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Kenyon: Wrong Way, United Way

Imagine sitting down at a restaurant and having the waitress suggest that rather than showing you a menu, she’d prefer to order for you. But if you really insist on deciding for yourself what to buy for lunch that would be OK. She’ll just have to charge you a “management fee.” For $10, you’re only going to get $8.20 worth of food.

Welcome to the new ways of the United Way.

The nonprofit organization still wants your money in order to do good, it just doesn’t want you telling it how to spend your gift.

We’re at the time of year when employees at businesses across the Upper Valley are being asked to sign up for United Way’s payroll deduction plan. In the so-called company campaigns, employees pledge as little as a dollar a week, which is then automatically taken out of their paychecks throughout the year. The small individual contributions add up. In the Upper Valley, the United Way raises about $1 million a year.

But I’m starting to worry that the United Way might have lost its way. Here’s why:

Since 1970, the United Way has raised money on behalf of Upper Valley nonprofit groups with a social services bent. Along with pledge forms, potential donors received a list of 30 or so United Way supported organizations to which individual gifts could be directed. A couple of weeks ago, when I opened my United Way information packet, the list was missing.

I went to Upper Valley United Way’s website. There wasn’t much on it that was helpful, except a link to the Manchester-based Granite United Way. (In 2010, Upper Valley United Way merged with three other regional branches to form Granite United Way.)

Under the “frequently asked questions” section of Granite’s website was the information that I was looking for: “United Way recommends that you invest your gift in our Community Impact Fund, where your dollars will address the community’s most critical needs. It is the only giving option that allows you to join with thousands of others to focus our resources where we can have the greatest impact.”

In other words, Granite United Way wants to order for you.

Yesterday, Granite President Patrick Tufts told me from his office in Manchester that United Way, nationally, is becoming more “outcome-based.” Granite United Way has decided to focus on helping nonprofit organizations that address three critical needs — education, income (or lack of) and health.

“We’ll fund any organization that is making a difference in the community, but we want to be able to measure the impact of their programs. We hold them accountable to their goals,” Tufts said.

That sounds reasonable. But I still sense something of a we-know-best attitude creeping into the United Way. Why discourage people from donating to the charity of their choice?

The beauty of the United Way’s company campaign has always been that it allows people who might be living paycheck-to-paycheck to contribute to a worthy cause in their community without disrupting their own finances. A weekly $3 payroll deduction to the United Way, which is then turned over to the designated organization, is easier to swing than writing a check for $156 directly to that charity at year’s end.

Although Granite United Way prefers donors give to its Upper Valley general fund, Tufts said that people can still choose where their charitable dollars go. It just won’t be all of their dollars. According to Granite’s pledge form, “designated pledges are assessed a processing fee.”

Although the amount is not mentioned on the pledge form, Tufts told me that Granite takes 18 percent off the top. The pledge is reduced by “our actual cost of doing business,” which is less than most fundraising organizations in New Hampshire, he said.

Even with the changes it’s made in recent years, the United Way still does good work in the Upper Valley. This year, the organization pumped more than $725,000 into programs. But scanning Granite United Way’s most recent annual financial report posted on its website, I noticed that Listen wasn’t on the list of grant recipients. For 40 years, the nonprofit has served as a safety net for Upper Valley residents who have fallen on hard times.

Last year, Listen delivered $150,000 in heating fuel assistance and $40,000 to help folks in need with rent payments. In my way of thinking, United Way should be knocking on Listen’s door asking, “How can we help you?”

Instead, applying for a United Way grant now involves “reams of paperwork,” said Merilynne Bourne, Listen’s executive director. “It felt like I was dealing with the federal government.”

When Bourne started at Listen 15 years ago, the nonprofit could count on United Way for $20,000 annually. Over the years, the grant dwindled to about $4,000. After years of looking at United Way as a fundraising partner, “it’s not like that any more,” Bourne told me. With the merger, the Upper Valley’s United Way became a stranger, she said. “I’m not certain enough thought was put into the move,” Bourne said.

I know what she means. The United Way no longer seems to have an identity in the Upper Valley. Its office is tucked away in an office park near Lebanon Airport. (It used to be in downtown Lebanon.) And good luck trying to find one of the United Way’s trademark thermometers used to track the progress of the annual campaign.

Suzanne Stofflet, a former Norwich Selectwoman who was hired seven months ago to run the Upper Valley office, acknowledged, “We have to put a face back on the United Way.”

Menus would be a place to start.

Related

Letter: Positive Change at United Way

Friday, January 11, 2013

To the Editor: In very brief response to Jim Kenyon’s column concerning the United Way, I just wanted to say that, from my perspective at Hypertherm, the Granite United Way in the Upper Valley is moving in the right way. Hypertherm is a long-time partner and supporter of the United Way, and just as we continually strive to make our …