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United Way Continues Reinvention As Donations Edge Downward

Charlie Schlenker
United Way CEO David Taylor and consultant Kathleen Lorenz brief reporters.

Direct contributions to the United Way continue to decline as companies nationwide and in McLean County reduce the number of workplace campaigns and allow workers to make individual choices where their money goes.

State Farm Insurance and other McLean County businesses began making those moves two years ago, significantly reducing the amount gathered for McLean County human service agencies.

United Way of McLean County (UWMC) CEO David Taylor told reporters Wednesday the organization has about $1 million cash on hand. At this time last year, Taylor said, the total was $1.2 million. That's not as helpful a comparison as first appears because the United Way has responded to changing patterns of giving by changing its own pattern of fundraising to more of a year-round effort, instead of the traditional autumn and winter campaign.

Agency awards are expected in the springtime, as usual, though. Precise grant amounts for this year are not yet available for the 46 programs run by 27 member agencies.

"We're funding the same programs at the same percentages through June 30, 2019. At that point we will have completed our current three-year funding cycle," said Marty Behrens, chair of UWMC board of directors.

One of the reasons for the tradition of the three-year funding cycle is to assure program continuity. Periodically the United Way does a community assessment of needs study and reworks its funding decisions. That rhythm might be subject to change after 2019, said Taylor. It's possible the United Way could focus on specific projects or initiatives with a different lifespan or goal, he said.

The idea of raising a $3 million to $4 million pot of dollars each year, "those days are gone," said Kathleen Lorenz, a recently hired project consultant for the United Way.

Taylor said the organization wants Lorenz to "operationalize the strategic plan elements generated over the last year.

"The United Way could become less of a currency exchange that funds specific programs and instead be more of a convener and coordinator of resources," said Lorenz.

To that end, the United Way is also changing the way it defines success to include a definition of community impact, among its metrics. By that gauge, Taylor said, the United Way has had a great deal of success in the last year. He cited the $1 million-plus value of the recent 48in48 program to build websites for nonprofit agencies over a two-day span.

Future potential partnerships with Country Financial, the Social Media Analytics Command Center (SMACC) at Illinois State University, and other entities could help the websites stay current and the agencies leverage social media to reach stakeholders faster and more effectively, said Taylor. Behrens and Taylor said Lorenz will focus on creating more of these value-added services.

The United Way says it has added more than $1 million worth of value to the community compared to the prior year:

United Way indicated the $2.25 million in community impact also included the value of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, and PATH's United Way-funded 211 emergency hotline.

Fundraising also matters, and indicators are complex and mixed. Taylor said matching gifts from State Farm workers have increased substantially with direct reminders of the company program, the first year the United Way has worked to individually target donors to make them aware of the match. But unfulfilled individual pledges have also gone up across the community of givers. Taylor said there is some anxiety about the health of the economy and the state budget situation that could be making donors cautious.

Taylor said the United Way has not yet been able to determine a potential impact from State Farm transfers, retirements, and other workforce adjustments. Another wrinkle is the increase in the standard deduction in the new tax law and the end of some deductions for charitable giving, which may change giving patterns nationwide.

When giving patterns began to change a couple years ago, the United Way downsized from 10 employees to 2.5 workers. Even though dollars raised has gone down again this year, Taylor said he does not forsee further staff cuts.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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