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American Red Cross to be Under New Leadership - 2002-08-02

The American Red Cross has weathered a year of controversy surrounding its fundraising efforts after the terrorist attacks of last September. A retired U.S. admiral will take the helm of the organization Monday, August 5, as Marsha Johnson Evans becomes its new president.

Harold Decker took over leadership of the American Red Cross after its former head resigned last October in response to a public outcry. Members of the public and the U.S. Congress were angered by the announcement that some of the funds raised for victims of the September 11 attacks would be used for other programs. After he was named interim president, Mr. Decker announced a reversal of the plan and promised to spend all the funds in question on the victims and their families. He then set about the task of restoring public trust in the organization.

A lawyer by training, the charity official said he applied the advice given by a mentor as he began his legal career here in Los Angeles. "My first day on the job, he told me, 'Sonny, I'm going to give you the lawyer's first rule, and that is never let your client's expectations exceed your ability to deliver,'" Mr. Decker said.

Mr. Decker said that is good advice for charity officials to bear in mind in relations with their donors.

The interim president and chief executive officer of the American Red Cross was back in town to discuss the organization's progress in the past 11 months, in a speech before a civic group called Town Hall Los Angeles.

Recalling the controversy that rocked the charity, he faults what he calls "a failure in communications" between the Red Cross and the public as the organization confronted an unprecedented outpouring after September 11.

"There was unprecedented horror, unprecedented fear, and unprecedented generosity. And for us at the American Red Cross, like everyone else, this was a real learning experience," Mr. Decker said.

The disbursement of funds to victims and their families is now in its final phase. To date, said Mr. Decker, the American Red Cross has received $970 million in donations. "And we have dispensed something approximating $600 million. And the amounts that have not been dispensed, I want to make it clear, that money is not being set aside but the money is being paid out prudently so that we're sure that the money is going to the right place," Mr. Decker said.

The money is going to survivors and families of the victims, and not only those in New York, where two commercial aircraft hijacked by terrorists struck the World Trade Center. Another hijacked aircraft hit the Pentagon and a fourth went down in the state of Pennsylvania.

"We've had, by my last count, people from about 38 countries who were affected by the events of September 11. We've got people from states all over the union who have been affected. And no matter where they come from, whether they are families of victims at the World Trade Center in New York, at the Pentagon in Virginia and the Washington DC area, the plane crash in Pennsylvania, the money will go to those victims wherever they happen to be," Mr. Decker said.

Mr. Decker said some of the funds will be used for long-term needs, such as psychological counseling.

The Red Cross official said the experience of September 11 and its aftermath have allowed the charity to refocus on its mission. "...which is to prevent, prepare for, and respond to natural and manmade emergencies. It has, I think, affected the whole organization and allowed the organization to use the events of September 11 as a focal point to make sure that we never go on mission 'drift,'" he said.

In addition to domestic relief work, the American Red Cross has some international programs, including one that vaccinates children against measles in Africa. Such projects, the official said, are part of the Red Cross mission.

In June, the charity enacted guidelines requiring it to tell donors exactly how it is spending the money that is donated to the Red Cross disaster relief fund.

Navy Rear Admiral Marsha Johnson Evans will take the helm at the Red Cross Monday, August 5. She will be the agency's 13th president. She is the current head of the Girl Scouts and is the second woman in history to achieve the rank of rear admiral.