Image problem may hurt local United Way Drive starts under cloud national president created

September 21, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

The United Way of Central Maryland faces its toughest fund-raising campaign ever this week as it battles to overcome a case of mistaken identity.

The public is confusing the Baltimore-based agency with its national trade association, the United Way of America, rocked earlier this year by a scandal involving its high-flying president.

Two national polls and a local marketing survey show that the February revelations about William Aramony could keep anywhere from 5 percent to 38 percent of potential donors from making contributions because they are confused about local chapters' role in the scandal.

"I gave for the first time, and they turned out to be cheats," one Baltimore contributor groused in the days following the revelations about Mr. Aramony's $463,000 salary and business trips on the Concorde.

Local chapters send dues to United Way of America in Alexandria, Va., for services that include training and promotion. Less than 1 cent of every dollar collected in Central Maryland goes to United Way of America, yet the national scandal seems inextricable from this year's local fund-raising campaign.

Officials also are worried about Maryland's sluggish economy. During the 1991 campaign, the Central Maryland chapter estimated that its 50 largest corporations had 14,000 fewer employees. That trend is expected to worsen this year.

Add to this problem the controversy over the United Way of San Francisco and its battle with the Boy Scouts of America, which forbids homosexual Scouts or leaders. That chapter decided to limit contributions to the group because of the policy.

"That's strike three," said Mel Tansill, a spokesman for the Central Maryland chapter. "It's been quite a year."

It also is quite a change for the United Way, which seemed to have a lock on corporate giving. The fund-raising organization once breezed through its annual campaigns in a blaze of balloons and goodwill, raising 10 percent above the previous year's goal without breaking a sweat.

Things began to change in 1990, when United Way of Central Maryland had to extend its campaign for the first time.

It raised a record $38.6 million in the combined corporate-government campaign but did not keep pace with inflation.

At last year's kickoff, the corporate goal was only 4 percent above 1990. Again, the campaign was extended, from three to five months. But United Way still fell $1 million short.

And, although it had a record $39 million in pledges of cash and payroll deductions, the local chapter could not distribute all that money -- reserving 10.5 percent, a higher-than-usual amount, to cover unfulfilled pledges.

This year's campaign starts Wednesday, and officials still have not announced the goal. Apparently, they are struggling with economic reality, which suggests a modest increase or none at all, and the psychology of fund raising, which demands a target that makes people stretch.

Robert D. Kunish, chairman of PHH Corp., twice before had turned down the United Way chairman's job. This year, he decided to share the post with Jerome W. Geckle, a retired PHH chairman, because of the urgency created by the economy and the lingering aftereffects of the Aramony affair.

"United Way of America was a public relations nightmare," Mr. Kunish said, "but I think the issue that's still here is the loss of jobs."

After the Aramony scandal unfolded, some chapters immediately stopped paying dues, but the local board had already made its quarterly payment for the first three months of the year and had nothing to withhold.

In April, the local board reduced dues by $43,000, to $303,000. It also decided to pay month-by-month.

When some chapter presidents immediately distanced themselves from the trade organization with strong, outraged language, Central Maryland president Norman O. Taylor took a softer approach. His public comments were measured, almost conciliatory.

"Yes, we all feel anger and disappointment," Mr. Taylor said recently. "But the needs are here. To be angry at Bill Aramony is no use."

But do potential donors understand this, or the difference between the trade association, which provided services to 1,400 of 2,100 United Way chapters nationwide, and the chapters themselves?

According to a recent telephone poll, commissioned by the United Way of America, 70 percent of those surveyed knew United Way had been in the news recently. Thirty-three percent of that number rated their impressions as "very or somewhat unfavorable."

"Based only upon what they know right now, the proportion of current donors that report they will give less next year due to the media stories is 25 percent," a report on the poll stated.

"However, there is potential, through corrective action, to significantly reduce the number planning to give less to 5 percent," the report continued.

A separate study, conducted by Barna Research for the NonProfit Times, found that 38 percent of all Americans would be less likely to support local United Way chapters because of Mr. Aramony.

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