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United Ways gear up for challenging year

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Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison

Ret Boney

RALEIGH, N.C. – Last year was a tough one for North Carolina’s United Ways.

Together, the state’s 58 United Ways raised $112.5 million, but only four set fundraising records in 2009, says Jim Morrison, president of United Way of North Carolina.

But as the 2010 fundraising season kicks off, Morrison believes the organizations will step up to meet the growing needs their communities face.

“Obviously, the economy hasn’t gained the headwinds we’d love it to have, so that does affect how much money is given to charities,” he says. “Having said that, our local United Ways will leave no stone unturned to raise as much resources as possible.”

That’s critical because many people across North Carolina are living unemployment check to unemployment check, or paycheck to paycheck, so there’s no margin for error, says Morrison.

Calls to the United Ways’ 2-1-1 information line, which connects callers to community resources, totaled 42,469 during the first six months of 2009 and are on track to exceed the 2009 total of almost 100,000.

And of the calls received so far this year, six in 10 focused on requests for basic needs like utilities, housing and food assistance.

“I know they’re going to raise all the dollars they can to help meet those local needs and invest in their communities,” Morrison says of the state’s United Ways.

Most of United Ways in North Carolina are setting goals close to the amounts raised in 2009, he says, with very few aiming significantly above or below last years’ totals.

And many are choosing to keep their goals to themselves this year, a strategy Morrison says is designed to stave off negativity should fundraising fall short.

“I can see why they do that,” he says. “This is a volunteer effort, and the volunteers are absolutely critical. You don’t want it to appear they didn’t succeed with all the time and investment they put into it.”

At the same time, many still make their goals public, giving both volunteers and donors a number to reach for.

Either way, Morrison is cautiously optimistic about this year’s round of campaigns.

“I’m feeling better than last year,” he says. “My gut is saying there won’t be a tremendous amount of improvement, but if another shoe doesn’t drop, I’m feeling we should raise as much or maybe a little more than last year.”

To raise those critical dollars, United Ways this year are making a greater effort to engage with their communities, Morrison says.

United Way of Alamance County, for example, took potential donors on a bus tour of the county, letting them hear directly from service providers and recipients about local needs.

“The more we can make that personal connection with the donor and show them how their donations make a difference in the lives of other people in their community, I hope that would lead to success in the campaign,” says Morrison.

To enhance that personal connection, many United Ways are beginning to use social media, and about 20 United Way representatives recently attended a full-day social-media training provided by IBM and the United Way of the Triangle.

The message they will impart likely will center on the importance of neighbor helping neighbor, says Morrison, because “even at 10 percent unemployment, we still have 90 percent employment,” meaning there are still people who are able to make a difference in their community.

“It’s the thinking of ‘we before me’ that really resonates,” he says. “That’s what United Way is about – it’s about the whole breadth and scope of what people can do to help in a community – by giving, advocating and volunteering.”

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