Under the Umbrella
United Way Dollars: Who Gets What, How and Why
By Lisa Baker
decades, United Way has been the benevolent giant of workplace charity,
the voice of our better selves.
Each fall, like sinners finding sudden repentance in the presence of a
nun, we dig deep, cough up and shell out.
But in recent years,
analysts say, the nun has arrived to find increasing rebellion in the
So says Dr. Eleanor
Brilliant, a Rutgers University professor whose book “The United
Way: Dilemmas of Organized Charity” chronicles the shaking of the
foundation underlying the venerated charity in the ongoing culture wars.
While United Way
giving was once considered a requirement of workers, whatever their collar
color, many employers are finding that the age-old push to do good is
resulting in bad attitudes. “Employees are more resistant now and
employers are less likely to make them give,” Brilliant says. “In
the old days, there was a sense of ‘we’re all in this together,‘
but now it’s more politically correct to be negative about United
Way than it used to be.”
The resistance has
found its way to Oregon.
At Intel, a massive money center for United Way, campaign directors saw
a new level of dissent this year when cheery fliers went out to workers,
reminding them to give.
Perry Gruber, community
affairs manager for Intel who runs the campaign, said his “email
blast” to all employees was blasted back by eight different employees,
who demanded an Intel version of a no-call list. “The complaints
were proportional to the amount of communication we were doing (about
United Way giving)–this year we were aggressive in our communication.”
the Portland based Columbia-Willamette United Way chapter have declined
for the past two years. In 2001, the charity set a goal of $21 million,
but raised only $19 million. In 2002, with the goal set at $19 million,
campaigners raised $17.4 million. The charity’s officials believe
they will meet their $17 million goal this year.
to United Way have been a trend across the nation, where campaign organizers
have struggled to meet their stated goals, some missing by such large
margins that intended recipients have had to cut budgets to compensate.
While some decline
in giving can be explained by the slothful economy of the past three years,
United Way’s image problems could be a contributing factor,
Trouble began for
the charity in 1995, when its national president, William Aramony, was
convicted of spending huge amounts of United Way funds on himself and
his friends. In 1999, a United Way director in Santa Clara, California
misrepresented the charity’s finances and the clean-up effort resulted
in drastic cuts to its local charities. This year, the Washington D.C.
chapter is in hot water over alleged lavish spending on executives and
staff members, and an executive of the United Way in Lansing, Michigan
in February pleaded guilty to embezzling $1.9 million from the charity.
Other chapters, including
Portland-based Columbia-Willamette, have been criticized for a comparatively
minor offense—overhead costs between 17.5 and 18.7 percent.
But observers say
social issues are more likely to cause the downfall of United Way: Chapters
in many states–including Oregon–are battling donors disgruntled
over funding decisions some believe are more political than charitable.
In past eras United
Way saw itself as a warehouse for nonprofit funding whose choices were
made based on whether a group was doing good works that benefited the
weak, the ill, the impoverished.
It was a simple thing.
But in recent years,
various groups have pressured it
to redefine the concept of good works using a filter of perceived common
values–values that include equal access and opportunity for gays.
Pushing the change
locally were gay rights advocates and two government organizations: Multnomah
County and the city of Portland, both of which threatened to ban United
Way access to hundreds of their employees’ paychecks if they didn’t
cut funding for the Boy Scouts, which bans gays from leadership roles.
board, which had decided in 2000 to retain the Scouts after some debate
and 3,000 phone calls, letters and emails (60 percent of them decrying
such a move), dumped the Scouts in April after the city and county delivered
their threat. Three other Oregon chapters, Medford, Benton County and
Hood River, had already approved policies that eliminated funding for
Don Cornell, director
of field services for the Boy Scouts’ Cascade-Pacific Council, which
serves some 50,000 scouts in the Portland area, says the council could
lose more than $110,000 in 2004 funding.
But that may not happen, if Eugene’s Scout chapter is any indication.
Mike Quirk, Eugene
Scout executive, said his chapter actually made more in direct donations
after Benton County United Way cut off funding than before. “They
cut us off in 2000 and then our funding actually went up. People started
designating their gifts. We used to get $7,000-8,000 in (United Way) allocations;
now we get $10,000 in direct contributions.”
The defense of the
Scouts has affected United Way’s operations in the Portland-Metro
Jeremy Sarant, chairman
for the Columbia-Willamette United Way, says some companies have barred
United Way access to their employees because of the Scout scrap, but none
of them were big enough to cause monetary damage, he said. One company
with 300 employees, in fact, joined United Way after the decision.
But United Way staff
says it did lose a significant longtime participant, a company with 944
employees who this year refused to allow the charity into its workplace
as a result of the Scout decision. They declined to name the company.
