“You’ve got to tell people to stop giving money for Katrina victims to the Red Cross.”

A friend was talking to me at a benefit cocktail party to raise money for people across the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, and I was a little dubious. The Red Cross has a Congressional mandate to step in with disaster relief. As of a couple of weeks ago, the agency said it had given out $854 million in financial assistance to 929,000 families, was housing 483,000 people in shelters, and had 177,600 relief workers on the ground. Overall, it collected $1.1 billion for Katrina relief, spent $1.3 billion–and figured it would need need $2 billion to finish the job. That’s a significant accomplishment.

But there were holes in the coverage. National Public Radio told the story of Betty Brunner, a Red Cross worker in Hancock County, Miss., who quit because not nearly enough help was getting to the area around the devastated towns of Bay St. Louis and Waveland. Jennifer Strom reports this week that she found people all over the Gulf Coast who had yet to receive help. Peter Eichenberger found that in New Orleans, as well.

Institutional charities like the Red Cross can muster lots of resources but don’t necessarily know how to put them to use most strategically. So the families who put on the benefit researched organizations in the devastated areas and found ones that knew who needed help and how to help them.

“It’s because we’ve all worked with local organizations, and we know what kind of work they do–minus all the bureaucracy,” says Marya McNeish, one of the benefit’s sponsors who’s a development associate at Threshold in Durham, a clubhouse for adults with severe mental illness.

So, the benefit raised more than $8,500 for four organizations:

  • The Jeremiah Group in New Orleans, community organizers now working to ensure that low-income people are represented in the politics of rebuilding New Orleans.
  • Southern Mutual Help Association in New Iberia, La., which works on housing and economic issues with farmers and fishing families in the area. (One report said a nun who’s part of the group rented a helicopter to drop food to shrimpers deep in the Louisiana marsh, where no other relief workers knew to go.)
  • Moore Community House in Biloxi, Miss., which works on child care issues for low-income families and is helping them navigate the institutional bureaucracies to get relief.
  • The Tipitina’s Foundation in New Orleans, which is helping displaced musicians with instruments, housing and other needs.

    So give to the Red Cross in the first days after a tragedy. Then, look for places where your contributions can do the most good.