Disable all preview features

'What Matters' is Staying Afloat

The Tampa Tribune

October 2, 2003



TAMPA - The managers of Certegy Inc., a St. Petersburg business that handles payment processing for banks and merchants, are used to moving paper. But one day recently, they paused to study some.

A worker for a domestic violence shelter had brought in children's drawings to show the employees firsthand the sadness and fearfulness reflected there.

For Jerry Hines, Certegy senior vice president, bringing together the disparate worlds was deliberate and effective.

"I wanted the managers to feel the United Way,'' says Hines, who supports the nonprofit organization and its annual fundraising drive, now under way. "It's easy to think of [fundraising] as a cold activity, but if you meet the people involved, bring in a real-life situation, it means so much more.''

As the United Way's annual fall campaign gains traction in workplaces, its organizers are rethinking how best to connect with workers buffeted by a faltering economy and the war in Iraq.

It's a problem for charities and nonprofit organizations nationwide. But one factor makes soliciting stickier these days. Fueled by a sense of "venture philanthropy,'' the 1990s brought a proliferation of nonprofit organizations, up 76 percent from 10 years ago. But the dollars being contributed, taking inflation into account, have remained about the same.

"Now there are more dogs fighting for the same scraps,'' says Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Mahwah, N.J. "There are too many people doing the same thing, too much overlap of services.''

Kinder, Gentler

The United Way refocused its campaign this year, using the catchphrase "what matters.'' Its quiet suggestion of sincerity is explained in fundraising literature as an attempt to focus on community needs and improving the lives of individuals.

" 'What matters' is about gauging United Way's success by how much change has been affected [sic], not how many dollars have been raised,'' the material states.

That's a switch, Stamp says.

"We all remember the big thermometer with the red line creeping up, showing donations,'' he says.

United Way officials say the shift is designed to show measurements of effectiveness should be focused on people - although they admit that is harder to quantify.

"The campaign message comes from the heart and soul of United Way,'' says Diana Baker, who became president of the United Way of Tampa Bay in April after a year she describes as one of "transition.''

In November, the agency disclosed it had double-counted donations, a concern because an agency's effectiveness is assessed by the percentage of its budget that goes to administrative costs. If overhead is low, it appears more money is going to charities.

Then in March, Doug Weber, the local group's president, resigned.

Later that month, United Way of Tampa Bay fell into the national spotlight when it canceled an appearance at its leadership luncheon of actress Susan Sarandon, who has been outspoken in her opposition to the war in Iraq.

And in September, the United Way of America said it would change its pension plan to prohibit lump-sum payments and tighten eligibility requirements after paying $1.5 million to a former chief executive officer who served less than four years in the job.

The year was capped by dismal fundraising.

In 2002-03, the 1,400 United Way organizations nationwide experienced the worst fundraising decline in three decades, according to a report in the journal The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

United Way of Tampa Bay came up almost $3 million short of its goal last year and cut funding to more than 70 local agencies.

This year, its goal is to match the funds generated in the last campaign, about $23 million, Baker says.

"I think that is absolutely achievable,'' she says. "Enthusiasm is high.''

Stamp, of Charity Navigator, doesn't think the difficulties of the past year will cause rank- and-file donors to cut back.

"Workers don't always know about those things,'' he says.

Even if this year's goal is achieved, it won't be enough to restore what agencies received before the most recent cuts.

One organization that experienced deep gouges was the Hillsborough Association of Retarded Citizens, which learned in April that it was losing 60 percent of its United Way funding, about $50,000 of its $4 million operating budget.

"I realize that for our organization, we really need to find other methods of funding,'' says Richard Lilliston, chief executive of HARC. "But fundraising has become much more difficult. Getting corporate sponsors for events is hard because that's usually done with marketing dollars that they just don't have anymore.''

Stamp says smaller, community-based charities may be the first to go, either swallowed up by larger groups or forced to close their doors. Experts predict as many as one-third of the nation's 900,000 nonprofit groups will disappear in the next several years.

"That's a lot of after-school programs, food banks, domestic violence shelters,'' Stamp says. "And this year in particular, funding to the arts is off. People say: `We want to give to United Way. We want to give to the homeless.' The arts are the first thing to go.''

The Florida Orchestra, for example, recently announced that money problems have led to trimming five weeks from its 36-week season and reducing its musicians' salaries.

Funding from states and the federal government, typically major benefactors of arts programs, is down.

"No legislator is going to say that he's choosing the arts over services,'' Stamp says.

Although the economy is showing signs of recovery, it takes six months to a year for nonprofit organizations to see improvements, and several years to rebound completely.

Seeking Visibility

AdvanceAbility Solutions in Tampa helps about 5,000 children and adults each year with a variety of programs:

  • Its preschool is designed to meet the needs of children with physical and cognitive disabilities that can include autism, developmental delays and Down syndrome.
  • Its respite care program provides a break for caregivers of seniors and disabled children.
  • Its doula program links women knowledgeable about childbirth with women whose pregnancies are considered at- risk.
  • Its one-on-one counseling targets the disabled and their families, including siblings.
  • Its "Tot-Mobiles'' cruise southern and eastern Hillsborough County, providing treatment for migrant workers and others without transportation.

It is the type of agency Baker cites as serving needs in the community that might be overlooked. The benefit of donating to United Way, she says, is the organization is able to seek out and help the smaller groups without the name recognition of an American Cancer Society or Red Cross.

"[United Way's assistance] is absolutely critical to us,'' says Karen Ryals, CEO of AdvanceAbility Solutions. "It's the only way we're going to have the ability to provide the services the community needs. The government isn't going to be there. [Legislators] change their minds every day.''

She, too, sees the need to diversify funding sources. United Way provides 15 percent to 18 percent of the agency's budget.

"We know we have to get away from traditional funding streams,'' she says. "United Way helps because it provides sustainability. We help people who need therapy but don't have insurance and don't qualify for public assistance. Otherwise, they fall through the cracks.

"I truly from the bottom of my heart believe that this community will rally. I know there's the wealth and the caring here. I know Tampa can do so much more.''

Join Our Mailing List

Join over 400,000 other informed givers and get updates on charity ratings, new features, hot topics, and tips for donating.