The city of Gresham’s
police association banned United Way from soliciting its officers in-house
this year. Paul Poitras, spokesman for the union, said officers had found
United Way objectionable for years, but that the Boy Scout decision was
the last straw.
“This is the
first time as a membership that we’ve collectively decided anything
like this. We said, if they’re going to take a prejudicial stance
against Boy Scouts, we don’t want to be associated with it. We will
not allow them to come in and solicit our members in the workplace.”
Poitras says it is
United Way that is discriminating–against people whose religious
faith isn’t the same as the United Way board’s. “I’m
not religious myself. I don’t go to church, but I respect people
who do, and the courts decided that we have freedom of religious expression
and the right to associate with people who believe the same way.”
He says the Scouts
aren’t the only United Way partner that excludes people. “Look
at the other groups they fund. They’re all exclusive in some way,”
he says. “There are groups for pregnant teens, and since I’m
not a pregnant teen, I can’t get in. There are groups for the elderly.
I’m not old, so I can’t get in.”
argument, however, is that the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision, which
held that it was legal for the Scouts to ban gays from leadership positions,
should have settled the discrimination question.
The ruling was based on the right of free association.
“The United Way says all are welcome, that it’s an umbrella
group. And it is…unless you believe in God and possess certain morals.”
It’s a personal
issue for Poitras, who at the age of 12
was headed for trouble. “All my brothers were in trouble with the
law; I was too. Until I got involved
with the scouts,” he says.
It was his group
leader–a cop–who inspired him to pursue a career as a police
officer. “It’s how I got interested in police work, how I
came into my profession. I was taught values and morality in the scouts.
It became abundantly plain that if I wanted to pursue law enforcement,
I’d better keep my nose clean.”
Poitras and his fellow
officers believe that if United Way is going to be allowed unfettered
access to government employees, it must be open to people of all faiths.
“They are allowed access that no other philanthropic organization
is allowed. City employees distribute
their materials on duty, and you have no choice but
to be solicited, you’re a captive audience. No other organization
on the planet gets that kind of access,
and it’s always allowed because it’s allegedly a non-partisan
John Copeland, president
of the city of Troutdale police officer’s association, said his
union has similar sentiments, which is why its membership voted to condemn
United Way’s decision. “We voted to support Gresham. Most
everybody agreed it was wrong to cut off Boy Scouts’ funding.”
But the Scout decision
wasn’t the only one vexing potential donors.
Poitras said many
of his officers are staunchly against any funding for Planned Parenthood,
which the United Way supports in Oregon, because they see it as an organization
that supports abortion.
But Stacey Graham,
lead executive for United Way’s Columbia-Willamette chapter, says
the money is program specific, targeted to pay for medical exams. Lane
County’s United Way is also specific, contributing to the organization’s
sex education program, and paying for teen birth control. “None
of the money goes to support abortions,” she says.
Even so, Planned
Parenthood’s detractors say the more money that goes to education
and birth control, the more cash is freed up for abortion.
Whatever the arguments,
Rutgers’ Brilliant says many United Ways around the country have
declined to fund the group because of the controversy surrounding its
abortion work. “The controversy over Planned Parenthood goes back
a long way, so many United Ways do not fund it,” she says.
executive director of Right to Life’s Oregon chapter, says people
“would rather their money not go for abortions, but people often
don’t look to see who the recipients are (on United Way’s
funding list). And what we find is that there’s a big push by companies
to be part of the team and give money to United Way. It’s the politically
correct thing to do. But while it started as a good thing, it’s
become a political monster.”
group is not a listed recipient of United Way funds the way Planned Parenthood
is, individuals occasionally designate Right to Life on their United Way
donor cards, and the charity delivers the money, as ordered.
At least, that’s
what Atteberry figured until recently, when a large donation went missing.
Wendy Beeckman, an
auditor from Portland now living in Arkansas, had arranged a payroll deduction
that over a year would amount to about $20,000 for Right to Life’s
Oregon branch. After nearly a year of payroll deductions, she contacted
Right to Life to ensure it had been receiving the gift, since she had
not received an acknowledgment.
It had not.
In fact, the organization
never was told there was a donation coming, despite the fact that it was
unusually large and should already have been arriving in installments
on a quarterly basis, she said.
“I had to call
United Way too many times, over and over. I had to hound them to get them
to send the money to Oregon Right to Life,” Beeckman said.
She was most disturbed
at the reaction of a United Way staff member when she called to ask what
had happened to her money. “He told me the money had gone to other
organizations because they dole out money based on pledges rather than
collections. They basically took a percentage of mine and gave it to these
Beeckman says she
asked “to speak to the highest guy there. When he finally called
me back, I told him, ‘If you can’t do this right, I’m
going to cut the check directly to Right to Life.’ ”
Finally, the money
began flowing, and Beeckman credits the personal attention of a different
United Way staff member whom she contacts on a regular basis to ensure
that the accounting is accurate.
