The American Red Cross has raised about $255 million for relief efforts since a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti in January, but those donations have left its local chapters struggling across the nation.

The Santa Barbara County chapter is no exception. It was set back nearly $250,000 after donations began flooding into Haiti, as the earthquake hit right when the nonprofit organization receives most of its donations for the year.

CEO Louise Kolbert estimated that nearly half of the chapter’s funding comes in during December and January.

Whenever there’s a national or international disaster, donors can give to that specific cause, and 100 percent of the money is routed to that effort.

Out of that, 9 percent goes to cover administrative costs for those working on the ground, and toward things such as transportation for the workers, since most of Red Cross workers are volunteers.

“None of that money is kept at local chapters,” Kolbert said. “It’s not like that 9 percent is going to salaries.”

Donations the local chapter was hoping to receive were redirected, although Kolbert was quick to say that she’s grateful people gave to the Haiti relief effort — even if it did funnel away some critical monies.

“The needs are significant in Haiti. … We’re happy people gave to that cause,” she said. “Nobody’s blaming anybody.”

Kolbert has worked with the Red Cross for decades and has seen it all, but she said Haiti is different than many recent disasters. Even when the tsunami hit South Asia in 2004, it didn’t have such an impact on local chapters because the United States was in better economic shape, she said.

The Santa Barbara chapter isn’t alone in its financial hardship. Red Cross chapters across the country are feeling the pressure, and Kolbert said all have been “majorly affected.”

The chapters had been struggling in a tough economy anyway, and funds redirected to Haiti “were a double whammy to us,” Kolbert said.

December’s fundraising for the chapter was relatively on target, according to Kolbert, but January brought in some lower numbers.

“I think we’re going to have a tough year,” she said. “We’re hoping that these adjustments are not permanent.”

Many people donated directly to the international disaster relief effort using methods such as cell phones, and data about how much was actually given is still coming in.

“We suspect there’s probably more than we can imagine,” she said. “We know that there was a huge amount that went to Haiti, which we’re very grateful for.”

The local organization had hoped to bring in $300,000 to $400,000 over the two-month period, but the diversion of funds hit hard. Now, the chapter will evaluate how it can preserve its core mission and critical needs while cutting back on costs.

Kolbert said the goal is to avoid layoffs, but that the chapter needs to look at every extra cost.

She also said that rumors of the organization putting its State Street building up for sale are untrue. It owns the building and the equipment inside, but it won’t be sold.

Across town is another organization that played a key role in Haiti relief, but it has a very different story.

Direct Relief International received $4.8 million in funds to use for Haiti as of the end of last week, according to spokesman Jim Prosser.

The nonprofit group is locally based and doesn’t run a series of affiliate offices, so “it’s apples and oranges from our perspective,” he said of a comparison to the Red Cross.

Direct Relief usually sees donations peak in November and December, but its operating costs weren’t dinged by Haiti donations because a separate fund is used for operating costs.

In 2007, a foundation was established when a longtime donor died, leaving a large bequest of $32 million. Pulling administrative costs out of that fund gives DRI a safety net.

“It goes toward the stuff that nobody wants to pay for,” Prosser said, such as staff salaries, IT support and warehousing. “It’s very unique, and we’re very luck to be able to do it.”

Local churches across town also have stepped up to give to Haiti relief efforts.

Michelle Holmes, administrative manager at the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, which oversees 32 Presbyterian churches, said she didn’t think any congregation members had redirected their normal giving.

“The church is usually one to go over and above their regular giving for needs like Haiti,” she said.

Back at the Red Cross, Kolbert emphasized that all of the donations specified for disaster relief go on to meet those needs, leaving local chapters to depend on other funding.

“We’re just asking the community to support us so that we can continue to be here and respond to every disaster,” she said.

Click here to donate to the American Red Cross-Santa Barbara County Chapter.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at

Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper

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