United Way needs a million

Walt Shepperd 03/12/10More articles
United Way President Frank Lazarski says people need to make the choice to help other people.

As economy shrinks, human needs increase

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of interviews with people prominent in areas on the agenda for the city under a new administration. This week the discussion on fundraising for non-profit agencies is with United Way President Frank Lazarski.

When you took over at United Way in 2003, a local company gave you a check for more than $500,000. This year their donation was a little over $100,000. What has happened to giving in this community?
First of all, let me say that we really appreciate any and every contribution we get, and that while the need has dramatically increased, we understand that giving has become much more difficult in this community.
That company was known back then as New Venture Gear. Now it’s known as Magna. I can remember they were proud of the contributions pledged by their employees of $515,000. That was 2003. Recently I met with one of their representatives. The beauty and the sadness of this is that they are pledging over $100,000, and 1,235 employees will lose their jobs sometime between now and 2011.
The year before I started Carrier had the largest campaign with $600,000. You go out to Carrier now and it’s almost deserted. They do a great job for us, delivering $100,000, but it’s a mirror image of how the workforce and the economy is shrinking.
I think this is indicative of what we’ve seen in our community over the years. We’ve been a strong manufacturing community, and we’ve relied on that for United Way campaigns, and I think folks got in a groove. They would say, “OK, what did I give last year? I gave 50 cents a week. This year I’ll give 75 cents a week.” They had pride in what they raised, and the company gave out gifts, and there were all sorts of incentives. It was really used as a morale booster for the employees, and to support the community in a variety of ways.
Today, those same folks, who leave their jobs because they’re now displaced, are served, if they need help, by Helen Hudson. Helen is a member of the United Way staff. Her title is AFL-CIO Community Services Liaison. She is also well known for her work with Mothers Against Gun Violence. We’re one of the few United Ways in the country, of the 1200 or 1300 about 150 have labor representatives.
We take our labor people seriously. Helen is a former Magna employee, and between Thanksgiving and Christmas some of her former coworkers were in need of food. We have an agreement with the Food Bank of Central New York for people who have been displaced, and they don’t have to be union.

The old term charity seems now to have a negative connotation. How do you describe what you are doing?
The terminology we like to use is, “Donors are making an investment in people.” They’re making investments by giving their hard earned money to United Way, and then United Way distributes that money through the programs that volunteers select. That’s important. I don’t decide any program. We have 102. There are some that I like very much, and there are some that I’m not so much in favor of. What people don’t realize is that the 39 agencies that receive United Way funding have to go through a vetting process. They have to open up their agency doors and windows and say, “Look at us. Everything about us.” Other funders and foundations will ask them if they’re United Way eligible. Those that don’t make it through we work with, hoping they’ll make it through the next time.

Another term with shifted connotation is, “I gave at the office.” Once a point of pride, now a brush off.
A little bit of both. It meant something years ago. When I worked for Catholic Charities in the early Seventies, it was one campaign, one gift, handling multiple community needs of people in trouble. Government funding changed a lot of this. People came to see government funding as crack funding, because you get reliant on it, almost addicted to it. Agencies expanded their programs and started making their own appeals. The biggest complaint I get is, “Why do I get so many letters from all these different organizations? Why can’t you do this the way you used to do it?”

Why is everybody now out there on their own?
When people are out of jobs, a lot happens. They’re not at food pantries because they want to check out the menu. When people are out of jobs we have to have more services. On our last go around with applications, we saw double the need for what we could fund. And there are people having good ideas for new programs. I think there are 1,500 not-for-profits in Onondaga County. That’s a lot of good, well-intentioned folks, but how can a community have the capacity to support all of those organizations.

With the growth of the Internet you also have an increase in scam artists out there. I that an issue for legitimate folks like the United Way?
It is. Two ways. And a lot of othrer United Ways are in the same boat. We’re tinkering with our website, we’re tinkering with ways we can communicate with people through the Internet to raise dollars. We’re still learning. But there are people on the Internet pleading a cause, and if you don’t look behind the curtain at the cause, then you could get scammed. If you see an organization saying, “We need money to help people overseas,” it’s a very, very difficult reach to do that. When people call us about Haiti, we say, “Go to the American Red Cross.”

You’re a million dollars short of your goal?
As of today, we are $914,00 short.

If it stays at that, what does it do to your operations?
This money we’re raising is spent on July 1 to June 30 of 2011, our third and final year of our three-year allocation cycle. We’ve made commitments to these organizations. We would have to renege on those commitments. Last year we reneged by 7 percent. Then they were ready and prepared for it. No programs closed last year. We were proud of that. This year we’re not so sure that’s going to be the case. What scares us is looking at agency six-month reports. When Huntington Family Center food pantry serves as many people in six months as they planned to serve in 12 months, that’s not a good thing. When Vera House tells us that the stress is causing an increase in domestic violence and child abuse, this is not something we want to see.
So this is the second and final wave of this year’s annual campaign, and it has to be in by April 15 so we can plan. We could do an across the board cut like we did last year. Do we do it on merit and let the cream surface to the top? Or do we say to the agency, you decide what you’re going to do with the reduced amount we’re giving you?

Is the money out there? Can you get it?
When I was in high school I worked for my uncle and we managed gas stations. I remember little old ladies tipping me a buck to put gas in their cars. I didn’t really want it. He told me, “People give you money because they have it, and they appreciate and value what you’ve done. But they make the choice. Let them choose.”
In this case, what we’re saying to people is, “Consider us, and make a good choice. But make a choice to help somebody, because the community needs so much help.” I think the wealth is out there in the community, but I think people need to make choices about that wealth. Sometimes people have to say, “Can I give up something?”
Our average gift is $250 a year, five bucks a week.

How can people contribute?
They can go on our website, If they prefer to send a check they can call us at 315 428-2211 and we’ll send them a form with a return envelop. Or they can just send a check to United Way, Box 2129, Syracuse 13220. They can do credit cards over the phone or online.
Workplaces have been the strength of our campaigns, and as the larger companies shrink, the campaign becomes more difficult. So people at smaller companies that don’t have pledge programs can initiate campaigns at their workplaces

CATEGORY: Charity & Activism
TAGS: United Way CNY,non-profit agencies,Frank Lazarski
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.0/5 (6 votes cast)

Comments powered by Disqus

Talk to Us!
We want you to know that your opinion matters. Please complete our online form and give us your feedback today.