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Fundraising stretch

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By Jennifer Whytock

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. – Although its annual fund drive fell short of its target last year, and the economy still is struggling, Rocky Mount Area United Way has set a higher goal for its drive this year.

Reaching that goal will depend on raising more from small businesses, and helping people understand that United Way addresses community needs year-round, says Michelle Sessoms, executive director.

The 2004 drive, chaired by Tom Rogers, chief strategic officer at RBC Centura bank, was launched this week with a $1.25 million goal, up from $1.2 million last year, when the drive raised only $1.08 million.

Sessoms says reaching last year’s goal, which was tough but realistic, was hurt when Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories spun off a local plant, and many employees opted to retire and stop contributing to the workplace campaign, says Sessoms.

Donations from Abbott, which is the largest contributor to United Way, fell 18 percent in 2003 to $225,855, she says.

With the local economy shifting from large manufacturing plants to firms with fewer employees, United Way this year aims to add more employee campaigns at small businesses, she says.

Though several major employers have shrunk or disappeared, she says, the loss has been partly offset by increased donations from others, such as RBC Centura, which gave $152,110 in 2003, nearly 40 percent more than in 2002, and Consolidated Diesel, which consistently gives over $100,000 despite numerous layoffs.

“Our strength is employee campaigns, which are about 85 percent of donations we get, but we need to think about how to do business differently because the economy is changing,” she says.

To attract more small businesses, United Way aims to better educate them about how to run a workplace campaign, how much time it takes, and what impact a small campaign can make.

The group aims to dispel some small companies’ misconceptions that they are too small to run an employee campaign, or that a campaign is too complicated and time-consuming to run, she says.

United Way needs to better explain to corporate employees the difference between “designated” donations, in which a donor earmarks a gift to a specific nonprofit, and United Way’s community fund, where donations are pooled and then allocated by United Way volunteers to address priority health and human service needs.

Though United Way prefers to receive donations to the community fund, Sessoms says many employees mistakenly believe they must designate their donations to specific nonprofits.

She also says United Way, which funds 36 programs at 15 local agencies, needs to do a better job tracking the impact of a small company’s giving on the community to help employees understand that smaller donations can make a difference.

To better focus on its impact, United Way will soon identify a handful of priority community needs it will address through the community fund and advocacy, and by helping agencies find volunteers and grants from other sources.

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