The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal workplace-charity organization, already smarting, feels the sting of the shutdown

The Combined Federal Campaign largely suspended, though most agencies remain open

Furloughed federal employees and supporters protested the ongoing government shutdown, urging President Trump and Congress to open the government. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

For charitable organizations supported by federal employees, the partial government shutdown is a kick in the gut to a critical patient already bleeding out.

The Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), under the direction of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), is the workplace-giving umbrella for a variety of charities. For years, it has suffered from declining contributions as well as remedies for its aliments that did more harm than good. The 2017 campaign saw a 40 percent drop in contributions from the year before.

Now comes President Trump’s shutdown, which tastes like castor oil, but with none of the benefits. Because they are locked out of work, some federal workers are looking for help from the very charities that seek contributions from federal employees. Although about 75 percent of the government is working, the campaign is largely at a standstill, because when OPM is not on the job, neither is CFC. “Work requiring OPM oversight must be suspended until we are authorized to continue operations,” said an agency memorandum issued shortly before this record-setting nonsense began.

The end date for the 2018 campaign was Friday. “Under no circumstances” will that be extended, the memo said. Final information on current contributions are not yet available, but no one is optimistic.

“We track the data, and we’ve seen the U.S. experience four government shutdowns since 2013, with two of the shutdowns occurring during the CFC giving period. We don’t want to call this the new normal, despite the trend, because we simply will not accept a situation that has such long-term devastation for so many,” said Jim Starr, president and CEO of America’s Charities. “Today, federal workers are struggling to pay bills because of the shutdown. They also cannot be active, connected participants in the Combined Federal Campaign when they are not in the office to begin with. In fact, the very same federal workers will look to nonprofits to manage their health care, child care and other vital everyday services, and the shutdown presents a threat to funding for these services.”

Mark Bergel, founder and executive director of A Wider Circle, said donations have declined, “and this gets more significant with each passing day” that much of the government is closed.

“The shutdown began right when we normally see a lot of donations for both CFC and overall giving — year-end, holiday giving,” said Thomas G. Bognanno, president and CEO of Community Health Charities.

He added: “We started seeing declines in our CFC pledge reports, as well as heard about some employees canceling their donations.”

However, the shutdown is mostly exacerbating issues that have plagued the CFC for years. Its difficulties have become so serious now that it prompted Marshall Strauss, a longtime CFC insider, to ask: “Can the CFC survive?”

Strauss, chief executive of the Workplace Giving Alliance and treasurer of the CFC Foundation, has long objected to administrative changes OPM made to the campaign. He also was a member of the CFC-50 Commission, appointed by the OPM director in 2011, the campaign’s 50th anniversary, “to ensure the program’s continued growth and success.”

It hasn’t turned out that way.

He posed the question about the CFC’s survival in an article he wrote for Nonprofit Quarterly in November, and elaborated on the subject in an interview Friday. I’ve talked with him over the years about the CFC’s problems and never found him more discouraged.

“The campaign is in trouble now,” he told me, “and we’re seeing it in the declining pledges, and we’re seeing it in the declining participation rate.”

The shutdown makes that worse.

I think it can survive, but it’s going to experience a year or two or three of great difficulties,” Strauss said. “The disruptions that the federal workforce has experienced over the last 10 years, which of course are only being magnified right now with the partial shutdown, have undermined employee interest in this charitable program. The government pursued a number of changes in the last several years, which have compounded the problem.”

No one at OPM responded to requests for comment because the office is closed during the shutdown.

Some locked-out feds are seeking assistance from CFC charities. “We have seen a significant increase in the number of area residents accessing our regional network,” said Rosie Allen-Herring, president and CEO of United Way of the National Capital Area. The organization launched the Emergency Assistance Fund on Thursday to bolster organizations “facing an increased demand for services due to the government shutdown crisis.”

United Way organizations nationwide are helping federal workers access everything they need, from food banks in Wisconsin to financial assistance for urgent needs in Michigan. “United Way owes a debt of gratitude to all the federal workers who have supported their communities through the CFC for decades,” said Steve Taylor, United Way Worldwide senior vice president.

“United Ways across the country are honored to stand by federal workers in their time of need,” he added.

That’s nice, but our federal workers shouldn’t be in need. Our elected leaders have failed to keep government fully operational — the minimal requirement of their jobs.

The disgrace must end.

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