Behind-the-Scenes Relief

Mary Elizabeth Cisneros shares how the legal team helps to ensure that the American Red Cross continues its domestic and international efforts in the face of disaster relief

Mary Elizabeth Cisneros, VP & Deputy General Counsel, American Red Cross (Dennis Drenner)

What begins with a knock on the door soon becomes a rush to evacuate. Wind speeds are dramatically increasing, water is rising to rooftop height, and what was a thoroughfare just hours earlier has turned into a canal. Cars and drivers are now replaced by rafts and rescue crews displaying the red cross emblem that has become synonymous with relief.

Two years ago, this was the site of the East Coast when Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5 tropical storm, caused severe damage to areas across the western Atlantic, including Haiti, the United States, and Cuba, among others. “When you see a natural disaster—flooding, tornadoes, or hurricanes—all people really have, even if they’re evacuated to a shelter, is what they’re carrying,” says Mary Elizabeth Cisneros. “Sometimes after the disaster has passed, they return to their neighborhood and their house isn’t there, and they’re literally out on the street. They have nothing. They only have the clothes on their backs.”

There are two houses to the legal department at the American Red Cross, but in Cisneros’s role as vice president and deputy general counsel, she responds to all legal activities supporting disaster services, preparedness, health and safety, and services to the US Armed Forces. This includes both domestic and international disasters that may occur. In all, the American Red Cross and its volunteers respond to an emergency roughly every eight minutes, and there are nearly 64,000 disasters every year that the organization responds to. But the response for both domestic and international events varies from a legal perspective. Take, for example, Hurricane Matthew.

The American Red Cross has some of the most advanced weather equipment in the world, but Hurricane Matthew was also one of the most unpredictable hurricanes in recent memory. What was anticipated by meteorologists to strike the New England area the hardest after hitting Florida and the Carolinas then changed courses and headed out to sea. The American Red Cross needs to ensure that the right people are in the right place to begin administering relief efforts, so there is constant communication between members at the Red Cross’ headquarters in Washington, DC, and to those in relief areas. Additionally, during domestic disasters, Cisneros is supporting the Red Cross’ fundraising colleagues by putting up fundraising solicitations and working with corporate partners.

“We are working nonstop on drafting the proper solicitation language so that our donors understand where their money is going,” Cisneros explains. “During that process, and then the entire solicitation itself, we’re asking, ‘What does it look like to a donor? What does the imagery convey? What photos are being used? Is it clear what the photo is? Do we have the rights to use that photo?’ All of that is involved, and it’s literally choosing the words that are going to go into the solicitation so it’s really clear to the public where their money is going. The donor intent is critically important to us, and we want to make sure wherever people intend their money to go to, is where it goes.”

For instance, when Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti and areas of the Caribbean, there was a different game plan in place than when it touched down in the United States. As Cisneros explains, in the event of an international disaster, the Red Cross begins coordinating with the International Federation of the Red Cross  in Geneva, Switzerland, which is responsible for administering support in the event of an international disaster. However, unlike domestic disaster relief, the country affected by the disaster has to invite the American Red Cross in order for the organization to administer relief efforts.

“The legal work we do in preparation for an international disaster is making sure there is compliance with any US laws or regulations, particularly with regard to economic sanctions, or, heaven forbid, anti-terrorism financing,” she says. For example, sanctions used to be in place in Cuba, a country more susceptible to hurricanes and other tropical storms. “When the sanctions were in place, we were always ensuring that we had a letter from the US Treasury that authorized us, if invited, to travel to Cuba and bring disaster relief materials in a country that normally would be prohibited under the Cuban economic sanctions and the embargo that was in place for fifty years,” Cisneros continues.

In the days following Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, nearly 200 Red Cross staff members supported residents by distributing shelter supplies, mosquito nets, and kitchen kits. In addition, the American Red Cross provided the Haitian Red Cross with logistics, communications, and financial resources.

Of course, with a history that spans 135 years, Hurricane Matthew is just one example of the countless relief efforts that the American Red Cross has provided. Much of the organization’s roots are tied with supporting US armed forces. During World War ll, the Red Cross enrolled more than 104,000 nurses for military service, prepared about twenty-seven million packages for American and allied prisoners of war, and shipped more than 300,000 supplies overseas.

Many individuals, including veterans, are forever grateful for the support received from the American Red Cross and are generous donors even after their passing. In trusts and estates, Cisneros has to determine donor intent in those cases as well. While the Red Cross supports thousands of disasters every year, some would be surprised to learn that about 90 percent of those are home fires. While this may not make national headlines in comparison to a large-scale disaster, it does cost money to respond to house fires all over the country. When an individual leaves bequest through a trust or estate, they may indicate that the money only goes to an event such as Hurricane Sandy as opposed to the organization in general, which the Red Cross can use for other relief efforts, including responses to house fires.

Cisneros needs to review the language in each trust and estate and determine if the money’s intent is for a specific cause, to support a designated chapter in the United States, a food pantry, or the organization in general. Previously, each chapter of the Red Cross would receive that information locally, but about ten years ago, the Red Cross decided to bring it to the office of the general counsel.

“Trust and estate administration is fundamentally a legal process,” Cisneros says. “We receive all of that information—the will, the trust, accountings, and court orders—and ensure that the distribution is spent as the donor intended by communicating with our colleagues in finance. “Our donor left money for disaster relief, so we need to make sure that money goes into the disaster bucket and can be used for disasters.”

All of this is crucial in Cisneros’s role to ensure that the donor’s intent is fulfilled. After all, every last cent is vital to relief efforts.

“Any dollar that we spend on legal fees is a dollar that’s not going to help collect blood, or help somebody who has lost their house because of a house fire. It’s literally one for one, so our job is to minimize legal expenses as much as possible, and do as much work internally as we can,” she says.

From the time Cisneros joined the American Red Cross fifteen years ago, she has seen the organization evolve firsthand as it continues to provide relief efforts around the world. But even in the face of new disasters, she says one aspect of the organization that is constant is the people behind the Red Cross, from her team in the legal department to leadership to the thousands of volunteers that support the organization.

One notable program involves Red Cross volunteers bringing their trained comfort dogs to visit members of the armed forces who are wounded or undergoing rehabilitation services at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, DC, where the Red Cross is officially “embedded” to provide support in many areas of the hospital. Recently, some of these volunteers also brought their dogs to the Red Cross’ headquarters. It was a program that some members of the organization did not know about, but were delighted with the news and, of course, getting to visit with some of the dogs.

“It’s just so wonderful that there are activities that the Red Cross is doing every day in the community that literally touch and deeply affect peoples’ lives,” Cisneros says.

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Holland & Knight LLP:

What’s impressive about Mary Elizabeth is her work in both legal and business roles. I have seen her skillfully handle the organization’s restructuring, natural disasters, multi-state marketing efforts, and presentations to the National Board.

—Kevin Coventon, Partner