. They are still crucial in the region, nearly two years after landfall and the subsequent levee failures.

Where would the Gulf Coast be without these volunteers? So much gutting, so much feeding, so much love that would not have been shared. So much progress, unmade...

However, these volunteers are just that: volunteers. They may belong to a group, but they are not a system. They do not have the reach or the resources of our government. They are lamps that shine in the dark. Not electrical grids to light up the night.

Non-profits, be them religious or secular, are not the government; yet, they are often called to do the government's work. And even if they are strong organizations in their own right, they are not accountable to the American public -- the folks that nowadays fund so much outsourced direct services.

Buried deep in Sunday's Washington Post piece regarding the foreign Katrina aid that went unclaimed was the following revelation: a consortium of 10 church and charity groups given $60 million by the federal government has only helped half of the evacuees they promised to help. The line that really caught my eye was the following:

"Senate investigators are questioning some terms in the contract proposal, including a provision to pay consultants for 450 days to train volunteers for the work the committee was paid to do."

This consortium, led by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, was not alone in its willingness to rely on volunteers. The American Red Cross relies on volunteers. ARC volunteers serve not only as foot soldiers, but also as strata of management during emergencies. Given the nature of disasters -- they tend not to stick to reliable schedules -- it is perhaps not cost effective to keep a large staff full-time. However, I question how correct it is for non-profits to accept massive funding for plans that require the most tender, important work -- the actual direct care of those they purport to assist -- to be done by volunteer labor.

Why do I question this? Because I once served as a Red Cross volunteer.

Like so many others in Houston, the Katrina crisis moved me to drive straight to the headquarters and volunteer. They did away with the usual niceties and walked us to the phone bank. I was anxious; I was fresh off the street, yet I would be the voice of the organization. At the time -- we're talking 3-4 days after the storm -- the Red Cross had still not announced any plan for gas or clothing vouchers or for cash assistance. People called in desperate, at the brink, some having spent their money on a week's worth of hotel rooms. They needed help. I was the person who had to tell them that the Red Cross had nothing to give, try back later.

Eventually, I changed my answer. I told people to try the big churches: Second Baptist, Lakewood...that they had goods and money and people ready to help. Call up and see what happens. And when they made me phone bank "supervisor" the next day, I whispered to other phone-bankers to do the same.

So while Americans filled the Red Cross coffers, there I was, a volunteer, directing those in need to rich churches, who, to their undying credit, were totally ready to give and be flexible and creative in a way that the Red Cross was not ready to be.

I doubt this moment will get included in the next orientation film. Not exactly a great moment in volunteer history.

After Hurricane Rita, I returned to the phone bank. I found the experience had not changed much; we were still on the frontlines, no better than cannon fodder, giving answers that rarely satisfied. My friend Jim and I would take the phones off the hook just to catch a breath. Callers were exasperated. They couldn't get through to the number for financial assistance, so they were calling us. We couldn't help them. Worse, people told of how they had already called and given their info for cash assistance and wanted to know when they could expect it, and I'd overheard from one of the supervisors that there was a data-entry backlog -- not enough volunteers -- so the applications weren't getting processed and survivors weren't getting help.

I could not believe that because the Red Cross was short on data entry volunteers, people in desperate financial straits were left in limbo.

In no way am I trying to sully the hard work of so many amazing people who work for the American Red Cross, staff or volunteer, especially those who survived the Katrina-Rita one-two punch. However, one would think there would have been better plans in place. Or at least a sense of urgency. Was I the only one who thought that if they didn't have staff to take over key duties, that maybe they should have called temps?

The fact is, these organizations get millions of our taxdollars. They get millions in our donations. We depend upon them to work in our proxy. For all the millions given, Americans should not be afraid to demand accountability and a higher return on their dollar. Americans also need to know that once we cut checks, our job is not done. We need to pay attention. We also need to support legislators, including Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who push for structural reforms.

More to the point: isn't it time that our government stops depending on charities, and starts thinking big picture again on the domestic front? It's not too late for a Gulf Coast Marshall Plan.