The giving way

It’s the month some of us have been waiting for. The twinkling lights; the yuletide wreaths; the garrulous songs; and all those strange December-only foods, like fruitcake and eggnog.

But there’s something else of significance in December, too: major fund-raising for charities. It should come as no surprise that the 12th month, with its count-your-blessings theme, is usually the most lucrative one for nonprofit groups that feed the homeless, reach out to the poor and help with at-risk children in our communities.

The behemoth of all fund-raising operations is the United Way, an organization that raises most of its donations through workplace giving campaigns in which employees determine, often in December, to donate a tiny portion of each paycheck through payroll deductions. In 2002, the group raised no less than $4 billion nationally.

In our region, the United Way California Capital Region (UWCCR) raised a whopping $14.8 million last year. That’s a sizable sum in the needy world of nonprofits. Indeed, a large number of Sacramentans give to the United Way because the region’s major employers (the state of California; the University of California, Davis; Wells Fargo; Macy’s; United Parcel Service; and SBC) encourage their employees to do their giving through the UWCCR.

It all sounds charitable and good, right? Not exactly. With that much money at stake—not to mention the tenuous solvency of charities that often run on a shoestring—there’s sure to be controversy and contention.

The trouble began last May for the UWCCR when leaders of more than 100 Sacramento area nonprofits signed an open letter objecting to its new mission, which included playing a stronger role in directing solutions by setting up “regional impact councils” and assigning “signature projects” that tended to steer donations to certain groups. According to the nonprofit leaders, this changed the United Way’s purpose from a neutral distributor of funds to a heavy-handed arbiter of where the dollars should flow. The public letter also complained about financial procedures (indeed, an envelope with $2,000 in checks and cash went missing during last year’s donation drive) and overhead costs that were seen as too high.

To its credit, the UWCCR has gone through a dramatic series of changes since that time. First, a new president and chief executive officer, Clare Thain, was hired and received praise (especially in the pages of the Sacramento Business Journal, which has dogged this story righteously since May) for the changes he has initiated so far. One example: Thain recently cleaned house at the organization by letting five executives go and by accepting the resignation of another.

Ultimately, UWCCR is a work in progress, and we wonder if the organization can win back the good will of the local nonprofit leaders who need it so. But as we enter the giving month, it’s cheering to find a troubled organization that actually was willing to push the restart button in an attempt to transform obstacles into opportunities.