Bringing about dramatic and lasting social change requires lifelong leadership and learning lessons along the way.
Ben Smilowitz: Disaster Relief Watchdog
Photo courtesy of Disaster Accountability Project
When an American Red Cross staffer blew the whistle on reneged promises to help survivors of Hurricane Sandy, Ben Smilowitz took action. A vigilant watchdog for survivors of disaster, Ben investigated inefficiencies, fired up the media, engaged members of Congress, and filed a complaint with New York’s Attorney General. Results? The Red Cross released $4 million in funds to as many as 1,000 Sandy-impacted households. And the world-renowned relief organization was forced to change the way it solicits online donations after disasters—making clear the distinction between general Red Cross giving and disaster-specific gifts. (Donors gave much more than $312 million to the Red Cross after Sandy—not all of which got put into the hurricane funnel.)
“Nonprofits are designed to take money when offered, and some need to be able to say ‘no, we’re not ready. There are others better positioned to help,’” says Ben, who is the founder and Executive Director of Disaster Accountability Project (DAP). “The biggest mistake a disaster relief organization can make is to say that they can do something when they really can’t.”
Sandy wasn’t Ben’s first time at the rodeo—make that hurricane. In 2005 he became enraged by the inefficiencies and overall dereliction of duty he discovered as a post-Katrina Red Cross volunteer.
Sent to Gulfport, Mississippi, Ben witnessed survivors waiting in scorching heat, in excessively long lines for food and medical support. Lines and heat were to be expected, but the lack of planning and information shocked him. Although the Red Cross was collecting hundreds of millions of dollars specifically for Hurricane Katrina relief, the Red Cross Client Services Center Ben was managing didn’t have anywhere near the capacity to adequately serve the survivors.
The emergency management strategy lacked critical information. The Red Cross gave each survivor a check for $360 (each family up to $1500) but there weren’t any banks open to cash checks. Nurses flown in from other states couldn’t practice (beyond taking vitals) because by law they needed to be licensed in the state of Mississippi. Ben reported the inefficiencies to superiors at Red Cross—he even called members of Congress, and even their spouses—but he got no response. So when a TV crew from CNN arrived at his Center in Gulfport, Ben saw his chance to reveal the truth. While the camera rolled, Ben enumerated the unmet needs of the survivors, exposing an unauthorized view of the startling level of disorganization and wastefulness in the American Red Cross operations.
His whistle-blowing got him fired, or relieved, more accurately, from what was, after all, volunteer work. But his experience getting the message out led him down the road he’s traveled ever since.
When Ben returned home from Mississippi, he decided if there wasn’t a group that already existed to demand public accountability and provide an open line for survivors, emergency workers, and volunteers to report relief service gaps, he would start one. In 2007, at the end of his first year of law school, Ben started Disaster Accountability Project. Within a year, Ben became an Echoing Green Fellow. “I couldn’t have gotten DAP up and running without Echoing Green,” says Ben.
Since then DAP has expanded its services to make sure every donated dollar saves more lives. DAP now reaches out to government agencies and disaster relief organizations to improve emergency plans for future disasters.
DAP has also set up a hotline for people—survivors, workers, volunteers—to report gaps in disaster relief services. (After Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, the hotline received more than 100 calls.)
After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Ben was often asked by the media how people should select the right organizations for their charitable giving. So DAP is developing an online tool, SmartResponse.org (to officially launch this summer), to provide the actionable information donors need to make smart decisions.
“We don’t take sides or specifically endorse organizations,” says Ben. “We use data to incentivize transparency and help ensure dollars reach groups with the greatest capacity to deliver the most needed services.” DAP surveys hundreds of global organizations to gather data regarding specific capacities, services provided, disaster plan efficiency, how long they’ve been “on the ground,” etc.
Ben is the kind of watchdog you want, whether you’re a disaster survivor or a donor. He’s got bark—he certainly knows how to work the media megaphone. But his organization brings plenty of bite, too, with real policy oversight designed to make a difference.
Ben Smilowitz received a B.A. in Political Science, an Advanced Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Washington University in St. Louis, and his J.D. from the University of Connecticut School of Law. He is a 2008 Echoing Green Fellow and recipient of a 2014 Knight Prototype Fund grant for DAP’s SmartResponse.org to be re-launched this summer.
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