A mission of unity divided

Charity: While United Way wants to discourage designated giving, some unaffiliated nonprofit groups are marketing the option.

October 04, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In 1974, United Way of Central Maryland became one of the first in the country to introduce a pioneering concept: allowing donors to choose which of the organization's member agencies would get their money.

Twenty-five years later, the organization has seen its expansion of choice begin to divide its mission of unity. Donors are sending money not always to the needy, but to places such as Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills; U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national organization; and Port Discovery, the new children's museum in the Inner Harbor.

None of those nonprofits is a member of United Way's family of 140 agencies and affiliates, but they are among many groups that have started to benefit from the convenience of United Way's payroll-deduction method of taking donations.

As United Way's 1999 campaign kicks into gear -- with a goal of $41 million for Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- fund-raisers are trying to discourage designation every chance they get.

At the same time, some organizations that have been getting the United Way designation are marketing the option.

"I'm getting tons of solicitations from charities, saying, `Designate us,' " said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a member of the local United Way board.

Of the $30.6 million raised in United Way's 1998 campaign in private-sector workplaces, nearly $5.4 million -- 17.5 percent -- was designated for a particular group. Of that, about $3.3 million -- about 11 percent of the total -- was earmarked for groups that are not part of the local United Way.

Another $8 million, raised in government campaigns United Way manages under contract, goes almost entirely to individual agencies chosen by donors.

As a result, human services agencies large and small that have counted on the United Way name to help them stand out in charity's competitive marketplace are feeling the pinch, receiving across-the-board cuts last year despite a record-setting campaign.

To counter that problem, United Way solicitors are stressing the "community safety net" in workplace pitches this year, referring to the undesignated pool of money that is split up among member agencies to address a wide variety of needs. They have moved the place for designating gifts to the back of the pledge form, where many donors don't think to look.

And several months ago, board members increased the administrative fee they take from gifts over $2,150 that are earmarked for groups outside the United Way family, from a maximum of $375 to 17.5 percent of the total. They increased the fee for designations under $1,000 from 13 percent to 17.5 percent.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that about 900 new nonprofits are being licensed to do business in Maryland each year, said Larry E. Walton, president of the local United Way.

"You'd be hard pressed to find any business in America with competition growing at that rate," Walton said.

Giving in two places at once

But for the donor, the United Way choices make it easier to contribute -- and easier to get credit for giving in two places at once.

Nanette Holbin, Port Discovery's director of development, said much of the $54,939 in donations that came to the museum last year through United Way were from BT Alex. Brown, which had a continuing campaign for the museum and an active push for its employees to join the ranks of its Alexis de Tocqueville Society of givers of $10,000 or more.

In all, the company had 65 members of that society -- the most of any employer in the area -- and gave $1 million to Port Discovery, most of it independently of United Way.

"They really deserve kudos in that regard," Holbin said of the company. "They have such a strong United Way program there. I think they're a real role model for other corporations."

Holbin said that while Port Discovery is not a United Way member, its activities do help needy children. The museum includes a branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and is involved in after-school programs for children at risk.

Janet Dorn, a spokeswoman for the company, now Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, would not comment other than to say that the company and its employees "have long been supporters of the United Way."

`Understand predicament'

Baltimore-based U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national organization, receives close to $20,000 a year through United Way, said Sally Ratcliffe, the organization's director of development.

"Our United Way dollars at U.S. Lacrosse usually come from the larger donor," Ratcliffe said. "I personally don't encourage people to give through United Way to us, because we're not a member of United Way. I'd love for them to give the money but I also understand the predicament United Way is in."

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