When the Triangle United Way announced last week that early results show it will meet its campaign fundraising goal, not everyone viewed it as altogether welcome news.
With this year’s goal tied for the first time to an overall fund that only serves the organization’s member agencies, representatives of the region’s “alternative” fundraising federations fear the $13 million target may be hit at their expense.
Organizations raising funds under the “alternative” umbrella of Community Health Charities of North Carolina have been part of the United Way drive for four years. Members of Earth Share of North Carolina have been in it for three, and groups in North Carolina Community Shares for two. But this year, the United Way chose to focus on raising “unrestricted” donations to its member agencies from $10.7 million to $13 million. As a result, for the first time, non-United Way groups weren’t included in the campaign brochure. Instead, they were listed on a separate sheet to be passed out with other promotional materials.
Leaders of local alt-fundraising groups, which raise money for social activist, environmental and health organizations, say they’ve received numerous calls from donors who can’t find their member nonprofits in the United Way listings. Despite complaints over the past four months to United Way headquarters and promises the problem would be fixed, the confusion has persisted.
“We’ve gotten call after call after call,” says Alice Watkins, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Eastern North Carolina, which is a member of Community Health Charities. “The United Way had always listed us in the brochure and then all of a sudden they decided to do an insert. They say their big push is to get undesignated funds. Well, you shouldn’t get undesignated funds at the expense of all the others agencies you’ve agreed to list.”
United Way officials say the decision to concentrate on donations to member organizations came in response to contributors’ desires for more accountability. “The donors are telling us they want to see what their money is doing,” says United Way spokeswoman Jill Cox. “The only way we can do that is through the Community Care Fund, which is the money we direct and measure.”
Cox says the United Way has lived up to its promise to deliver the list of non-member groups to all workplaces that sponsor its fund drives. “But we can’t tell the companies what they can use and what they can’t use,” she adds. “I’m not sure what people are hearing back about this. The information from our end is that this [list] is going out to all the companies.”
Federation leaders say that’s not the situation on the ground, where some workplace campaign coordinators have been told to release the list only if it’s specifically requested. “In many cases, this information is just not getting to the donors,” says Cheryl Hopkins, executive director of Community Shares. “And that’s not our understanding of our agreement with the United Way.”
It’s too soon to say whether the promotional change will affect fundraising totals for the alternative charities. Final results for the United Way drive won’t be announced until March. But this isn’t the first time there’s been tension between the United Way and nonprofits that raise funds under different umbrellas.
Board members of Community Shares–which includes activist organizations like Student Action with Farmworkers and North Carolinians Against Gun Violence–debated long and hard before deciding to join the United Way campaign under its expanded “Donor Choice” program in 2000. During that initial year, the North Carolina Waste Awareness Reduction Network–a member of the alternative federation–was kept off the official campaign roster. The United Way said the group failed to meet requirements that agencies participating in its drive spend half their time doing “human service” work. But leaders of the environmental action group believe they were shut out because of their loud criticisms of Carolina Power & Light, a key United Way supporter. (N.C. WARN is on this year’s list of non-United Way charities.)
Even local federations that have had a smooth relationship up to now with the United Way say the current wrangling may mark the end of their participation in the organization’s annual workplace campaigns. A Dec. 6 meeting between United Way and alternative fundraising leaders is likely to be a showdown over the treatment of non-member agencies.
Federation leaders point out that they’ve already agreed to restrictions on campaign advertising as a condition of joining the United Way drive. And they pay fees of anywhere from 12 to 21 percent to cover administrative costs.
“For us to agree to pay those expenses and then not be represented is troublesome,” says Dan Litz, executive director of Community Health Charities. “In the 2001 campaign, our designations in the Donor Choice campaign exceeded $900,000. Our concern is that because of the United Way’s seemingly arbitrary decision [to list non-members separately], when the results come in in March, our designations will dramatically decrease.”
The situation is no surprise to United Way critics like Kevin Ronnie of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Ronnie, who’s been studying the relationship between United Ways and alternative federations for years, says what Triangle-area charities are experiencing is “the norm.”
In order to limit competition from a growing number of alternative fund raisers (nationally, there are now 191), Ronnie says the United Way typically pulls them into its “Donor Choice” program, then rolls out restrictions on advertising, the amounts that can be given to non-member organizations, and which groups are eligible to participate in its workplace drives.
“The alternative federations enter these campaigns with the assumption that what they’re receiving is an opportunity to get a contribution from anybody in the workplace,” Ronnie says. “But if you can’t tell people how to give to you, what’s the point?”
As the number of donors seeking to target their United Way dollars to particular organizations has exploded in recent years, Ronnie says the United Way has sought ways to limit those options, even while it appears to be taking the alternative federations under its wing.
“The point is, the United Way is not about choice,” he says. “Their philosophy is about control and where the money goes. I think the federations are better off without the United Way. They might not raise as much money initially, but they would have their freedom. They’d be able to tell donors who they are without restrictions.”
United Way leaders argue that strategies to increase “undesignated” donations to member agencies are necessary in the context of an uncertain economy and last year’s diversion of many charitable dollars to nonprofits formed in the wake of Sept. 11. The Triangle United Way cut funds to its 85 member agencies by 25 percent last spring after Community Care contributions dropped from $14.2 million to $10.7 million.
Despite positive early reports, this year’s campaigns are already running slower than last year’s. “We still have a long way to go to ensure we meet our $13 million Community Care Fund goal and restore our agencies abilities to serve people in need,” Cox says.
Alternative fundraisers counter that it’s unfair to pit organizations against each other in order to hit the mark. A better strategy, they say, would be to work to raise the overall level of charitable giving by respecting donors’ choices.
“We’re never going to get away from having to work together in places where companies have opened up” campaigns to non-United Way organizations, says Earth Share’s Director Jill Lewis. “If donors aren’t getting the information they need to make an aware pledge, then the community issues we all care about will suffer.”