WASHINGTON -- Wrestling with the effects of a sluggish economy and of the corrosive scandal at its national association this year, officials at the United Way say they fear that 1992 will bring the sharpest decline in donations in more than 40 years.
The early returns from the fall campaigns of 2,200 local United Ways are mixed, but individual fund-raisers in several large metropolitan areas say the overall numbers are dipping below those of earlier years. Total contributions fell in each of the last two years, but, adjusted for inflation, there has not been a decline since World War II.
In Cleveland, pledges are down about 9 percent, from $51.3 million in 1991 to $46.3 million this year. In San Diego, a United Way spokesman, John Liarakos, said, "We're at the midpoint of our campaign, and we're running 6 to 8 percent behind last year."
At the United Way of America, the national association of all the local United Ways, Bob O'Connor, a vice president, said, "We'd feel very happy if we came out even with last year."
The national association's former president, William Aramony, was forced out last winter after disclosures of his hefty expense accounts and the financial manipulations that created a series of profit-making spinoff organizations.
Though the scandal was a source of frustration and fury throughout the winter and spring, fund-raisers in several local United Way offices called the economy the year's chief villain.
Jim Ridge, vice president for operations at the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, said, "We've got a lot fewer jobs in this community, and that translates into fewer people to solicit and fewer people to give. It's not only the jobs that have been lost, but people's attitudes. With corporations downsizing, many people don't know if they're going to have a job tomorrow, and they are concerned about that."
With the recession, he said, the needs of the charities to which the United Way contributes are greater. "That's obviously what we're concerned about," he said.
A dramatic comparison is offered by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthrophy, which contends that 164 "alternative" funds seeking workplace donations have far outstripped the United Way in growth, averaging increases of 42 percent over the last three years against a 7.8 percent increase for the United Way.
The committee's executive director, Robert O. Bothwell, has said for a decade that the United Way is too exclusive, too hidebound in its attitude toward alternative charities and too unresponsive to donor concerns.
His comparisons tend to favor statistics showing percentage growth, a measure that makes small, fast-growing organizations look better than their large, established counterparts.