Local United Way catches the winds of change and sets on a new course


March 20, 1995|By LESTER A. PICKER

Mention the term United Way to people nowadays, and you will probably get the most polarized reaction that the pairing of any two words could elicit.

People seem to be divided into two camps: staunch supporters and die-hard critics. Lost in the argument lately is the voice of reason.

Well, I'll tell you a little secret. United Way of Central Maryland is doing things right lately.

I recently met with Norm Taylor, executive director of our local United Way. Taylor is a soft-spoken, giant of a man, who is only now coming into his own in Baltimore. And the way he is doing it tells an interesting story for all nonprofits.

Last month, United Way of Central Maryland announced the results of its successful 1994 campaign, in which it received pledges of more than $30 million. That represents a small, but notable, 2 percent increase from 1993. Nationwide, according to Bob O'Conner at United Way of America, about half of the United Way campaigns have so far reported in, with an average increase to date of 2.6 percent.

As impressive as our local bottom line is, I find what is going on behind the scenes to be even more interesting.

Taylor is taking the organization through some tough times. Over the past three years, from a high of approximately 120 employees, United Way now employs some 90. Cutting valued employees was not easy but was necessary.

Taylor took a lot of heat, some of it from me for the way in which certain employees were dismissed. But, in the final analysis, that's a judgment call, and the result is a leaner organization better able to compete for the philanthropic dollar.

No chief executive likes to be the one to downsize. United Way's downsizing, or "rightsizing" as Taylor prefers to call it, was particularly painful to the former social worker. But the community is learning that United Way's leadership is able to make tough decisions geared to moving the organization forward.

I'm more impressed by a two-year process that has been under way at United Way, which is fundamentally changing the way it does business.

"It's a new day for us," Taylor says. "We're listening to our customers more than we've ever done."

Which is the way it's supposed to be, and something which I've tried to get the organization to understand for years.

The United Way leadership has involved dozens of corporate leaders, nonprofit execs and users of United Way agency services in redefining its mission, pinpointing six strategic areas of operations, assigning objectives to each strategy, and specific tactics to each objective.

True, as critics point out, the critically important implementation strategy must yet be completed. But by widening the base of people involved in this United Way process, the organization has capitalized on the opportunity to both tell its story and engage more people in shaping its future. That gives more of the community a sense of ownership in its worthwhile work.

It's also true that United Way still faces some very, very thorny issues. Among the top ones are what to do about the several affiliate agencies which command a rather unique position within United Way, and how to handle designated giving.

Thorny doesn't begin to describe the designated-giving phenomenon, which takes a significant bite out of the United Way coffers. On the one hand, it's almost un-American to deny the right of a donor to choose the beneficiary of their largess. On the other hand, every designated dollar to non-United Way agencies means money out of the pockets of the very agencies that United Way was set up to help.

Last year's designated giving figures are fascinating. More than 1,800 non-United Way agencies were designated by donors, the largest ever. However, 1,400 of these received total distributions of less than $1,000, and an astounding 800 received less than $25. These small gifts require the same handling and recordkeeping as large gifts to United Way itself. The small percentage that United Way gets for processing these requests is hardly worth it, according to Taylor.

Our local United Way has caught the winds of change and is setting a new course. Many of us are eager to see its plans converted to solid action in the years ahead. But don't wait on the sidelines and watch. There are ample opportunities for volunteer service in the "new" United Way.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at the Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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