Beeckman chose to
give through United Way to take advantage of her company’s 50 percent
matching pledge. “What scares me is, what about all the people who
aren’t so persistent?” she says. “I wonder what happens
to the money when it doesn’t go to the organization they designated?”
She says she and
her husband believe strongly that abortion is wrong. It is such a strong
conviction that when she tries to explain it, Beeckman finds herself dissolving
into tears. “I’m just giving as much as I can,” she
Atteberry says she
now worries that there are donors assigning contributions to Right to
Life that aren’t getting to the organization. “And then I
wonder whether we’re getting all we should get, because unless United
Way notifies us or the donor calls us, we don’t know if there’s
someone giving to us.”
She says she’s
not sure whether the problem was a managerial glitch or something more
deliberate. “The United Way does have its own agenda,” she
Graham, of United Way, says she’d be surprised if a financial glitch
lasted longer than 48 hours, because the company prides itself on lightning
fast trouble shooting.
She said donors can be assured
that their designated funds will get to their chosen recipient, no matter
the ideology of the organization.
Swing Toward the Left?
In March, the Tampa chapter of United Way chose a speaker
for its yearly conference on women’s leadership issues: Susan Sarandon,
whose well-known anti-war views and criticisms of President Bush have
won her the undying enmity of conservative groups.
Newspapers covered the ensuing phone, letter and email
brouhaha, in the midst of which the chapter canceled the event, apologizing
and explaining that it was unaware of Sarandon’s activism. The event
was over, but the story refused to die, becoming ammunition for the growing
conviction among conservatives that United Way had gone left.
Oregon’s firearms enthusiasts didn’t need
the ammunition: They already believed, based
on the fact that more than one anti-firearms group–and one they
say actively lobbies for restricting gun ownership— is listed in
the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), a federal fundraising effort managed
in part by
Further, Ceasefire Oregon, a nonprofit anti-firearms group,
is listed on Columbia-Willamette United Way’s “get involved”
webpage for wannabe volunteers.
Tim Dunn, executive director of Oregon Council on Firearm
Rights, says he’s seen all he needs to see. “These groups
have a political agenda. It is strictly political to remove firearms ownership
Jeff Sargent, management analyst for the Portland-based
CFC, says that while money from the CFC is handled by United Way, the
fund–set up specifically for giving by federal employees—is
operated differently. Donors are expected, he said, to designate specific
recipients from the list, which comprises 1,800 nonprofit groups–including
a gun owners advocacy group. Most do. “Only about $30,000 to $40,000
last year out of $1.47 million went undesignated,” he said. United
Way distributes undesignated gifts, and each group on the CFC list gets
a portion. “It’s small potatoes,” Sargent says.
Even so, both United Way and CFC insist that recipients
be human service organizations. Neither accepts political action groups.
The rule, Graham says, is the same for United Way’s
“get involved” webpage, even though the groups, like Ceasefire
Oregon, are not necessarily funded partners of United Way. The webpage
also lists Compassion in Dying, which promotes assisted suicide.
a List, Checking it Twice
United Way backers tell you to look at the partners list,
the list of groups actually receiving funding. See if you can find a whiff
of politics in such recipients as the American Red Cross, American Cancer
Society, Camp Fire, the Arc, Volunteers of America, YMCA, Salvation Army,
Legal Aid, or the Epilepsy Foundation of Oregon.
Sarant, chairman of the Columbia-Willamette, says too
many critics are focusing in on one or two narrow funding decisions and
disregarding “the $17 million we raised that goes to causes that
99 percent of the public would support. It can have an unfortunate effect.
You see it everywhere–from tax and spending policies to views about
the Portland Trail Blazers,” Sarant says. “People get swept
up in the narrow issues rather than looking at the big picture. United
Way has always been about the big picture.”
Dr. Brilliant, of Rutgers, says bias has been alleged
against various United Way boards for years, and that every board is biased
in the respect that it matches the opinions and values of a community’s
luminaries. “It’s very unusual for a board not to reflect
the leadership of a community. It generally reflects the elite group in
a community, and they vote their values.”
A staff member from one nonprofit group, who asked not
to be identified for fear of losing her group’s United Way support,
says it’s a recipe for homogenization of nonprofits. Soon, she says,
nonprofits will find that they can’t have a mission statement that
doesn’t closely match politically correct requirements of funders
like United Way.
Alan Charles Kors has his own prediction. Kors, co-director
of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and a University
of Pennsylvania philosophy professor, says taking sides in an atmosphere
of growing cultural polarization will damage United Way long before it
affects the strongly held convictions of nonprofit groups or their supporters.
