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Federal employees' financial worries lead to less charitable giving

Federal employees' financial worries lead to less charitable giving

As the year draws to a close, Linda Siegle is hoping her fellow federal workers are in the giving spirit.

Siegle, who works for the Department of Defense in Maryland, volunteers her time to help lead the Combined Federal Campaign in the region.

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The Combined Federal Campaign is the federal government's employee charitable giving program. Each year, federal workers across the country sign up to have hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of deductions taken out of their paychecks to support thousands of local and national charities, pursuing causes of all kinds.

But with a three-year pay freeze, furloughs and a government shutdown in recent years, some workers have cut their contributions or dropped out of the program. The brief shutdown in fall 2013 caused a big hit to the campaign, which runs each year from September through December.

"Even this year, we didn't feel the threat of a shutdown was there as much as two years ago, but it's still there," Siegle said. "People are worried."

Siegle leads a committee that runs the Combined Federal Campaign for the Chesapeake Bay Area, which includes most of Maryland, Delaware, the Eastern Shore of Virginia and a portion of West Virginia.

She hopes the 117,000 military and civilian federal employees and postal workers in the region will hit this year's goal of $6.2 million, which would match last year's total.

Just a few years ago, she said, the region contributed $6.8 million. But here and across the country, federal workers are giving less, according to the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the program.

Donations peaked at $282.6 million in 2009 and have been decreasing ever since. Last year, federal workers donated $193.2 million.

OPM officials say workplace giving programs in general — not just the federal program — are experiencing declines. The agency hopes to improve donations by promoting online registration and expanding the number of charities that federal employees can support.

The OPM would not make top campaign officials available for interviews for this article.

In the past, the solicitation period to get workers to sign up has ended on Dec. 15, but the Office of Personnel Management extended this year's campaign until Dec. 31.

The solicitation season is the most visible time for the Combined Federal Campaign in federal offices and military installations.

In the Chesapeake Bay region, Siegle and her committee members work with a point person at each site to set up campaigns, which can include email reminders, social media, posters, window clings, floor decals and conversations with employees.

"Nothing is a substitute for someone walking up to you and providing the information," Siegle said. But she said that one-on-one conversations are more difficult when an increasing number of federal workers are teleworking.

The nature of each office's campaign varies as much as the workplaces, Siegle said. A campaign to encourage tens of thousands of employees at Fort Meade to donate, for example, is different from the one in a one- or two-employee rural post office.

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And with a strong military presence in this region, some strategies aren't even allowed. Social media is banned on many Department of Defense computers. And postal workers are rarely in front of computers, so email blasts and online signups don't work so well.

"We try and be as effective and efficient as we can be," Siegle said.

Once all of the pledges are made, the local committees become busy notifying charities about the contributions they can expect. The committees also review applications from charities that want to be part of next year's program, vetting them to make sure they are legitimate charities that comply with federal tax laws.

Vetting charities helps assure federal workers that their hard-earned dollars are going to good use, Siegle said.

"The campaign period is very busy, but the offseason is almost busier than the campaign season," Siegle said. She has volunteered for the Combined Federal Campaign for 10 years.

Federal employees can choose to send their donations to go to local charities — such as food banks or animal rescues — or national and international charities, such as the American Cancer Society.

For the first time last year, the Combined Federal Campaign allowed workers to designate donations to charities in regions of the country other than where they are employed. Siegle said that's particularly attractive to members of the military who want to donate to charities in their hometowns or places where they previously stationed.

Last year, 7 percent of donations from workers in the Chesapeake Bay area went to these out-of-town donations, termed "universal giving."

With this year's campaign extended, Siegle is hoping federal workers will be generous in the final days of the year. Usually, about $1 million worth of pledges comes in during the final weeks in the Chesapeake Bay region, she said.

"The last couple weeks typically is a very busy time," she said.

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