United Way rides high-tech tide

SUN JOURNAL

Charity: The umbrella organization for the Seattle area has tuned its message to capture a sharply rising share of the area's growing wealth.

May 14, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE - You might say the United Way of King County is the luckiest United Way in the country - and not just because the world's richest man lives just across the lake.

With an $82.4 million campaign just completed - a 20 percent increase over 1998's - the organization gets more money per capita than any other large United Way. It counts 33 members of its "million-dollar roundtable" - givers of at least $200,000 a year over five years. Its campaign has almost doubled since 1995.

And that was all before Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced that he was pledging $30 million to the charity's endowment in December - the largest grant ever in the Pacific Northwest and the second-largest given to any United Way."I think we are in the golden age of philanthropy," Joanne R. Harrell, outgoing president of the King County charity, says of the largess coming her way. "The joy of giving is being discovered by people who have so much to give."

The Gates gift, earmarked for the charity's endowment, is designed to eventually cover all the organization's administrative costs - meaning that donors' gifts could go entirely to the cause.

That point won't be reached for at least 10 years, United Way officials estimate - and it requires that the organization raise a matching $5 million each year for the endowment on top of its regular campaign.

Ambassadors boost giving

So far this year, with the official start of the annual fund-raising campaign months away, United Way already has raised $1 million of its first endowment match.

It has done so largely through a group of "ambassadors" - wealthy donors who put the squeeze on their counterparts to up the ante.

The region's robust economy, fueled by such high-tech heavyweights as Microsoft and Amazon.com and longer-standing stalwarts such as Boeing, has fattened the charity's coffers.

Microsoft alone accounted for more than $16 million of the 1999 campaign total, including gifts from employee paychecks, a company dollar-for-dollar match up to $12,000 and a corporate gift.

Gates family tradition

It helps that involvement in United Way has a long tradition in the Gates family. The Microsoft founder's father, Bill Gates Sr., chaired a past campaign. His late mother, Mary Maxwell Gates, served on a local board as well as on the executive committee of United Way of America.

When United Way wanted to thank donors who gave $25,000 or more in 1997, Bill and Melinda Gates had a party at their sprawling home on the shore of Lake Washington.

Large givers are not the only ones filling the community chest. The organization made a concerted push for givers of $500 to $1,000 in 1999, offering a special pin. About 10,000 people gave at that level - about a quarter of them for the first time.

`Community safety net'

The charity was the first United Way to market itself as a "community safety net" that catered, first and foremost, to basic human needs. In a move many United Ways have since emulated, the organization told member agencies that funding would no longer be automatic, but through contracts that would be negotiated with five key goals in mind - and evaluated according to outcomes.

The five goals are basic food and shelter; strong relationships in families and communities; havens from abuse; health care; and education and job training."It has worked very well for them, and half of us copied it," says Larry E. Walton, president of the United Way of Central Maryland. "They have done a stellar job. They are looked up to by all of us in the field."

The King County United Way went even further, taking what some United Way veterans thought was a heretical step. It changed its logo from the familiar "helping hand" to its own design, which shows several figures catching a heart in a net to emphasize the safety net message.

The charity still uses the helping hand at the corner of its publications, but the new symbol is its main marketing image.

Some of the new money United Way is raising does not go toward the community safety net, but to organizations outside that mission, to which donors have designated their gifts.

Unlike some United Ways across the country, the King County charity has decided to embrace, not discourage, designations. The theory is that a rising tide of philanthropy will lift all boats, including theirs."This isn't about good money and bad money," says Lynda Matthias, the charity's senior vice president for brand management.

That has caused controversy among those who believe United Way should exist solely to help provide basic human services.

Indeed, the percentage of designated gifts has risen steadily in King County - as it has around the country - from about 30 percent in 1995 to 41 percent in 1998, the last year for which that figure was available. But most of those designations, too, go to organizations that work toward the five community goals, United Way officials emphasize.

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