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Alternative fundraising federations say a new agreement with the Triangle United Way is a good one--for now

Tensions between the Triangle United Way and local "alternative" fundraising federations, which nearly reached a breaking point during last year's campaign, are easing up. Two weeks ago, the two sides signed an agreement ensuring that local health, environmental and social-change nonprofits belonging to the federations will be listed in all United Way campaign materials.

The May agreement arose out of a conflict during last year's campaign, when members of Community Health Charities of North Carolina, Earth Share of North Carolina and North Carolina Community Shares were dropped from official campaign brochures. United Way officials said at the time they were concentrating on drawing more untargeted donations--those distributed through the Community Care Fund--and so, needed to list non-United Way organizations separately.

But leaders of the alternative federations saw the dual lists as an attack on donor choice. "The biggest sore spot last year was the separate materials," says Jill Lewis, executive director of Earth Share, which raises money for local environmental groups. "Nobody likes getting calls from donors saying, 'Where are you?' "

With the new agreement, "we feel that choice has been reinstated," says Dan Litz, head of Community Health Charities, which has been part of the United Way campaign since 1999. "An educated donor who takes the time to go through the campaign materials will see us there."

But a bigger problem for the federations may be looming with another change spelled out in the agreement. Starting in 2004, the Triangle United Way will require all donations of less than $50 to go to its Community Care Fund.

That plan was to have gone into effect this year, but because of objections raised by federation leaders, United Way officials agreed to make 2003 "a transitional year." The new agreement states that people who make donations of less than $50 to non-United Way agencies will be sent a letter notifying them of the pending policy change.

While United Ways across the country are implementing strategies to pull in undesignated donations, Litz says the federations are keeping a close eye on what happens with the Triangle United Way's new contributions rule. "We'll have to do some research to see how that impacts us," he says. "My own feeling is it may be a violation of donor choice."

Another major change in this year's campaign is that alternative federations will certify which of their member groups are eligible to participate in the United Way campaign. In previous years, the United Way controlled the certification process and disputes arose when some federation members were excluded.

This hasn't been easy time for the Triangle United Way. The organization raised only $11.2 million of its $13 million goal for the Community Care Fund last year. As a result, dollars available to member agencies through that fund are being cut by 13.6 percent regionwide.

So why did United Way leaders spend time negotiating an agreement with groups that are competing for scarce charitable donations? "The answer is really simple," says United Way spokeswoman Jill Cox. "Donors want choice and so we need to offer that at some level." She says the new agreement is merely an update of an arrangement that's existed between the United Way and the alternative federations for the past four years. "It's a working agreement that allows us to clarify our roles," she says. "We hope it will alleviate any confusion donors have had in the past."

Cox says the United Way will continue to focus on its Community Care fund--the pool of donations that aren't designated to specific groups and are distributed by United Way leaders. The organization also hopes to set up an endowment fund to help cover administrative costs of its annual workplace campaigns. Those costs now add up to "a 13 percent overhead on everything," Cox says.

Under the agreement, alternative federations must pay the United Way 7 percent of total donations for being part of the annual campaign. And, as in past years, groups like Community Shares are prohibited from promoting their member organizations while the United Way drive is going on.

Such restrictions are the reason charity watchdogs like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy have tried to dissuade alternative fundraisers from joining United Way campaigns. In the Triangle, the vital question of how much money federations were able to raise through the United Way last year remains unanswered, since those totals haven't been tallied yet.

When asked why they want to stay part of the United Way drive, federation leaders echo the reasons given by United Way officials. "Donors want to see us there," says Cheryl Hopkins, executive director of Community Shares. "The United Way is aware of that and we're aware of that." EndBlock

More by Barbara Solow


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