Donors choose favored charities

United Way core network slighted by contributors

`Designated' nonprofits benefit

July 18, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Donors to the United Way of Central Maryland continue to use the charity to give to favorite nonprofits like posh private schools, museums and the zoo -- institutions whose missions are a far cry from the provision of human services for which United Way has been known.

Newly available statistics from the charity's 2001 campaign, which ended in March, show that donors are giving more to nonprofit groups outside United Way's network than in 1998, when officials began trying to emphasize the "safety net" and to discourage the practice.

"Designated" donations to nonprofits outside the United Way family made up nearly 30 percent of the $45 million campaign, compared with 26 percent in 1998.

Contributions to the safety net made up 61 percent of the total given, while 9 percent was designated for United Way member agencies.

Officials at the charity attribute much of last year's increased giving to nonmember groups to Sept. 11, with donors earmarking money for groups responding to the terrorist attacks. The American Red Cross' Liberty Disaster Relief Fund, for example, got $53,383.

Drew Langloh, a United Way senior vice president, said such designations had fallen slightly in the 2000 campaign. "We're hoping it's going to be a one-year spike," he said.

But that wouldn't explain the growth in gifts to private schools, such as the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills and the St. Paul's schools in Brooklandville. Those designations added up in the last campaign to about $500,000 -- about the same amount as the year before and more than double the amount contributed through United Way in 1998.

Another $157,685 went to nonprofit tourist and cultural attractions, such as the Baltimore Zoo, the Baltimore Opera, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery and Port Discovery.

United Way money that isn't routed to a particular charity goes to the "community safety net" that was the organization's founding focus -- a group of more than 100 agencies that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, take care of children and comfort the sick. Many are too low-profile to get a lot of targeted donations.

One such agency is Communities Organized to Improve Life, which operates literacy and job development programs in Southwest Baltimore. The group gets about $8,000 a year in designations, and about $130,000 from the "safety net."

"It's hard for people to understand why you're still begging for money when the United Way is saying they met their goal," said COIL executive director Judith Bennick. "To me, they should service people that can't help themselves."

Designations to schools and cultural institutions generally are much larger, on average, than gifts earmarked for human service agencies. The BMA got $56,000 from just three people -- an average of $18,666 per donor. Anna's House, a Catholic Charities housing program for women and children in Bel Air, received $26,946 in designations from 155 people -- an average gift of $174.

The designation practice offers several advantages for large donors. Besides being convenient, it allows the same gift to be recognized in two places at once. Gifts of more than $1,000 qualify the contributor for membership in United Way's "Leadership Society," even if the entire amount has gone outside the network. The recipients recognize the donors as well.

Meanwhile, United Way takes an overhead fee of 17.5 cents on every dollar if the gift is to a nonmember agency -- a fee it increased after the 1998 campaign to discourage such donations. Officials made it harder to find the section of the pledge form where donors can designate.

United Ways around the country take varying approaches to designations. Some, concerned about the trend, have scaled back on them; others have promoted the practice.

Langloh said that if United Way didn't facilitate school designations, the donors -- and their large contributions -- would go elsewhere. He noted that the donations cannot be used to pay tuition at the schools.

"What we find is that by accommodating their need to consolidate their giving, we end up keeping the donor and getting a portion of their gift for United Way," he said.

But some large donors do give separate gifts.

Steve Boesel, a managing director at T. Rowe Price, is a member of the United Way's Alexis de Tocqueville Society for givers of more than $10,000 with his wife, Jackie -- who also sits on the board of St. Paul's School for Girls. But Steve Boesel said he believes in giving each organization its own gift.

"I just see one as kind of concerned with social needs in the community and the other as being supportive of a school where our children attend," Boesel said.

Sally Ruppert, director of individual giving at the Baltimore Museum of Art, said the museum doesn't encourage or discourage donations through United Way. The annual total is a small portion of the $1.7 million it raises.

"We're just grateful for any gifts that we receive," Ruppert said.

Some of the schools that receive money through United Way serve children with special needs, such as Jemicy School, which is geared toward students with dyslexia. And other schools say they use donations through United Way to provide more financial aid to low-income students.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who chairs the local United Way board, said that is a laudable use of the money. "We're about building stronger communities in every aspect. Education is part of that, too," she said.

But Jessamy said the board needs to do even more to promote its agencies, and will do so in the 2002 campaign under way. The mission of United Way, she said, is "providing services to people that reduce a lot of the problems that I see on a day-to-day basis."

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