Opinion/Philanthropy Journal – Wrong way for United Way

By Todd Cohen

United Way is losing its way.

Grown fat from its long lock on workplace drives, United Way had to regroup 10 years ago after its national boss got caught picking the organization’s pocket.

Shaken more recently by an ailing economy, shrinking donations and demand by donors for more choice in the charities they can support, many United Ways have adapted to the marketplace, opening their pledge card to competing charities while urging donors to make unrestricted gifts.

But other United Ways, while paying lip service to donor choice, have worked to muscle competitors out of the way.

United Way’s image also has suffered from the ouster of local and national CEOs blamed for sloppy accounting or fumbled handling of donor choice.

And some United Ways angered donors by banning the Boy Scouts for banning gays.

Now, some United Ways are stumbling as they scramble to shore up eroding support.

Triangle United Way in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, for example, has opted, starting next year, to keep for its general “community care fund” any gifts under $50 that donors designate for specific charities.

With a $4 tab to process a designated gift, United Way says the new limit will curb costs.

But the move could backfire, telling donors United Way does not care what they want.

If it wants the community to care about its work, United Way should find ways to unite, not divide, the donors and charities it aims to serve.

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