American Red Cross of Alaska is shouting SOS

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2005

The American Red Cross of Alaska has provided food, clothing and shelter for at least three Alaskans every day since 1917. But now the nonprofit service organization needs help.

The American Red Cross of Alaska has been operating in the red, mostly because numerous national and international disasters the past three years have drawn donations away from local nonprofits.

"These big disasters bring disasters to local chapters," said Kelly Hurd, community relations manager of American Red Cross of Alaska.

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Since Sept. 11 of 2001, local nonprofits, including chapters of the American Red Cross, have seen a steady decline in fundraising.

"Donations that would have stayed locally went to the victims of Sept. 11. The massive 2004 hurricanes in Florida bled our resources. The Asian tsunami is the last straw," Hurd said. "Our staff has been absolutely consumed with processing donations, providing information and responding to questions about donations to the Asian tsunami."

In only three weeks, the Alaska chapter has received about $860,000 from people who want to donate to the tsunami relief effort. It is almost 50 percent of the chapter's annual budget.

"We cannot keep any of the money," Hurd said. "We are just a conduit."

A lagging economy and competition for donations from other local nonprofits also attributed to a decline in donations.

"Alaska has the highest density of nonprofits per capita in the nation since 1989," said Joe Mathis, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Alaska.

Last year, the American Red Cross of Alaska had a deficit of $265,000. This year, the organization is operating at a $35,000 loss each month.

Although the American Red Cross of Alaska has been in financial troubles for two years, it didn't reveal the difficulties until recently.

"There was a reluctance to tell people that we were in trouble," Mathis said. "You didn't want to tell people bad news."

But after talking with the chapter's board of directors, Mathis said it is time to let people know of their financial struggles.

Hurd said many people have the misperception that the American Red Cross receives federal funding for its programs.

"In 1900, the U.S. Congress granted the American Red Cross a charter, making the volunteer organization responsible for providing services to members of the U.S. armed forces and relief to disaster victims at home and abroad," Hurd said.

"The charter mandates that the organization provide certain services to the American people, but the American Red Cross is not a government agency. Nor does it receive federal funding on a regular basis," she added.

Hurd said 90 percent of the chapter's funding comes from private donations.

"Each year, the American Red Cross of Alaska provides emergency assistance to about 1,400 Alaskans that have lost everything in a disaster," Hurd said. "That equates to over three Alaskans every day."

Mathis said he doesn't want to diminish the importance of responding to big disasters because Alaska has been on the receiving end of it at such times as the Good Friday earthquake in 1964. But he said he needs people to know it is important as well to help in local disasters.

"Every day, there are Alaskans losing everything in disasters that you don't see in the media," Mathis said. "They need people's help, too."

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