The nation's economy is on the mend, but Maryland charities are still mired in a recession at a time of growing need.
The United Way of Central Maryland appears unlikely to meet its fund-raising goal again this year - the third year in a row - falling an estimated $500,000 short of the $40.4 million it hoped to collect and $3.6 million short of the goal two years ago.
While the United Way's income has been slumping, the need for aid provided by the nonprofit social service agencies that it feeds has been mounting, partly because of federal and state cuts in social service spending.
Larry E. Walton, president of the United Way of Central Maryland, sees it as a perfect storm of charity, with painful consequences for a wide array of social service agencies. The United Way itself has laid off 21 full-time and eight part-time employees, more than 20 percent of what was a 108-person work force.
"I've been in this business for 35 years and the last two have been the most difficult," said Walton in an interview last week.
It's not just about the United Way, which depends on giving through payroll deductions for 80 percent of the funds it raises. A recent stock market slump has cut the income and charitable giving of private foundations. Nationally, foundation giving dropped 2.5 percent in 2003 - 4.7 percent, adjusted for inflation - according to an estimate by the Giving USA Foundation.
Maryland state spending on social services has been cut in recent years as legislators and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have struggled to meet a mandate to balance the budget in the face of lower tax revenues.
In Baltimore, that has meant, among other things, less money for job training for the unemployed and summer jobs for low-income kids. Funding for substance abuse treatment continues to be in short supply. Charitable agencies are called on to bridge the gaps.
Those agencies face a fundamental problem in Maryland - people here tend to give proportionately less than those in most other states. While the state's average family income is fourth-highest in the nation, we are 16th in giving, and a recent study by the Catalogue for Philanthropy concluded that this combination made the state 30th in generosity out of 50.
Walton, who once served on a committee appointed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening to assess Maryland's philanthropic challenge, notes that Maryland's quirky geography means there is hardly a place in the state that is more than 40 miles from its border.
Because of this, he theorizes, a larger-than-normal proportion of state residents commute to jobs elsewhere and are less deeply rooted in local communities.
A key problem for the United Way here is that it's getting tougher every year to reach people and ask them to give because of the region's transition from an industrial and corporate center to a region with a more fragmented economy.
Walton notes that when he arrived in Baltimore, the Bethlehem Steel plant here had 12,000 workers who could be reached through a single United Way campaign that was run by volunteers within the company. Now, there are only 2,000 Bethlehem employees.
That story has been repeated throughout the region. Last week's announcement of the planned shutdown next year of the General Motors van plant on Broening Highway in Southeast Baltimore will cost the United Way another easy target of 1,100 potential givers.
Walton estimates that about 80 percent of workers and about the same share of businesses in the Baltimore region are never asked to participate in the United Way campaign because they are too difficult to reach, despite the efforts of thousands of volunteers.
The United Way's limited resources are focused on the dwindling number of larger companies, Walton's aides say.
Then there is the challenge of parochialism. Residents of suburban counties are reluctant to donate to charities that do not have a clearly visible presence in their communities.
To help fight that problem, representatives of major funders of Maryland charities have been meeting since March to seek agreement on how to stretch dollars and leverage money through regional partnerships to deal with the most important social problems that cross political boundaries.
Walton predicted substance abuse is likely to be one of those issues. "What we're going to learn is that the same people selling drugs in downtown Baltimore are also selling in Howard and Carroll counties," he said.
If the fund-raising challenge seems daunting, Walton and other leaders of nonprofits are determinedly upbeat in their intentions to meet it.
The United Way president noted that while the total number of givers has gone down, the average employee gift has gone up at many companies participating in this year's campaign. He says his army of volunteers is working hard to increase participation at these organizations.
Walton also noted that United Way is hoping to "spread the base" by looking for ways to increase participation by the fast-growing Asian-American and Hispanic populations in the region. Additionally, large corporate participants in the drive are inviting their suppliers to meetings to sell them on participation. He said he hopes the thousands of dedicated United Way volunteers, including many who give months of service to the campaign, can improve on the current estimate of this year's take.
If the Dow Jones industrial average stays above 10,000 at year's end, Watson said, the organization might get some large individual gifts to push his organization closer to its goal.