If United Way of Central Maryland was a for-profit business, I sure wouldn't want to invest in it. It has a paltry marketing budget and its overhead is way too low compared to industry standards of about 14 percent. Clearly, it would be a victim of its own good works, putting every dime possible into our community.
According to a recent study commissioned by Partners for Giving, only about 10 percent of people polled believed they were affected by the work of non-profits. United Way represents many of these non-profits, but we aren't getting the message. After all, here is a classic example of how 50 million Frenchmen, or Central Marylanders in this case, can be wrong. Every one of us is affected by non-profits nearly every day.
Have your kids ever taken swimming lessons at the Y? Have any family members participated in Scouting? Do you use any of the day-care centers run by non-profit organizations? Were you and your colleagues at work trained in CPR? Is your next-door neighbor served by Meals on Wheels? Do your kids receive education designed to keep them or their friends from a desperate act of suicide? If so, your needs were served by a United Way agency, in all probability.
Have you, or a family you know, been affected by an interfaith marriage? Then you might have joined a support group run by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Sick and tired of polluted air? People concerned about the environment at the American Lung Association of Maryland are working for you.
Know someone who suffers from sickle cell anemia? Again, a United Way agency is putting your dollars to work on cures and treatment. The same is true for Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, House of Ruth, or a host of community counseling centers, only this time the cures and treatments relate to the ravishers of poverty and neglect.
The point is that in virtually every area of social need, our non-profit community is there for all of us. And, leading the way is United Way, helping to define what the needs are, identifying trends, collecting funds and distributing them to a wide range of causes.
Much of the public does not realize what goes on behind the scenes at United Way, the work that it does to support the entire non-profit community. For example, United Way runs a Resources Center "to serve the entire non-profit community, not just United Way agencies," reports Director Judy Pittman.
Under the umbrella of the Resources Center, there is a Management Resources Center, which offers a host of services to the community. First, a non-profit agency can apply for technical consultants to help with everything from developing a strategic plan to designing ways to market a new service, from financial planning to personnel policy development. Ms. Pittman and her staff help match non-profits with community experts who volunteer their time for specific projects.
The Management Resources Center also offers training for boards of directors, management seminars, workshops and an awards program designed to enhance effective management of non-profit organizations. All these programs are aimed at helping non-profits work more effectively to serve our community needs.
The Resources Center also runs the Volunteer Involvement Program, which recruits volunteers, including board members, then matches them with the non-profits.
A recent workshop drew more than 125 participants, each of whom walked away laden with handouts and good ideas. By the way, all the workshop leaders volunteered their time to train the attendees. (For those interested in volunteering, a special hot line is available, 659-0050. The VIP program referred more than 5,000 volunteers last year.)
The Resources Center also helped set up The Community ResourceBank, where non-profits can pick up new and used furniture donated by corporations.
United Way is in the middle of its toughest campaign in years, some 25 percent behind its goal at this point. We all know why: The economy is in tough shape, which is no secret to the 14,000 fewer Central Maryland employees who would otherwise contribute through payroll deduction.
But, we Americans have this odd thing about the underdog. We root for it, we coax the best out of it, we support it through thick and thin. This time the underdog is us. We're all affected by the work of United Way, which helps make our community livable and makes us all proud to be Marylanders.
Take time now to reflect on how non-profits affect your life and those of your loved ones. Here's an idea. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, for each time a non-profit has touched your life, take a dollar out of your pocket and put in an envelope. Take the time to talk to your kids about it and remind them how they might invest the change from their Christmas shopping.
When you're done, put the money in your checking account and send a check to: United Way of Central Maryland, 22 Light St., Baltimore, MD 21203 or call (410) 547-8000, ext. 340 with your pledge. I'm already past 20 and counting.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.