Jim Kenyon: United No More
Mary Blackmer eats lunch at the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction on October 29, 2013. The center will no longer receive financial assistance from the United Way non-profit organization. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
A volunteer driver who delivers “meals on wheels” for the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction became alarmed Monday when he knocked on an elderly man’s door and nobody answered.
“It’s not just about dropping off a meal,” said Len Brown, the Bugbee Center’s executive director. “We like to make sure that people are OK.”
After the driver returned from his rounds, the Bugbee Center called the elderly man’s house. He picked up.
“He had probably been asleep,” said Brown.
And since he had missed out on his free lunch, I imagine a little hungry, too. No problem. Brown made sure that someone from the Bugbee Center returned to the man’s house with the day’s fare — Salisbury steak and sweet potatoes.
Now I ask: Does this sound like a nonprofit organization that no longer deserves United Way support?
After being a “partner” of the United Way for nearly 30 years, the Bugbee Center received what Brown calls a “Dear John” letter in May. The senior center, which received a $10,000 grant from the United Way in 2012, was informed that it had been voted off the island for 2013.
In a subsequent letter to Brown, Granite United Way President Patrick Tufts explained that local volunteers who review funding requests had “determined that there were other programs that were more compelling than the one submitted by the Bugbee Senior Center.”
More compelling than a nonprofit that serves or delivers 28,500 meals to seniors a year? Or provides rides to the grocery store and doctor’s offices to more than 100 seniors? Or helps 350 seniors fill out the paperwork for fuel assistance, food stamps and other social services?
“United Way funding is not an entitlement,” Tufts told me over the phone Tuesday. “It’s not something that (nonprofits) can put in their budget, year after year.”
I guess that’s another way of saying the United Way is no longer dependable.
The United Way has raised money on behalf of Upper Valley nonprofit groups with a social services mission for decades. This year, it hopes to collect $1 million, largely through so-called company campaigns that are currently underway. Employees at businesses throughout the Upper Valley are being asked to sign up for payroll deduction plans, which for as little as $1 a week, allow people to support worthy causes without putting a big dent in their own household budgets.
So why was the Bugbee Center, which has a track record of improving the daily lives of the elderly, suddenly frozen out?
Brown, who has run Hartford’s senior center since 2008, thinks it has a lot to do with changes inside United Way. In 2010, Upper Valley United Way merged with three other regional branches to form Granite United Way, which has its headquarters in Manchester. Granite United Way maintains a small office near Lebanon Municipal Airport, but arguably has much less of an Upper Valley presence than it did before the merger.
Granite United Way’s catchment area includes most of New Hampshire and a sliver of Vermont, stretching from Bradford to Ludlow. Brown thinks that since the merger, the United Way has become an out-of-state organization in which he doubts that “Windsor County is going to fare particularly well in the long haul.”
The United Way’s goal is to fund the best programs, regardless of the state they are based in, said Gordon Ehret, a project leader at Hypertherm who heads United Way’s all-volunteer “campaign impact committee” in the Upper Valley.
“A lot of programs that we fund serve both sides of the river,” he said.
Tufts stressed that “all (United Way) funding decisions are made locally” in the Upper Valley. This year, volunteers reviewed about 50 grant applications before making spending recommendations to Ehret’s committee. The Bugbee Center’s request was among about 15 applications that weren’t approved, said Tufts.
Brown pointed out, however, that no one from United Way visited the Bugbee Center. No site visits were made this year, said Ehret.
That’s too bad.
How does United Way make informed decisions about where to invest the public’s charitable dollars without seeing its “partners” in action? I hope it isn’t doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars based on which nonprofits give the flashiest PowerPoint presentations.
The loss of United Way funding comes at a particularly tough time for the Bugbee Center. A $17,000 federal grant, which helped pay for operating the van that takes seniors to doctor’s offices and grocery shopping, also wasn’t renewed this year. Brown suspects it was a casualty of the federal sequester.
After getting the bad financial news from the feds and the United Way, Brown reached out to the Byrne Foundation, which has a stellar history of helping nonprofits, big and small, in the Upper Valley. The foundation agreed to match up to $10,000 in private donations that Bugbee could raise. (Bugbee’s annual campaign has already surpassed the Byrne Foundation’s match by roughly $2,000.)
The town of Hartford has also been a strong supporter over the years, covering Bugbee’s heating and utility bills.
On Tuesday, Bugbee’s parking lot was full. About 60 seniors had come for lunch and to hear the Pea Pickers, a Bethel bluegrass band. At every lunch, seniors are asked to give a $4 donation. Most do.
If only the United Way were so dependable.