United Way falls $120,000 short of goal for last year

Drop in donations attributed to economy, uncertainties among state workers

Posted: Monday, March 31, 2003

The United Way of Southeast Alaska fell almost $120,000 short of its $600,000 fund-raising goal for 2002, leaving the nonprofit organizations it funds facing some "very hard times" in the months ahead, said Marsha Riley, outgoing executive director of the agency.

"There no doubt will be some agencies that are drastically hit," said Riley. "There is no United Way agency that is not very concerned with what is going to happen."

United Way of Southeast Alaska acts as a fund-raising umbrella organization for 31 member agencies in the region, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Alaska, the Glory Hole, Gastineau Human Services and the Southeast Regional Resource Center.

The annual campaign, which began in September, usually lasts only a few months. This year, it fizzled out after five months, with $481,299 in donations and pledges from local businesses and individuals - $38,000 less than last year's total.

The decrease in donations can be attributed to the poor economy, the uncertainty for state employees during the change in administration, and a natural decrease after the surge in donations brought about by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Riley said.

"The previous campaign certainly was impacted by Sept. 11 and the giving levels there," she said. "We had a very significant increase. I think what we're seeing here now is probably that leveling off."

Because nearly 80 percent of the money donated to the campaign in Juneau is designated to specific member agencies and not to a general fund, United Way will have less of a say in how it helps local nonprofit organizations this year, said Rob Skinner, incoming president of the United Way board of directors.

"Our hands are a bit tied," he said. One of the agency's goals in upcoming campaigns is to increase the amount of donations that go towards the general fund.

"When we solicit donors we suggest they leave it undeclared," Skinner said. "We want to have a little more freedom to give it where it's most needed."

Riley said she couldn't yet release figures for each agency the group funds.

Other United Way agencies across the state fell short of their fund-raising goals, Riley said, as have many local nonprofit groups.

"We need to look at it in context," said Valerie Kelly, executive director of the Tongass Community Counseling Center, a United Way agency. "I think it's incredible that they were able to generate what they did generate."

Donations from private individuals and businesses actually increased by about 12 percent this year, Riley said. The state share and the combined federal campaigns - specifically designed for state and federal employees - decreased by 27 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

"I really can't speak for why the state was down to the extent that it is," said Brian Phillips, outgoing president of the board of directors for United Way. "There's a big gap between what they gave last year and what they've given in the past."

This year's goal was aggressive, but it is what United Way agencies need, Riley said.

"One of the things I think is really important is we don't want to scare off board members from setting aggressive goals," she said. "Our agencies need that much money. We could have set a goal of $450,000, knowing we would exceed that amount, but it would not have provided the agencies with what they needed."

Riley's decision to leave her position as executive director of United Way, which she announced last week, is based on her desire to be closer to her family in New Mexico, and not on the results of the campaign, she said.

"I feel so strongly and I care so much about this community, but it's been really hard, and it was hard decision to leave," she said.

Though the board of directors is optimistic about next year's campaign, Riley will be missed, Skinner said.

"Any time you lose a valuable person like Marsha, you have to regroup and start over," he said. "Marsha was a tremendous asset to the community."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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