If a Washington-based coalition of 23 environmental agencies has its way, the phrase "I gave at the office" will soon take on a whole new meaning.
Earlier this month, the Environmental Federation of America, composed of such august groups as the Wilderness Society, the American Forestry Association and the Friends of the Earth, began a campaign to persuade businesses to offer the federation as an alternative to the United Way in their annual officewide charity appeals.
Since the United Way has a close historical relationship with the business community, it has "a virtual monopoly on the almost $3 billion a year in fund raising that goes on in the workplace," Kal Stein, executive director of the federation, said in Baltimore yesterday during a stop on an eight-city tour to get the group's message across.
"Nobody's knocking what the United Way does," he said, "but we think people should have a choice."
Local United Way officials counter that they are already addressing environmental issues through the activities of United Way-affiliated agencies, such as the Boy Scouts and the Citizens Planning & Housing Association, which are engaged in neighborhood recycling projects.
A United Way program also is helping more than 100 area companies recycle used toner cartridges from computer printers, said Mel Tansill, a spokesman for United Way of Central Maryland.
"To the extent that the environment enhances the quality of life, we're very active where we can be," Mr. Tansill said.
Founded in 1988 to help environmental groups gain access to funds collected through payroll deductions, the federation raised more than $5 million in the 1989 Combined Federal Campaign, through which federal workers may donate to an umbrella group representing many charities.
That response proves that "environmental issues are clearly very, very important. People are trying to see some changes made, and they're willing to pledge a part of their salaries to do it," said John Jensen, the federation's chairman, who also is vice president for development of the 6.6-million-member National Wildlife Federation.
Under the federal program's rules, employees who pledged money to the federation could designate that their donations go entirely to one or more individual organizations, or to the entire 23-member federation, Mr. Jensen said.
"It's entirely donor option," he said.
"We think you should allow individual donors to decide where and what to give," Mr. Stein said.
Pledges to the entire federation are split among the members according to a formula "that we all got together and decided was reasonable," Mr. Jensen said.
The federation passes on 92 percent of the donor's donation to the designated recipient and strictly limits members' overhead to 25 percent. Even the Sierra Club was turned down for membership "because of concerns that its overhead was not low enough," Mr. Stein said. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund is a member, however.
United Way of Central Maryland also allows employees to make donations to individual agencies -- last year, for example, the Nature Conservancy received $202 from two employee contributions -- but many groups in the federation are not eligible for funding locally because they are based out of state, Mr. Tansill said.
Two weeks ago, the national United Way organization approached the federation to suggest an affiliation, and the two organizations are discussing that possibility, Mr. Tansill said.
"In the next few years, some environmental organizations might become part of United Way," he said.