United Way says campaign falling short

With just days remaining in the annual United Way campaign, agency officials say it could fall $15 million shy of last year's record $45 million.

The United Way of Central Carolinas appears to be faring worse than other United Ways amidst the economic downturn. An Observer sampling shows that none of the cities surveyed is facing a multi-million dollar shortfall. In fact, some are meeting or exceeding goals. This was true even in the case of the United Way in Seattle, home of failed bank Washington Mutual.

Like Charlotte's United Way, all said the economy was forcing them to work harder to meet growing community needs. But Charlotte has the added challenge of lingering public anger over a pay package given last year to former CEO Gloria Pace King.

Mac Everett, the agency's interim director, says the local campaign has so far raised $22 million. An updated total will be announced Thursday, which was once considered the official end of the campaign. However, United Way now intends to keep volunteers working through the end of the year, in hopes of “turning over every rock” to find money for its 91 member charities. That means a final total may not be announced until the first quarter of 2009.

“I'd say a very good campaign would be $30 million this year,” says Everett. “We are experiencing a 20 percent decrease from last year in the accounts that have finished their campaigns. And we had an unprecedented number of campaigns start late this year.”

Only about 30 of United Way's Top 100 accounts have finished in-house campaigns. Still out: Bank of America and Wachovia, which are among the agency's Top 5 accounts.

Everett blames the late starts on the economy and banking crisis, and the public outcry over King's $1.2 million pay package.

The board replaced King just days before the campaign kicked off this year, but public questions lingered over whether the agency had lost perspective in how it spent donors' money.

An early indication of the campaign's troubles came in September, when the annual Pacesetter campaign fell $900,000 short of last year's $8.7 million total. The Pacesetter drive typically involves 150 companies that are United Way's staunchest supporters.

A sampling of United Ways in Nashville, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Seattle, Grand Rapids and St. Louis showed most were hitting their goals, or were falling short by less than $1 million.

Among them is the United Way of King County in Seattle, which is on target to hit a goal of $110 million.

“That's not to say that some things don't have us concerned,” said the agency's Jared Erlandson. “Washington Mutual is one of the biggest banks in history to fold, and it is one of our Top 10 accounts.…The community seems to understand the growing need and we're seeing some (other corporate) campaigns growing as a result.”

Jane McIntyre, who chairs an executive council of agencies served by United Way of Central Carolinas, says all 91 charities are braced for bad news. The council met with United Way officials at the start of the campaign and was warned there would be a 10 percent to 30 percent shortfall due to the economy and the controversy. However, a specific number is not expected until the spring, at which point the charities will know what cuts will need to be made in programs.

“We're using common sense,” says McIntyre, executive director of the YWCA of Central Carolinas. “Obviously, we're not going to know the impact on the 91 agencies for sometime, but it's clear we will not be living on the same budget.”

United Way has about $6 million in reserves it could tap into this year. The agency also has a stabilization fund that a few months ago had about $6 million invested in marketable securities, Everett said. Given recent stock market declines, that amount has likely shrunk considerably, he said.

Everett said the agency would consider using some of the reserves this year, but likely not all.

“This may not be a one-year phenomenon,” he said. “We may have to deal with (shortfalls) on an ongoing basis as long as the economy is the way it is.”

In the months after the United Way controversy erupted, some critics threatened to bypass the agency and donate directly to the charities of their choice. If they do, it's possible that the impact from the crippled campaign will be lessened. However, McIntyre says the YWCA has not seen proof people are following through with that threat.

“We're tracking donations, and we've not exceeded more than three or four gifts directly to us from folks who said it was (in lieu of) their United Way donation,” says McIntyre, “These people haven't surfaced yet.”

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