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United Way Steering Donors to Local Funds

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page F08

Before you fill out your United Way pledge card the way you do every year, the United Way would like you to reconsider.

Not that it doesn't want your money. It still does, of course. But this year, it's asking donors to consider something: Instead of scribbling in the names of your favorite charities, think about earmarking your donation to one of the special funds the United Way has set up to focus on local problems or specific issues -- such as improving health or helping children.

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It's part of a nationwide effort by many of the 1,400 United Ways around the country to move away from functioning as "pass-through" agencies -- merely funneling money from donors to the charities designated by those donors. Not that there's anything wrong with passing money to charities, but experience has shown that a lot of donors scribble down the same few well-known charity names when they designate where their money is to go. Meanwhile, serious problems being tackled by small, underfunded organizations go wanting.

To combat this, the United Way of the National Capital area has set up Community Impact Funds in each of the nine jurisdictions in which it operates, as well as six specific "impact areas," such as "promoting self-sufficiency," "supporting vulnerable and aging populations" and "helping children and youth succeed."

And it has redesigned its pledge cards, on which employees record their pledge for the upcoming year, to highlight these Impact Funds.

Under the new system, teams of volunteers will assess the issues in local jurisdictions and use the dollars donated to the impact funds to pay for nonprofit programs that address those issues.

United Way chief executive Charles W. Anderson concedes the Impact Funds will be a hard sell this year, particularly since the United Way is still crawling out of the hole it dug for itself three years ago when it tumbled into a financial scandal.

In fact, Anderson expects it will take up to eight years before many donors are designating the Community Impact Funds instead of specific charities.

"It's a big change, but it needs to occur and it's occurring across the country," Anderson said.

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