Unhappy about changes in the way the United Way allocates its grants, the Howard County executive said yesterday that he would like the county to break away from United Way of Central Maryland and form a competing local organization.
County Executive Ken Ulman said he has heard from a number of local groups whose funding has been cut and that he is exploring the creation of a group to solicit funds from public and private donors for local charities.
A spokeswoman for United Way of America said she does not know of a local government that has left the United Way in recent years.
Howard County employers contribute about $2.5 million to United Way of Central Maryland, on top of contributions from residents of the county - one of Maryland's wealthiest - who donate through employers based elsewhere.
United Way of Central Maryland raises about $40 million a year and has adopted a policy of targeting its grants to fewer agencies. This has left some nonprofits scrambling to raise funds that they used to count on getting from the United Way.
Nationwide, more than 1,300 local United Way organizations raised $3.98 billion in 2005-2006, making it the nation's largest private charity. If more jurisdictions adopt what Howard County is proposing, it could seriously hamper the group's effectiveness.
Some government employees - notably federal workers through the Combined Federal Campaign - donate to charity through separate annual workplace appeals. In Baltimore, city employees and retirees contribute to the Combined Charity Campaign.
James M. Ferris, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, said talking about starting a separate charity is easier than doing it.
"It's not clear the corporations would embrace a government charity drive," he said, though Ulman said he has explored the idea informally with several local business leaders.
"It's very difficult to create a philanthropic organization and get community support," Ferris said. Other groups, mainly "communities of color," pulled away from United Way several decades ago when they felt excluded, Ferris said, and that produced changes in the way the giant charity dealt with them.
Sheila Consaul, a spokeswoman for United Way of America in Alexandria, Va., said nonprofits across the nation have complained about losing money under a new United Way funding formula that stresses permanent, measurable results.
"There have definitely been some groups that are not happy with the new structure, mainly because they've gotten complacent or because they've got to do more to justify funding," she said.
Larry E. Walton, executive director of United Way of Central Maryland, said a split would be "tragic" as well as wasteful and ineffective. He said United Way of Central Maryland was aware of Ulman's concerns and is creating a task force in Howard County "to look at this whole issue."
Walton, a Howard County resident, said "the total dollars we are spending in Howard County this year is the same as last year. The mix of agencies is different." He said a panel of Howard residents helped decide on how the money was spent in the county.
But Ulman said yesterday afternoon that the funding cuts have left him "very frustrated."
"I'm sitting here making final decisions for my budget, and I've got a letter from the board of ARC [the former Association of Retarded Citizens] begging me to make up $100,000 in cuts. This is real to me," he said.
Earlier, Ulman told a breakfast meeting of nonprofits, "Think what we could do if we created our own version of United Way."
He spoke yesterday to the group of about 75 people in Oakland Mills at a meeting sponsored by the Association of Community Services, a local umbrella group for 150 human service agencies.
United Way of Central Maryland's latest fundraising drive raised $39.6 million, Walton said, up $150,000 from the previous year but short of its goal of at least $40 million.
From Ulman's perspective, a new organization could help local nonprofits that complain about trouble attracting individual donors because of the county's reputation for being one of the wealthiest in the United States. "We could have a strong message to the community," he said.
Ulman was particularly upset by major cutbacks in funds for a number of Howard-based programs that United Way announced in December. At the time, Ulman, who was elected in November, said he wondered whether county employees should continue to support the umbrella charity's annual campaign.
Yesterday's announcement that he was considering broadening the effort to private employers took the matter to a new level.
Ulman said human services officials in his administration are urging caution but that the idea of breaking away is no idle threat. "I'm very serious," he said after his speech.
Ulman, a Democrat, said he was planning to increase county funding for many of the local agencies in his first budget, after several years of static funding. But instead of expanding services, the extra county money will only partially fill the gap that United Way's new process for allocating funds created. United Way officials said they wanted to funnel money to programs that will produce the greatest results.
Ulman and Walton met in December after some agencies complained about the changes. For example, Family and Children's Services, a regional group that also serves Howard County, lost $500,000.
The YMCA of Greater Baltimore lost 12 percent of its funding. Other organizations affected by the cuts include the Boy Scouts of Central Maryland and programs that fight domestic violence, sexual abuse, and help the developmentally disabled and recent immigrants.
Ulman said yesterday that he thought his December meeting with Walton went poorly.
"There's just a huge disconnect," he said, between what United Way wants to fund in the county and what county groups see as primary needs. He questioned yesterday the wisdom of allowing the regional charity to dictate what people in Howard County need.
Walton said the United Way of Central Maryland uses a partnership board composed of 20 county residents to help make the funding decisions.
Mary Ann Scully, chief executive officer of Howard Bank and chairwoman of Howard's partnership board, said, "We're hopeful the task force will be the way forward."
Ulman and Walton said they would like to solve the problem without a divorce.
Walton said he knows the county. "I've lived out there [for] 11 years. Howard County has some very serious pockets of need. We could come up with some special methods in our campaign" to help, Walton said.
"We have less than 20 percent of the employers in Howard County actively participating in the campaign," he said. "The real solution in my mind is we need a much higher percentage of those companies participating."