Don't forget those who need our help

You're upset with the United Way. I get it.

But don't let your frustration with that organization's blunders stop you from helping the most fragile members of our community. They need your help now more than ever. With an economy crumbling, gas and food prices skyrocketing, donor distrust fomenting, government revenues dwindling and a cold winter looming, now is no time to get even by getting stingy.

Check out the lobby at Goodwill of the Southern Piedmont. People are crammed in there every day, standing room only, seeking help. The local Goodwill had served more people by the end of July than it served all last year. Or go over to Crisis Assistance Ministry: a line with more than 100 people snaking around the building early every morning, needing help with rent or the power bill so they don't end up on the street. It's perhaps the worst it has ever been there, and it will get worse in winter.

You think you're feeling pain from rising gas prices and falling stock prices? Think about stretching $9 an hour to cover gas, food, rent and other basics. The anxiety we felt these past few days over whether we could find gas and get to work is just part of life for some of our fellow residents.

Misplaced punishment

So the need is the greatest it has been in a long time. The question is, are we going to step up?

It's tempting to cut back. We're all being pinched financially right now. And the United Way of Central Carolinas alienated some donors with its $1.2 million total compensation package for former CEO Gloria Pace King. Questions over how the United Way classifies its overhead persist and the agency has a lot more work to do to restore trust.

But think about who gets hurt by punishing the United Way. It's the 91 agencies the United Way distributes money to, and the people those agencies help.

Hurt most of all would be the lesser-known organizations doing vital work but that don't have the name recognition of a Goodwill or Crisis Assistance. If the United Way campaign takes a big hit, don't expect those agencies to make up their loss through direct gifts. Donors will overlook them.

Take the Center for Community Transitions. You may not have heard of it, but this Charlotte group works to reintroduce prison inmates to society once their sentences end, among other things. Ex-cons aren't exactly the donating public's favorite charity. But if there's anyone you should want in a job rather than on the streets, it's an ex-con. United Way donors earmarked only $7,400 this year for the center, which gets 17 percent of its budget from the United Way. Groups like that could suffer the most if unrestricted giving to United Way drops precipitously.

I believe individuals and corporations will step up. They just want to trust that their dollars really are making a difference. So nonprofits need to overcommunicate, get the message of their good work out there and above all, be transparent.

Many nonprofits raise a big chunk of their money around the holidays. Crisis Assistance, for instance, raises a third of its budget in December. This sluggish economy is especially bad timing.

So, angry at the United Way or not, give. You have at least three ways:

Make an unrestricted gift to the United Way. If you don't like the transparency of the report expected to be issued in December, pull it back.

Give to the United Way and specify an agency you want to help. But know that that won't protect your gift from being used partially for overhead.

Or give directly to an agency of your choice. If you go this route, get to know the work of the 91 United Way agencies listed in today's A section, and remember that the lesser-known ones need help too.