The United Way's decision to close its offices in Virginia's outer suburbs has prompted some officials in those burgeoning and increasingly affluent counties to consider seceding from the District-based organization, even as the fall fundraising campaign prepares to kick off.
Representatives from Loudoun and Prince William counties, under pressure from local charities that get support from the United Way of the National Capital Area, say moves including the closing of several regional offices demonstrate that their fast-growing suburbs are getting short shrift.
The charity's executive director says the actions are necessary to reduce administrative costs in an organization that has been racked by scandal and financial woes.
In Prince William, Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) is pushing a plan that would eliminate United Way's monopoly on soliciting the county's 11,000 employees and replace it with an umbrella agency that would raise money and distribute it to local charities.
"The closing of the [Prince William] office and the dismantling of the structure has sent alarm bells throughout the not-for-profit community in Prince William," Connaughton said.
"We're looking at all options. We would like to stay with [the local United Way] because of their name," said Karen Velez, a regional board member from Loudoun. "Our bottom line out here is what is best for our nonprofits. If we don't have a local presence, who is going to service us?"
At a meeting of the regional charity's executive board yesterday, some suburban representatives concerned that attention, fundraising and funding efforts would no longer reach the outer areas of region pushed at least to split the Virginia territory into two -- one inside the Capital Beltway and one outside. The regional United Way's chief executive, Charles W. Anderson, agreed to meet with suburban representatives about the plan early next week, a United Way spokesman said.
"No matter whether decisions are made from Washington, D.C., or locally, the important thing to keep in mind is what is best for our local agencies," said Steve Danziger, a regional board member from Prince William. "When all the emotion leaves the room, everyone agrees that has to be done."
Still, Danziger and nonprofit directors fear the office closings and uncertainty could hamper the United Way's annual campaign, which begins Monday. The local Virginia organizations considered breaking away at the height of financial scandals that rocked United Way two years ago, but they decided to stay and support reform. In May, the former chief executive of the capital region, Oral Suer, was sentenced to 27 months in prison after pleading guilty to defrauding the charity of almost $500,000.
Now some local charities fear that the area United Way is abandoning them.
"Why would I expect a donor in Prince William to contribute to [the capital area United Way] when they are blatantly being told that your community is not their priority?" asked Lindy Garnette, executive director of SERVE Inc., which runs a homeless shelter, food bank and career training center in Manassas. She said the organization's contributions from the United Way dropped from $236,000 two years ago to $110,000 last year.
Garnette said she supported a more local alternative to the current United Way organization.
"Their emphasis will be with rebuilding their relationships with Pepco and ExxonMobil. But when I look at my designated donor list, it's filled with people working at local companies. If someone is not courting those local companies, they're not going to give," she said.
Leaving the regional United Way would be difficult. Any new group would have to be recognized by the national organization in order to use the name. And the United Way has encouraged the kind of moves the capital-area organization is making, like consolidating offices to serve larger areas in order to take advantage of economies of scale.
Anderson said he recognizes the concerns and frustrations of local representatives and leaders of nonprofits in the outer counties, but he said his first priority is to put the organization on a sound footing for the future.
Anderson said the agency will cut its number of offices from eight -- in Alexandria, Arlington, Gaithersburg, Lanham, Leesburg, Manassas, Vienna and downtown Washington -- to three: one in Fairfax County, one in the District and one in the Silver Spring area. Loudoun and Prince William leaders want the charity to add a fourth office outside the Capital Beltway in Virginia.
Anderson said the efforts are a response to the agency's shrinking wallet. The organization, which raised $90 million two years ago, raised $38 million last year.
Consolidation would help keep administrative costs below 10 cents for every dollar raised, he said. In Prince William, it costs 24 cents to raise a dollar; in Loudoun, it costs 45 cents.
A leaner United Way could do its job more cheaply and more effectively, regardless of where the staff members work, he said, by sending teams of specialists in fundraising, marketing and community relations into such areas as Loudoun and Prince William.
"It's difficult to be all things to all people," he said. "The question is: 'Can you afford not to change?' If we continue to operate in the present mode, there won't be a United Way."