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bob maginnis - 11/8/01

December 27, 2001

United Way needs your help



Every day James Taylor looks at the numbers for the Washington County United Way's current campaign, then uses a computer spreadsheet program to predict its final outcome.

With a little more than a month left until the Dec. 13 finale, Taylor, the agency's executive director, says he feels confident the drive will yield about at least $1.67 million. That's less than this year's $1.8 million goal, but almost as much as the $1.7 million collected last year.

"Raising $1.7 million would mean that we could provide essentially the same services as last year, assuming no increases in cost," Taylor said.

But if the campaign comes in at $1.6 million, just $100,000 off last year's pace, that could mean significant across-the-board cuts for all local agencies, at a time when demand for services is increasing dramatically.

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When I interviewed Taylor in September, Food Resources, Inc., the agency that supplies all local food banks, had already reported a 34.2 percent increase in requests for food, at the same time it was experiencing a 34 percent drop in donations.

Community Action Council, the agency that provides services like fuel and shelter assistance to the needy, had almost exhausted its November emergency fund by the first week of the month, Taylor said.

At Girls, Inc., the agency that provides recreation and character-building activities for young women in Hagerstown's West End, officials found they were serving 100 more youngsters than they did in September of 2000.

At the Community Free Clinic, which provides medical care for the working poor, the number of patient visits is also up significantly, he said.

Taylor said that any statement about the cause of this increased need would be speculation. But in the case of the Community Free Clinic, Taylor said the growing number of visits might be fueled by fear of the anthrax infection.

Christina Sandeen, vice president for agency relations, said the growing need is reflected in increased caseloads at Catholic Charities, where requests for mental-health counseling have grown in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

So how will the agency deal with a shortfall, should that happen?

Taylor said that an across-the-board cut might be one option, but it would be up to the all-volunteer Agency Review and Allocations Committee to decide.

Sandeen, who chairs that panel, said that because requests for help are increasing, if the campaign raises no more than it did last year, United Way will start off behind the curve.

If that's the case, Sandeen said, the first step will be to look at the detailed reports agencies must submit showing how many they served and what the results were. Agencies that can't justify their past use of funds might be trimmed back, she said.

But almost immediately Sandeen said that "I'm not sure we're going to find any agency that's not meeting their goals."

In that instance, an across-the-board cut might take place, she said, but not without a review of agencies' needs, to make sure the cut doesn't wipe out the program completely.

A few years back, the United Way went to something called "outcome-based funding." Instead of funding a portion of the agency's budget, United Way now funds specific programs instead.

For example, at CAC United Way funds the Meals on Wheels program. The change has made additional paperwork for the member agencies, but it's also made it easier to track how well each group uses the money it receives.

At this point, the campaign has just passed the 50 percent mark, with $904,400 raised or pledges so far, Taylor said.

"What we are really focusing on now is getting people who haven't run their workplace campaigns to run them. And we are looking again at certain folks and asking them to do additional giving," he said.

So what else can be done?

"If there are any businesses out there that haven't run a campaign before, or for a number of years, there's still time," Taylor said.

The events of Sept. 11 were horrible and left thousands of families in need in New York City and Washington, D.C.. But there are families in need here, too. They're the working poor who need help staying off the welfare rolls, the elderly who need help with prescriptions and children who need help growing up to be productive citizens.

No, the economy's not soaring, but chances are you know someone who's already being helped by a United Way agency. And in an uncertain world, you may need some help yourself one of these days. Wouldn't it be nice to know it will be there if you need it?

If you can help, please send a check to United Way of Washington County, 998 Potomac Ave., Hagerstown, Md., 21742, or call (301) 739-8200 to get a pledge card.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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