United Way of the National Capital Area for the first time last year had a smaller amount of money to give to its member agencies than in the previous year because donors are increasingly earmarking their money for specific groups.

United Way reduced its allocations to its 126 member agencies by an average of 6 percent after the amount of general purpose revenues dropped from $19.2 million to $17.5 million, officials said.

At the same time, the amount of money specifically designated to go directly to organizations rose from approximately $11.6 million to $15.5 million.

In the past six years these so-called designated funds have risen from 16 percent to 40 percent, United Way officials said.

After United Way's huge advertising campaign each fall to attract contributors, the next eight to nine months are spent deciding which organizations will get how much money. That process has become more complicated by the growing number of donors who decide for themselves where they want their money to go.

"This is the first time we had a decrease in the general fund since 1974 when United Way was formed," said Meredith W. Johnson, United Way's associate executive director of membership and allocations.

That decrease occurred because in recent years the Combined Federal Campaign of the National Capital Area that collects United Way contributions from federal employes has actively encouraged federal workers to designate what charity would receive their donations, Johnson explained.

"The federal government encouraged designations and used lobbying groups," he added. "Therefore, there were fewer dollars going to the general fund." Federal workers contributed 66 percent of the $38.8 million raised by United Way in 1983, the most recent year for which there is a complete accounting. Francis Marchand, director of the Combined Federal Campaign, said his agency is regulated by the Office of Personnel Management and that federal employes, by law, must be encouraged to designate to specific charities.

Of the 72 United Way member agencies headquartered in the District, the five that received the largest share of the allocations from a combination of United Way general coffers and designations are the American Red Cross-D.C. Chapter, $2 million; Family and Child Services of Washington, D.C., $1.3 million; the Salvation Army, National Capital Area, $766,200; Visiting Nurse Association of Washington, D.C., $641,041, and the Washington Urban League, $581,165.

Those that received the largest amounts of designated funds were Associated Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, $192,147, The Salvation Army for the National Capital Area, $389,557, and SOME (So Others May Eat), $203,618.

United Way kept $3.5 million to pay for its 66-member staff, its headquarters at 95 M St. SW and its eight regional offices. The organization wrote off $2.3 million as pledges that could not be collected.

In addition, it raised $5.5 million that went to the United Black Fund and five major health organizations, officials said.

"Designations tend to flow to well-known agencies to the detriment of the lesser known," Marchand said, "and the United Way agencies are mostly lesser known." He added, "It becomes a popularity contest."

Johnson agreed. "A lot of people give to agencies that have high appeal in the community or to big issues," Johnson said. "If the hot issue is food, then any agency with the word 'food' in its name will get a lot of designations." Johnson called this trend "unfortunate."

SOME, an organization located at 71 O St. NW that serves free meals to the homeless, is an example of such an agency, Johnson added. It received all of its allocation, $203,618, from designations and got no money from the general fund, the allocations report said.

Family and Child Services of Washington, D.C., at 929 L St. NW, received the second highest in amount of United Way allocations for District-based organizations, but only 1.6 percent of that agency's funds came from designations, according to figures drawn from the allocations report.

The process for dividing the money begins even before the fall campaign ends. Volunteers, not United Way staff members, decide how the money is spent, Johnson said. One hundred and fifty volunteers, approved by the United Way board, are divided into 10 review panels and assigned 11 to 14 member agencies, Johnson added.

Panelists visit each agency, hold budget conferences and recommend the amount of money each agency should receive, officials said. These recommendations are approved first by a 23-member steering committee, which is composed of the leaders of the review panels, and then the United Way board of directors. Agencies start receiving payments in July, officials added.

To preserve services, United Way made the bulk of its budget cuts in lobbying and public information.

"In a year of cuts, something like social policy could take a cut better than a more direct field of service," said William J. Ackerman, United Way's assistant director of membership and allocations.

The Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse lost 50 percent, or $22,013, and the Washington Urban League lost 22 percent, or $41,503, from their public policy budgets, the allocations report said.

There appear to be few critics of the allocation process. Heads of several Hispanic member agencies complained that United Way is not always sensitive to the Hispanic community.

Dr. Ricardo Galbis, director of Andromeda, an Hispanic mental health center at 1823 18th St. NW, said, "I think the more grass-roots organizations suffer from insufficient funds. Maybe a combined campaign in the federal government would help. Maybe if there was a united Hispanic fund like the United Black Fund, there would be more money."

Johnson said there are six Hispanics among the 150 panel members. "I know of one Hispanic on the United Way board," he added, "and that same Hispanic chairs one of the 10 panels. So that means he also sits on the steering committee."

Roberta Patrick, deputy director of Southwest Community House, 156 Q St. SW, also is unhappy with United Way, which has criticized the agency's financial management system.

Describing panel members as "crude" during their visit to the 84-year-old agency, Patrick added, "The agency has proved itself over and over again. We've been here for a long time. They should tell us what we're doing wrong instead of snatching our funds away from us over a period of time."

Last year, Southwest House received $73,000 from United Way, a $2,794 reduction, according to the allocations report.

Johnson said, "We try at United Way to be aware of how our volunteers conduct themselves when they are in the field. They are volunteers not getting paid."

He added, "From time to time they get frustrated when they see their comments and suggestions not being implemented. I don't think panel members would go into an agency to be totally critical."