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United Way’s New Mission: Make Itself Accountable to Donors

BY BRUCE KAUFFMAN

Faced with a slide during the last decade and a half that saw contributions fall by 25 percent even as the region experienced rapid growth, the United Way of San Diego is sharpening its focus to dust itself off from the fall.

Donations to the charitable organization, which provides grants to more than 100 agencies, began to slide around 1990 as large workplaces such as General Dynamics, the traditional focuses of the fund-raising efforts, began leaving town. Donors’ confidence in the United Way across the country then took a sharp dip in the early to mid-1990s when its national leader, William Aramony, came under criminal investigation and ended up being convicted of defrauding the organization of some $600,000.

And it may have made giving to the United Way locally a harder sell when, in November 2005, the leader of another long-established charity, Episcopal Community Services of San Diego, resigned after 11 years amid reports of questionable business practices, including allegations of doctoring records to make it look as if the nonprofit was complying with the terms of public contracts when it was not.

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Though the effects of such bad news are hard to quantify, leaders of the United Way of San Diego say their soundings in the region indicate clearly that donors are demanding a higher level of accountability , and the charity is promising to show just what results it achieved with the money being collected in the current campaign for use in the fiscal year that begins July 1.


Concentrating On Key Issues

Beyond accountability, United Way leaders say they’ve also found that donors regard the charity’s efforts as too diffused and want a keener focus on what they see as key regional problems.

It’s a new approach, being encouraged by United Way of America for chapters across the country.

The results have been positive. During the last two to four years, the local United Way chapters that adopted the new approach have seen annual donations rise by an average of 6 percent. Those keeping the older model have been losing an average of 0.5 percent a year.

Locally, United Way donations in San Diego are down from the nearly $30 million in 1991 to some $22.2 million in 2005. The 2005 total had dropped some 6 percent from the ’04 campaign, which raised $24.05 million.

Officials at the nonprofit attribute some of the recent falloff to donors giving elsewhere to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the devastating August 2005 storm along the Gulf Coast that claimed more than 1,800 lives.

But the general decline, which gives impetus to the new changes, has more to do with the fuzzy focus that has led to three chief areas of concentration along with a public perception that it’s hard to figure out just what’s being accomplished with the donations.

Out of the many socially responsible areas it could choose from to focus on, the United Way in San Diego decided it can make a special impact in three areas , homelessness, child abuse and what’s being called “essential life skills,” those that aim to help people learn how to do such things as secure and maintain credit en route to economic self-sufficiency.

Leading the task is a banker named Doug Sawyer, who has not entertained a thought of leaving San Diego since he arrived at the age of 3 from Lincoln, Neb., with his mother.


Banking Experience

Not long before he retired, Sawyer had capped his career by starting up Legacy Bank, a community bank in La Jolla, and building its assets to $35 million before selling it last year it for an undisclosed sum to Solana Beach-based Landmark Bank.

Retired is a term used only lightly. Chosen from some 100 applicants for the local United Way’s top post, Sawyer has taken on what colleagues describe as an all-consuming job where failure reverberates in compromising the region’s health and welfare. On top of this, Sawyer, a former chairman of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, has taken on the presidency of the college football showcases that the city hosts this month, the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl and the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.

“We’ve basically turned this business upside down in the 15 months since I’ve been here,” Sawyer said of the United Way in a recent interview. “When I started, the board of directors had just approved a groundbreaking change in the way we do business a community-impact model.

“Basically, our donors said, number one, that they wanted us to concentrate our resources. In order for us to really make a difference to the community, we were trying to be all things to all people and that was spreading resources too thinly throughout the community.”


Measuring Outcomes

Now the new model, encouraged by the United Way of America, aims to identify the crucial problems in the region, maps out plans toward solutions, and devises ways to measure outcomes. Sawyer said that donations to regional United Way organizations around the country that have adopted the sharper, concentrated focus have risen some 6 percent a year and contributions to those that have kept the old model have fallen about a half-percent.

With the new model comes a call for strict accountability. Donors want to know just how their money helped solve the problems they deem so significant, Sawyer said. Just how the matrix for accountability takes shape is still in flux, Sawyer added, but strict accountability, a transparency in allotting funds, is an unwavering and key goal for United Way.

Witness the language, for example, of the plan to concentrate on bringing an end to the chronic homelessness of some 1,400 people in the San Diego region, the hardest cases among an estimated 10,000 who sometimes have a roof over their heads and other times find themselves with nowhere to go. The organization’s mission, which in September won the backing of the San Diego City Council, is to provide the chronically homeless with access to “safe, decent, affordable” housing, “along with the necessary support services” by 2012.

The City Council has not backed the plan with money, but United Way leaders say its support will help open avenues to state and federal, as well as private, money that’s out there for such projects.

The council vote, said Sawyer, also provides “clear and visible recognition” throughout San Diego County that the city of San Diego has signed on as a “leading entity” in the effort to end chronic homelessness.


Reporting Results

The language about the strategy calls for an “evidence-based, outcome-driven monitoring and evaluation structure” with “outcome indicators of program success and appropriate benchmarks” for evaluation.

Similar accountability is to be applied to the programs to curb child abuse , where substantiated San Diego cases exceed the national average , and to help people learn to be more financially savvy.

Sawyer said that when United Way asked donors what the charity’s chief areas of concentration needed to be, a dozen or so emerged, including obesity. In demurring on the other issues, the nonprofit decided that there were public and private agencies already working at taking appropriate measures of action.

“We asked, ‘Can we play a leading role through United Way? Is (the problem) of a size that we can believe we can make a difference?’ And so we landed on the three where we believe we can make a difference in the community conditions,” Sawyer said. “People give to the United Way because people think the United Way can best give the money where it’s most needed.”


Shuffling Grants

By its own account, the nonprofit says many of the 134 agencies that get United Way grants to supplement their budgets will “no doubt be left out” the next time around. Officials point to Orange County, where scores of nonprofits such as the Salvation Army and the Boy Scouts of America were denied funds when the new model took hold July 1.

The head of Partnerships With Industry, a Mission Valley nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find work, told the San Diego United Way that the loss of even its $5,000 grant, the minimum the charity gives out, will have a significant impact on the organization’s $5.1 million annual budget.

Perhaps, said Mark Berger, Partnerships With Industry’s president and chief executive officer, his nonprofit will still be able to take part in the United Way’s new programs by helping clients with economic self-reliance. The $5,000 that the organization might lose, though, he said, “is not an insignificant amount.”

In the spring, so-called “vision councils” that oversee the three focus areas will look at applications from nonprofits throughout the region for 2007-08 funding. As with Partnerships With Industry, just demonstrating the worthiness of their cause will not be enough. Now they’re being asked to show what they can do to reduce child abuse, help the homeless and teach disadvantaged people new sets of life skills.

“We want to get to root causes,” Sawyer said in a United Way news release heralding the shift in orientation. “We don’t want to be the entity that puts Band-Aids on problems.”


Bruce Kauffman is a freelance writer based in Oceanside.

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