United Way losing ground since '90s

Choice campaigns, popular in cities such as San Francisco and Philadelphia, are slowly taking hold in the South.

Employees began shunning United Way-led campaigns in the early 1990s, said Mark Shamley of The Association of Corporate Contributions Professionals.

One nonprofit expert said it was routine for 80 percent of workers to participate in a drive in the early 1990s. Today, about 40 percent participate, according to the United Way of America.

Among the reasons: Many workers resent what they see as employers strong-arming them during campaigns, Shamley said. Others want to donate to groups not supported by United Way, such as environmental groups.

A well-publicized pay scandal at United Way of America also caused some workers to shy from United Way-only campaigns, said nonprofit expert, Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director of The Center on Philanthropy.

In 1992, the United Way of America's president used $600,000 of the group's money to pay for Concorde flights, limousine rides and fees for his teenage girlfriend. He was fired, and donations to United Way organizations fell by hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the same time, the United Way started vetting agencies and funneling money to those whose mission fit their goals.

As a result, funding for some national nonprofits dropped.

The American Cancer Society's funding fell by about $13million from 1999 to 2007, according to the United Way of America. To recoup those lost dollars, the cancer society asked corporations to include it in fundraising drives.

Corporations, including Wal-Mart and CB Richard Ellis, adopted choice campaigns at the cancer society's urging, society officials said.

Cathy Morelli of Charlotte supports choice.

Morelli, a textile manager, said she has donated to United Way but decided she wants to control her giving. She now donates to several nonprofits, including Metrolina Food Bank and animal rescue groups.

“My preference is to be able to support organizations and know the money is going directly to that organization,” she said. “I think the United Way is a good organization. But I don't want my money to be going to pay someone's salary. I want it to go to the group doing the grass-roots work.”