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United Way donations down, looking to St. Lawrence County for help

United Way of Northern New York

The United Way is one of America’s largest charitable organizations, helping to sustain thousands of small nonprofits that in turn help millions of people. 
But the Northern New York chapter of the United Way is in need of some help itself. Its mid-year fundraising totals show significant declines in giving from last year in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. 

Bob Gorman, the president of United Way of Northern New York, says donations have been dropping off for years, and the slow economy has made things worse.  “We’ve been actually raiding the endowment to help prop up the amount of money we’re giving to our nonprofits,” he said. “And as the amount of money we’re collecting has been going down, we have not been able to turn the ship around.”

Gorman says there are a few reasons for the decline. Long-time donors are getting older and retiring. Employer campaigns, where workers can donate through regular payroll deductions, are collecting less as companies have laid people off. People are tightening up their budgets in tough times.

Then there’s the next generation. Young people are less involved with community organizations. And Gorman says ad campaigns for big international crises, asking for one-time gifts, seem to inspire them more than the idea of the routine, local giving that sustains the United Way.

“If you want to have a community, and sustain the programs and agencies, they can’t all wait for a random act of kindness” Gorman said. “People have to make a decision and be consistent year in and year out.”

Gorman says his organization isn’t in crisis – yet. But in meetings with nonprofits last week, he prepared them for belt-tightening.

Some are already hurting.

Last year, Catholic Charities, based in Ogdensburg, asked the United Way for funds to expand outreach to Fort Drum’s military families. But executive director Sister Donna Franklin says they didn’t get the money.

“We actually lost United Way money, but we lost double the money because we weren’t able to use it as leverage money,” Franklin said.

Franklin says by putting together small donations, United Way allows nonprofits to get matching grants from other funders – that’s been one of the benefits of its model.

She says United Way did support other Catholic Charities programs last year. But with high unemployment and poverty rates and cuts in government spending, she says it’s getting harder to serve everyone who qualifies for help.

“And now we are having to say no,” she said. “And that’s very hard. You know, the fall-between-the-cracks people come here.”

The United Way’s Bob Gorman says he’s trying to get the message out that small-scale, consistent giving at the local level has a real impact.

He’s also looking to St. Lawrence County, where United Way funds programs but has never received as much in donations. To fix that, he’s trying to increase the group’s visibility by bringing in high-profile speakers, helping to set up an endowment for county Boys and Girls clubs, and creating a St. Lawrence advisory board.