Shakespeare wrote, "The quality of mercy is not strain 'd." The American Red Cross this fall, not paying attention to that line from The Merchant of Venice, hurt its reputation by initially holding back most of the money it collected to help victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Especially as Christmas approaches, the Red Cross and all of us can learn from the organization 's founder, Clara Barton, the "angel of the battlefield."
Born in Massachusetts on Christmas day exactly 180 years ago this year, Miss Barton became famous as a 40-year-old who risked her own life to save the wounded on Civil War battlefields. Told that "fools rush in where angels fear to tread," she was both fool and angel, and she lived to found the American Red Cross in 1881. She always rushed in: When the 1889 Johnstown, Pa., flood left 2,200 dead and many more homeless, Miss Barton at age 67 rushed there with 15 doctors and numerous nurses, working in large tents set up as hospitals and refuges.
Crucially, she did not rush out. Conditions were miserable, with disease following the flood, but Miss Barton and Red Cross workers stayed for five months. Meanwhile, churches, synagogues, and community organizations garnered contributions for Johnstown relief. Donations totaled $3.7 million, the equivalent of about $75 million today, but individuals generally entrusted funds to a church deacon or the head of a fraternal organization. Those community leaders then had the responsibility to make sure that the funds made it to those who would use them efficiently.
In a sense, charity often worked as the Electoral College was originally designed to function: Give your money (or votes) to those you know personally and trust, and they in turn will choose individuals they know and trust. Many people trusted Clara Barton, because she lived by what she told others: "You must never so much as think whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it."
Even today visitors to the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Md., can sense that vision. Her house was home, dormitory, and warehouse. Blankets, bandages, rakes, and hoes filled closets built into the main hallway. Some staff members and volunteers, often from wealthy families, slept on cots in storage rooms. That was all in accordance with Miss Barton's toughening-up plans: "It will not be an elegant house, but it will well serve the purposes that we believe are necessary."
Clara Barton was 78 on Sept. 8, 1900, the day 6,000 Texans died as a hurricane hit Galveston, but she and Red Cross volunteers stood amid the rubble five days later and stayed there two months. The organization once again threw its resources into relief, which included building an orphanage for the children of storm victims and buying lumber to rebuild houses. The Red Cross treasurer complained that funds were being distributed too rapidly, but Barton responded that work "at the field of dying or dead, sick or starving, is not the work of a bank, and cannot be squared by its rules and still be worth maintaining."
Miss Barton died in 1912. Over time the Red Cross became highly bureaucratized, and people cast about for alternatives. For a time the hot idea was to form ad hoc organizations, supposedly free of bureaucracy. Hands Across America was one, and it seemed like a big success on May 25, 1986, when 4 million Americans held hands across the continent. Even desert areas were at least symbolically covered, as singer Kenny Rogers straddled the Texas-New Mexico border and Robert Goulet took a homeless woman via helicopter to Vicksburg, Ariz.
One problem with that much-hyped endeavor, though, was that a big chunk of the expected $50 million in payments and pledges never materialized. Three months after the event, half of the $32 million that came in had gone to pay for expenses. Organizations that bypass existing community groups seem to reinvent bureaucratic wheels, an even more costly procedure than oiling existing ones.
Another alternative sometimes proposed is more government spending-and yet Washington money always flows toward political power. Multibillion-dollar AIDS expenditures in recent years came at the expense of work on less-publicized plights and on protection against bioterrorism. Trends change from year to year, but the trendiness of those who think politically seems to be almost a constant.
The real alternative is for charities to return to the don't-hold-back, non-strained mercy of Clara Barton. Last month the Red Cross under pressure stopped demanding a pound of bureaucratic flesh for each pound of aid that it offered Sept. 11 survivors, and maybe its officials during the next crisis will remember what she taught.