Red Cross Spent $500,000 in 3 Years To Boost Its Profile

By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Gilbert M. Gaul
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 27, 2006

The American Red Cross paid consultants more than $500,000 in the past three years to pitch its name in Hollywood, recruit stars for its "Celebrity Cabinet" and brand its chief executive as the face of the Red Cross -- just a year before ousting her, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

In a $127,000 contract, a Houston corporate image company agreed to create a plan to make Red Cross chief executive Marsha J. Evans the face of the organization as part of a "senior leadership branding project" that ran from October 2003 to November 2004.

At the same time, Evans was laying off workers at the Red Cross's blood-services operations and at its Washington headquarters, as well as eliminating merit pay and limiting travel in a bid to cut millions from the national headquarters' budget.

The contract with Public Strategies Inc. pledged to secure at least two "media opportunities" a month for Evans and to get her speaking engagements before influential groups.

In December, Evans abruptly announced her resignation after a falling out with the organization's 50-member Board of Governors.

On Friday, the Red Cross defended the contract, saying Public Strategies landed Evans appearances before high-profile business groups and at other get-togethers, thus boosting donations to the organization when it faced financial difficulties in 2003 and 2004, including a depleted Disaster Relief Fund.

One nonprofit leader said hiring consultants to raise the public profile of chief executives, while unusual, could be defended if it increased donations. Even so, she said, the subject is seldom discussed.

"It surprises me that an organization would do that and spend that amount of money," said Diana Aviv, chief executive of Washington-based Independent Sector, which represents nonprofit groups.

Also in 2003 and 2004, the Red Cross paid a Beverly Hills, Calif., firm $113,900 to promote its name to writers and producers for television and film to get the charity included in story lines.

Red Cross spokeswoman Carrie Martin said the contract has resulted in such successes as Red Cross first-aid kits included in the MTV reality show "The Real World" and Red Cross emergency vehicles used in an episode of the TV drama "The West Wing."

Martin said the contracts were a defensive move as well, "to make sure that the Red Cross name and symbol is used appropriately."

But Peter Dobkin Hall, a specialist on nonprofit groups and a Harvard University lecturer, questioned the strategy's usefulness to the organization, which annually receives more than $500 million in donations.

It's "not as though the Red Cross needed to do it," Hall said. "When disaster happens, people turn to the Red Cross and throw money at them."

In 2003, the charity began paying New York publicist Paul Freundlich $6,000 a month to work in the celebrity world and solicit high-profile personalities for its National Celebrity Cabinet.

Cabinet members agree to participate for a year, attending Red Cross events and taping public service announcements, said Darren Irby, Red Cross vice president of communications and marketing.

Irby said Freundlich has helped the organization negotiate the labyrinth of celebrityhood.

"Working with celebrities has become, over the last decade, a lot more complex with so many more nonprofits engaging with celebrities," Irby said.

Members of the Celebrity Cabinet include actress Keiko Agena of the WB show "Gilmore Girls" and filmmaker Spike Lee.

Nonprofit groups say hiring celebrity "wranglers" is increasingly common among large charities that want to maintain visibility in fame-obsessed America.

UNICEF has a staff member who solicits celebrities, Save the Children has hired consultants to handle the work and Habitat for Humanity recently designated a staff person to work with celebrities, spokesman Duane Bates said.

"We know it's important to engage with celebrities," Save the Children spokeswoman Kate Conradt said.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which monitors how charities spend their money, isn't impressed.

"They're hoping people will send them money on the basis of celebrity as opposed to good works and effectiveness," he said.

A $3 billion charity, the Red Cross has stumbled in recent years, drawing criticism for its performance after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina in the fall. Its leadership structure is under investigation in Congress. And in the past seven years, it has churned through five acting or permanent chief executives.

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