United Way Falters ‘Malaise,’ Falloff In Corporate Support Cited By Charity’s Executives

United Way of Spokane is almost a million dollars behind where it was at the same point last year in its annual drive to raise money.

The charity’s top officials blame a general “malaise” throughout Spokane County, where many people distrust their employers, fear losing their jobs or worry about keeping pace with the cost of living.

On top of that, corporate support of the annual campaign is low. Company donations are slow to come in and many businesses were reluctant to loan the charity executives needed to run the campaign.

“We have a tough three weeks ahead of us,” said Executive Director Jose Pena of the time left in the drive. “We’re not trying to cry wolf or anything, but we need our donors to come through for us.”

While United Way is attracting less money, the need among the agencies that receive money every year is growing, said spokeswoman Jessie McManigal.

Every day, a referral telephone line operated by United Way gets more than 50 calls from people needing help paying their rent or utilities or finding medical care.

That’s double the number of daily calls coming in last year at this time, she said.

“There are personal crises that hit the media and then the community responds,” she said. “But people don’t realize those crises happen every day.”

When Spokane officials kicked off the campaign in September, they broke from tradition and didn’t announce a goal, hoping nonetheless to exceed $5 million.

But instead, donors are slow turning in their pledges.

“We are getting a lot of comments from our people in the workplace that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty out there,” said Terry Brown, chairman of the United Way board and chief executive at the Community Colleges of Spokane.

“People are worried about their jobs, they are worried about keeping pace next year.”

Several Spokane companies are going through mergers, restructuring or downsizing, Brown said. Employees no longer have a sense of loyalty to their company, he said.

That meant trouble for United Way, which has made its name by getting owners and chief executives to encourage employees to donate money through payroll deduction. The money then is distributed to 36 agencies that provide health and human services.

“What we need to do is generate support from the ground up, rather than relying on the top managers,” said Anne Marie Axworthy, a Washington Water Power Co. executive and a member of United Way’s leadership.

WWP is a classic example of the uneasiness in the community, she said. Managers delayed the United Way campaign, hoping a pending corporate merger would be completed. When the merger took longer than expected, they distributed the pledge cards anyway.

Two hundred fewer people opted to donate this year, Axworthy said.

Still, United Way officials consider WWP a success story this year, because it came within $5,000 of its goal, despite the donor drop.

“We had to work a lot harder,” Axworthy said, “just to get what we did.”

While United Way has developed new methods to broaden its donor base, those won’t pay off for years.

At the same time, volunteers are working on getting more donations from local businesses. Corporate executives appear to be feeling the same anxiety that has permeated the work force, Brown said.

United Way of Spokane County usually runs its campaign with 40 loaned executives from a variety of businesses. This year the charity got only 30 borrowed employees and many of them are part time.

“It’s another reflection of companies trying to do the same amount of work with less people,” Axworthy said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: United Way lags behind

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