Simply maintaining consistency in such policies will be problematic, he
“If you think about it, the criterion (of non-discrimination)
that they use against the Boy Scouts could also exclude giving to the
USO, because the Army discriminates against gays. Or any Catholic charity
because it is a fact that women can’t become priests. Or any Muslim
group because Jews can’t be imams and any Jewish group because Muslims
can’t be rabbis.”
Miffed donor groups, he says, will simply begin giving
directly to their favorite causes.
“United Way is free to choose whomever it wants.
But once its choices are exposed, people won’t think of it as a
common basket charity anymore and then the collapse of United Way is more
likely...We’re looking at the certainty that United Way will no
longer exist as we know it.”
If the umbrella collapses, in its place will be
a system of smaller workplace charities that will step into the void,
each representing a different viewpoint, so Americans can do the picking
and choosing themselves according to their own political or religious
“Americans will not be told what to believe. They
want their right to disagree. If Americans can’t agree to disagree
about religion, we are really in trouble. That is what has saved us as
a nation and made us so magnificent as a nation. This is where people
have agreed to disagree without seeking to do harm to each other.”
1: By the Numbers
United Way in Oregon: 23 chapters
Largest chapter: Columbia-Willamette,
Campaign goal, 2003: $17 million
President’s salary: Up to $180,000
2002 financials, according to Portland
area Better Business Bureau
Total Income : $ 17,396,827
Programs : $ 11,317,010 68.50%
of total expenses
Fund Raising : $ 3,729,400 22.57%
of total expenses
Administrative : $ 1,473,897 8.92%
of total expenses
Total Expenses : $ 16,520,307
Excess for the year : $ 876,520*
Ending Net Assets : $ 1,497,193
2: Follow the Money
United Way policies allow donors to designate gifts to
any non-profit 501 c-3 organizations, even those not included on United
Way’s list of funded groups. The Cascade Pacific Council of the
Boy Scouts received $141,000 in designated gifts through United Way last
year and will continue to receive designated gifts through the charity.
Donors may also specifically forbid United Way from giving
their money to certain causes with which they disagree.
Matching contributions from companies generally do not
go to specific designees, even if the donor chose one. They are given
to United Way’s general fund, which is distributed to the charity’s
SIDEBAR 3: United Way
Chairman of the Board: Jeremy V. Sarant
Chair-elect: Rebecca L. Jewett
Treasurer: Peter W. Melhuish
Assistant Treasurer: Paul R. Oldham
Secretary: Shelley M. Marchesi
Assistant Secretary: Norbert F. Paulus
Bernstine, Daniel (J.D., LL.M.), President, Portland State University
Bloom, Jay, President/CEO, Morrison
Child and Family Services
Branford, Julie E., Director - Human Resources, SEH America
Cameron, Charles D., County Administrator, Washington
Carvajal, Jorge, Community Leader
Covert, Debbi, President, American Federation of Teachers-Oregon,
Dozono, Sho, President/CEO,
Ferguson, Dennis B., Community Leader
Ferran, Bertha M., Senior Mortgage Consultant, Windermere
Foster, Tina L., Regional Manager, Oregon and SW Washington
Metropolitan Region, U.S. Bank
Francesconi, James, Commissioner,
City of Portland
Haller, Andrew, Senior Vice President/General Counsel,
Harris, Anthony R., Principal,
Jewett, Rebecca L., President, Norm Thompson Outfitters,
Jordan, Michael J., Chief Operating Officer, Metro
Kantor, Gregg S., Senior Vice President, Public and Regulatory
Affairs, NW Natural
Klitz, Steven M., Senior Vice President, Small Business Banking, Bank
Bernie Kronberger, Vice President,
David B. Lippoff, Vice President/General Manager, KOIN
Marchesi, Shelley M., Director of Communications and Public
Affairs, Housing Authority of Portland
McMahan, Timothy L., Partner,
Stoel Rives LLP
Melhuish, Peter W., Community Leader
Menhart, Robert, Officer of the Portland Customer Care
Moll, Martin D., Director, KPMG
Monnat, Mary, President/CEO, Tualatin Valley Centers
Morgan, Michael M., Attorney,
Tonkon Torp LLP
O’Connor, Judy L., Executive Secretary-Treasurer,
Northwest Oregon Labor
Oldham, Paul R., Vice President and Corporate Controller,Tektronix,
Rosenbloom, Richard H., Office Managing Partner, Deloitte & Touche
Sarant, Jeremy V., Attorney at Law
Stickel, Patrick F., President, Oregonian Publishing Company
Talton, Carl, President, Entrepreneurial Community Collaborative
Woolworth, Richard L., Chairman and CEO, The Regence Group
Worthy, Michael C., President/CEO,
Bank of Clark County