United Way is crucial to region's health; Campaign: $41 million goal is modest but shows commitment to community self-help.


THE LEAST that United Way of Central Maryland needs to do is meet its self-imposed goal of $41 million in payroll deduction pledges.

This would be a modest, 4.2 percent increase over what was raised last year. But it would be a visible commitment to boosting the region through Central Marylanders helping each other.

Nothing so thoroughly unites the people of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties in a single purpose. About 275,000 people, recruited by some 2,000 volunteers, are expected to donate to more than 250 health and human service programs that will touch some 1.7 million lives.

How well Central Maryland meets its own goal, and how much it's willing to raise that goal, shows what the region thinks of itself. That tells others outside what they should think.

The United Way has embarked on a long and difficult exercise of finding what problems people think most need fixing. It is holding the agencies it supports accountable for measurable results, and helping them accomplish that. Donors get such oversight when they give without restriction. But if they have their own ideas, they can choose any other bona fide health or human service agency to receive their contributions. The community safety net that emerged from United Way's study of what people want has four parts: investing in children and youth, strengthening families, building the work force and responding to crisis.

The challenge to United Way volunteers is to ask people who haven't been asked before. That means keeping up with the changing workplace, especially new or growing companies. Almost two-thirds of firms in the region with 250 to 500 workers have not participated in United Way campaigns. This year or next, United Way needs to reach them all.

People who don't want government to do everything prefer voluntary efforts. But that principle works only if those same people contribute their time, talent or a portion of the fruit of their labor.

By making a single pledge at the workplace, donors support many programs and don't have to listen to multiple appeals. A time of relative prosperity and full employment is when generosity should flow easily, so that when the business cycle turns and the need is greater, the community already knows how to help itself.

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