As needs increase, United Way of Southern Chester County strives for more donors
● By Steven Hoffman
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Board president Dave Salomaki referenced the famous opening line of Charles Dickens' “A Tale of Two Cities” when talking about the status of the current campaign of the United Way of Southern Chester County (UWSCC) at the annual meeting on May 18.
Indeed, while some in the community are enjoying the best of times, many other local families are experiencing the worst of times and struggle to meet their basic needs. It is these families that are served by the dozens of non-profit organizations who depend on United Way funding to do their work.
“In the training we give to the allocations panelists, we illustrate the contrasts in our area,” Salomaki explained. “Although Chester County’s per-capita income is the highest in Pennsylvania and is in the top one-percent in the nation, nearly 20 percent of Chester County households earned less than the self-sufficiency standard for Pennsylvania. That standard measures how much income a family of a certain composition in a given place must earn to meet their basic needs.”
When a family can’t meet its basic needs, that’s where the UWSCC comes in with the annual funding that it provides to non-profit organizations. Salomaki delivered the best of news and the worst of news: Yes, the UWSCC will be distributing $780,000 to 27 different programs that are offered by non-profits like the Kennett Area Community Service, the Domestic Violence Center of Chester County, the Oxford Neighborhood Services Center, Camp Dreamcatcher, and the Kennett After School Association. But the bad news is that the funding that has been raised, as important as it is to the recipients, is insufficient to meet the needs in the community.
As Salomaki pointed out, “the needs in our area are growing, but our ability to grow our campaign is dwindling.”
According to several UWSCC officials, the campaign pledges peaked in the 2012-2013 campaign, and there has been a downward trend ever since.
“Projections for our current campaign suggest that we will raise about $100,000 less than that peak,” Salomaki explained.
Carrie Freeman, the CEO of the United Way of Southern Chester County, said that for several years in a row, the UWSCC dipped into its reserves to provide the maximum allocations to the organizations that are on the front lines of helping families in need.
“The agencies really needed that funding,” Freeman explained. But after dipping into its reserves for three years in a row, those reserves are now depleted. That means that there is less funding available to the United Way's agency partners.
This year, the $780,000 in funding that will be allocated to local non-profits includes $372,994 for crisis intervention programs, $206,476 for programs that promote stability and sustainability, and $200,530 for initiatives that enable people to transition to independence through education.
Each year, the UWSCC allocations panel meets to decide how much funding can be provided to agency partners. The decisions are difficult, especially now, when the needs for funding are rising, but the available funding is decreasing.
“When people are hungry,” explained Carol Haaf, the vice president of allocations for this year’s campaign, “it’s hard for the panelists to make cuts to those programs.”
Salomaki talked about how the work of the UWSCC is being affected by the economic climate in the region.
“As a United Way, we are proud to support the good work done by our partner agencies in meeting the various needs in the community,” Salomaki said. “But we do so with the awareness that the economic climate in our area has been changing, and in doing so has an impact on our fundraising activities.”
UWSCC officials have analyzed some of the changing campaign trends and are working on new strategies for the organization moving forward. One of the most obvious trends is the fact that the donations from employee campaigns at large, out-of-area employers have declined.
“This includes donors who work for companies in Delaware and Maryland,” Salomaki explained.
John Moriarty, the campaign vice president this year, said, “We realize what’s going on in the corporate world. There are definitely challenges on the corporate side.”
Freeman pointed out that younger workers, particularly millennials, tend to stay at jobs for shorter periods of time. The United Way has relied heavily on people who work at large companies and contribute to the campaign year after year in part because the companies promoted it. It's harder to reach those workers who move around more frequently.
UWSCC officials understand that out-of-the-area contributions will likely continue to drop so they will have to find other ways to boost donations. Increasing the appeals to employees at businesses in southern Chester County is one goal. UWSCC has had success with the “Live here, give here” campaigns in the past, and Moriarty said that it’s important to get the word out about the level of need that exists in the southern Chester County communities so that more people understand that their United Way contributions are helping their neighbors. The comparative wealth of this area can be deceptive. As Salomaki explained, a significant percentage of families in the area struggle to meet their basic needs.
As Moriarty explained, “We have to be clear about the needs that exist in southern Chester County.”
Another way to boost donors is to make people more aware of the good work that is being done by non-profit organizations that are supported by the UWSCC funding.
Haaf credited these non-profit organizations with making the most of the funding that the UWSCC donors provides to them.
“I think donor dollars are really maximized,” she said.
Freeman added that these organizations also work well together to make sure that certain services aren’t duplicated unnecessarily, and the leaders of the non-profit organizations also collaborate very well to help those need.
“We have many non-profits that are skilled in letting people know that help is available to those people who need it,” Freeman explained. “So every single gift will impact so many different agencies. These agencies really depend on us. They count on United Way funding year after year.”
One example is the Kennett Library, which operates an adult literacy program that is important to the Kennett Square community.
“The United Way funding is absolutely essential for our adult literacy program,” said library director Donna Murray. The adult literacy program helps about 200 individuals, mainly English as a Second Language learners, each year, according to Murray.
The adult literacy program includes English classes as well as one-on-one tutoring, and the program helps people improve their lives in many ways, including, in many cases, the chance to get a better job.
“It’s such a valuable program,” Murray said, explaining that there are daytime and evening classes to accommodate different schedules.
Without the funding from the UWSCC, the program would not benefit as many people as it currently does.
“The United Way is funding a much higher percentage of the program than what anyone is comfortable with,” Murray said, explaining that there are limited opportunities to secure grants to support the adult literacy program because it is no longer eligible for some state and federal funding.
The knowledge that the campaign by UWSCC supports the adult literacy program and two dozen other worthy programs motivates the organization’s staff and volunteers to find as many creative ways as possible to maximize the impact.
Freeman noted that the organization relies heavily on about 200 volunteers for a variety of activities, and they are always looking for new way to increase the number of volunteers who are involved with the efforts.
Salomaki said, “Your United Way is committed to helping local non-profit organizations provide essential services to residents in our area, and the demand continues. We successfully leverage our volunteers’ time and talent, our donors’ support, and our understanding and partnership with our agencies and the community to help meet this demand.”
Most importantly, the UWSCC is looking for ways to boost the number of donors to the campaign, and there has already been some success. In last year’s campaign, there were 1,749 donors. This year to date, there have been 1,518 donors, and 308 of them are new donors. Broadening the donor base is very important moving forward.
“Look at what we can do with 1,600 people participating in a campaign,” Freeman said. “Imagine what we could do with more people participating. Everybody should be contributing something.”
How to help
The United Way of Southern Chester County needs donations to reach its current campaign goal. Donations to the United Way of Southern Chester County are used to support programs that benefit local residents. Agencies receiving financial support are examined each year and held accountable for the funds awarded to them. UWSCC evaluates all agency programs to maximize the impact of your donation on the community. For more information about how you can help, visit www.unitedwayscc.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 610-444-4357.