D.C. Area Nonprofits Fear Loss of Funding As United Way Retools

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008; Page B01

United Way's announcement yesterday that it will refocus its giving around education, income and health stirred anxieties among leaders of Washington area arts organizations and other nonprofit agencies that fear their groups' funding could be cut.

Most of the money raised by the United Way of the National Capital Area in workplace campaigns and private donations is earmarked by the donors for specific nonprofit groups. United Way officials said they will continue accepting the restricted money, even if the chosen groups fall outside the areas of education, income and health.

But the local affiliate said it will follow the national organization's lead by directing its unrestricted money toward programs that help meet ambitious 10-year goals, including cutting the national high school dropout rate in half.

Jennifer Cover Payne, president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, a consortium of nonprofit arts groups, said she thinks the new initiative could cause problems for arts groups that have relied on the United Way.

"The first thing that usually is dismissed are the arts when there are any new funding initiatives or when there is a challenge with funding initiatives," she said. "People are not educated to understand . . . the reach of the arts in the community."

The United Way of the National Capital Area allocates much of its discretionary money in the three targeted areas, in such programs as affordable housing, child wellness and academic mentoring. But the affiliate also awards grants to arts organizations and other nonprofit groups that might fall outside the core areas identified by the national organization.

Charles W. Anderson, president and chief executive of the local United Way, said that the agency will slowly and carefully move toward fully supporting the priority areas.

"You can't pull the rug out from under agencies that are doing good work in other areas," Anderson said. But, he said, "as time progresses, more and more dollars will go in those [priority] areas as we are able to share with people measurable outcomes to show people that their investments in United Way are working."

For large arts groups in the Washington area, the loss of United Way funding might have little impact on their overall budgets. Arena Stage has received unrestricted grants from United Way that could be jeopardized under the new initiative, but Jennifer Baker Howard, the theater's development director, said the organization's overall budget is so large that United Way's contributions are insignificant.

"It's a shame that they've decided to take this stance, and we hope they'll reconsider," Howard said. "Obviously, people need to be clothed, fed, housed, but we also feel that the arts are a significant contribution to society."

Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, said he expects some anxiety in the region's nonprofit sector.

"When any major funder develops a keener focus, then of course there may be some organizations that end up not within that focus," Bean said. "But I think it's up to the United Way's board of directors to discern both cost and benefits and do the right thing for our region."

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