President of American Red Cross resigns

At odds with board over fund raising, blood collection after Sept. 11

October 27, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Dr. Bernadine Healy resigned the presidency of the American Red Cross yesterday, saying she was effectively forced out by her board even as the organization prepared to spend an unprecedented $535 million raised to help victims of the Sept. 11 disaster.

"The board felt I was out ahead of them making policy," Healy, who succeeded Elizabeth Dole as president of the $2.7 billion organization in 1999, said at a news conference yesterday. "They didn't have any more confidence in me."

Rumors of dissatisfaction with Healy among the organization's 50-member board had been growing as the board prepared to meet this weekend, though yesterday board Chairman David T. McLaughlin publicly praised her leadership and dedication.

In an interview, McLaughlin said some board members thought Healy should have sought their OK before creating a separate Liberty Disaster Fund for Sept. 11 and building a strategic blood reserve that will be costly to maintain.

There were also differences over how the American Red Cross should deal with the International Red Cross' exclusion of the Israeli branch from membership in the global agency, he said.

"None of these differences were such that the board was on one side and Dr. Healy was on the other side," McLaughlin said. But "I think that was difficult for Dr. Healy. I think she felt she was losing the support of the board."

Since the Red Cross became the most recognizable face of charity in the wake of the terrorist attacks, Healy, the first medical doctor to lead the organization, has drawn fire for her handling of hundreds of millions of dollars that have poured in to help the families of the victims - and for what some perceived as an uncooperative attitude.

For example, Healy heatedly refused to contribute Red Cross information to a database proposed by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer intended to keep track of charitable disbursements to victims, citing confidentiality concerns.

On Wednesday, however, the Red Cross announced that it had worked out an agreement to share its information with the database if clients signed a release form.

Several directors of local Red Cross chapters around the country, including Frank L. Miller Jr. of the Red Cross of Central Maryland, have recently complained to the national organization that its continued pleas for donations to Sept. 11 relief were hurting their local fund raising.

Healy produced a budget for spending $300 million of the Sept. 11 donations on family needs, shoring up the blood supply and providing grief counseling, but some philanthropy watchdogs said she was venturing away from the wishes of donors who wanted to directly help victims of the disaster.

Others criticized Healy's continued pleas for blood - even though so much blood was donated in the wake of the attacks that 4 percent of red cells collected Sept. 11 have passed their expiration date. The Red Cross collects half the nation's blood supply.

Bill Blaul, Red Cross senior vice president of communications and marketing, defended Healy on that score.

"Would you rather have just a little more than the nation can use or store ... or a scenario where like before Sept. 11, constantly hand to mouth?"

Miller, the local Red Cross director, said yesterday that Healy's departure surprised him. He praised the work she did to shore up the organization's blood program and to see Israel's version of the Red Cross join the international Red Cross family.

"She's done some really great things for the organization," Miller said. "I was concerned about the overemphasis on fund raising that was diverting income from local operations. I felt like we were neglecting the front lines."

At the news conference in Washington, Healy, 57, said she was proud of her two years at the helm of the Red Cross. She noted that internal polls showed that the Red Cross is enjoying the highest level of public confidence since the 120-year-old organization began measuring its reputation.

Nonprofit experts said Healy's shoes would be difficult to fill, particularly at such a visible time - and with the charity's involvement in Sept. 11 work likely to preoccupy it for years to come.

"She had a certain gravitas in the sector, in several sectors," said Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Voluntary Organizations & Service at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. "She didn't suffer fools gladly, and she would not hesitate to make decisions.

"Finding someone with that reputation, a tough administrator willing to make tough decisions at a tough time, is not going to be easy. Whoever comes in is going to have a short baptism by fire."

Elizabeth T. Boris, director of the Center on Nonprofit Organizations and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, said the Red Cross should welcome scrutiny of its work on the disaster in the months to come.

"They are certainly at the center of a huge fund-raising operation, and their need to be open and accountable and responsible is at a high point," she said.

Red Cross board members plan to choose an acting chief executive officer over the next several days. That person is to work through a transition period with Healy, who will retain the title of president until Dec. 31.

At the news conference, Healy said she was leaving behind an organization whose work has never been more important. "All of America is a victim - wounded and scared and needing help from the greatest humanitarian organization in the world," she said.

Healy, a cardiologist, left the post of dean of the College of Medicine and Public Health at Ohio State University to take on the Red Cross' top job. She was director of the National Institutes of Health from 1991 to 1993 and has been a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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