In 1974, United Way of Central Maryland became one of the first in the country to introduce a pioneering concept: allowing donors to choose which of the organization's member agencies would get their money.
Twenty-five years later, the organization has seen its expansion of choice begin to divide its mission of unity. Donors are sending money not always to the needy, but to places such as Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills; U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national organization; and Port Discovery, the new children's museum in the Inner Harbor.
None of those nonprofits is a member of United Way's family of 140 agencies and affiliates, but they are among many groups that have started to benefit from the convenience of United Way's payroll-deduction method of taking donations.
As United Way's 1999 campaign kicks into gear -- with a goal of $41 million for Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- fund-raisers are trying to discourage designation every chance they get.
At the same time, some organizations that have been getting the United Way designation are marketing the option.
"I'm getting tons of solicitations from charities, saying, 'Designate us,' " said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a member of the local United Way board.
Of the $30.6 million raised in United Way's 1998 campaign in private-sector workplaces, nearly $5.4 million -- 17.5 percent -- was designated for a particular group. Of that, about $3.3 million -- about 11 percent of the total -- was earmarked for groups that are not part of the local United Way.
Another $8 million, raised in government campaigns United Way manages under contract, goes almost entirely to individual agencies chosen by donors.
As a result, human services agencies large and small that have counted on the United Way name to help them stand out in charity's competitive marketplace are feeling the pinch, receiving across-the-board cuts last year despite a record-setting campaign.
To counter that problem, United Way solicitors are stressing the "community safety net" in workplace pitches this year, referring to the undesignated pool of money that is split up among member agencies to address a wide variety of needs. They have moved the place for designating gifts to the back of the pledge form, where many donors don't think to look.
And several months ago, board members increased the administrative fee they take from gifts over $2,150 that are earmarked for groups outside the United Way family, from a maximum of $375 to 17.5 percent of the total. They increased the fee for designations under $1,000 from 13 percent to 17.5 percent.
Adding to the pressure is the fact that about 900 new nonprofits are being licensed to do business in Maryland each year, said Larry E. Walton, president of the local United Way.
"You'd be hard pressed to find any business in America with competition growing at that rate," Walton said.
Giving in two places at once
But for the donor, the United Way choices make it easier to contribute -- and easier to get credit for giving in two places at once.
Nanette Holbin, Port Discovery's director of development, said much of the $54,939 in donations that came to the museum last year through United Way were from BT Alex. Brown, which had a continuing campaign for the museum and an active push for its employees to join the ranks of its Alexis de Tocqueville Society of givers of $10,000 or more.
In all, the company had 65 members of that society -- the most of any employer in the area -- and gave $1 million to Port Discovery, most of it independently of United Way.
"They really deserve kudos in that regard," Holbin said of the company. "They have such a strong United Way program there. I think they're a real role model for other corporations."
Holbin said that while Port Discovery is not a United Way member, its activities do help needy children. The museum includes a branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and is involved in after-school programs for children at risk.
Janet Dorn, a spokeswoman for the company, now Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, would not comment other than to say that the company and its employees "have long been supporters of the United Way."
Baltimore-based U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national organization, receives close to $20,000 a year through United Way, said Sally Ratcliffe, the organization's director of development.
"Our United Way dollars at U.S. Lacrosse usually come from the larger donor," Ratcliffe said. "I personally don't encourage people to give through United Way to us, because we're not a member of United Way. I'd love for them to give the money but I also understand the predicament United Way is in."
More than $200,000 in designations went to private schools last year, some of them prestigious. Walton said that gifts to private schools are down by about two-thirds since he came to the local United Way in 1996 and that he has been trying to educate "companies where that has been prevalent" about the need for undesignated donations.
'We're very grateful'
Peter O'Neill, head of school at Garrison Forest, which topped the list of designated schools last year with $60,891 in United Way donations, said the gifts came mainly from parents and others affiliated with the school.
While he does not actively encourage the gifts, O'Neill said they are not inconsistent with United Way's mission, because the money helps Garrison Forest provide financial aid for needy students.
"It's not something that we have directly solicited in any way," O'Neill said. "We don't indicate it on any of our fund-raising materials however if someone chooses to designate to us through United Way, we're very grateful for that support."
Some nonprofits that help traditional United Way groups -- the needy, children and families, the sick -- have become so successful at getting designations that they don't feel a need to join the organization. If they did, they would be prevented from asking donors to single them out as designees.
For example, Hal Donofrio, chairman of the advertising firm Richardson Myers & Donofrio Inc., gave more than $50,000 through United Way last year and was recognized as a member of the United Way "Ordre d'Egalite," one of the highest categories for giving.
But he designated the entire amount to Campaign for Our Children, an education program to prevent teen pregnancy, of which he is executive director.
Donofrio said that by sending his donation through United Way, he's actually supporting its work by paying the administrative fee. And he considers his agency's mission to be compatible with United Way's.
"When you're dealing with teen-age pregnancy, that's everybody's problem," he said.
Donofrio said his donation last year was unusually large. Typically, he said, Campaign for Our Children gets 2 percent to 3 percent of its $1 million in donations every year through United Way designations.
Some corporations also send their United Way gifts to agencies outside United Way. St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore gets about $40,000 a year from First Union Bank, which designates the money through United Way, said St. Ambrose's executive director, Vincent Quayle.
Sandy Deem, a First Union spokeswoman, said that the bank had agreed to continue the gift because Signet, which First Union purchased, had designated to St. Ambrose for years and the bank did not want to take money away from the agency.
Quayle said St. Ambrose has not joined United Way so that it can continue to raise money independently.
"It's cost me some money, but we're free," Quayle said. "I can go hustle money during the campaign."
Pub Date: 10/04/99