Behind the Headlines: Drop in United Way Campaign Means Cutbacks in Jewish Social Services

A nationwide drop in United Way donations means bad news for battered women in New York, troubled families in Los Angeles and elderly people in Cleveland.

They will all receive less help from Jewish organizations this year, as the agencies that serve them pass on expected cuts in United Way allocations.

Similar cuts are being experienced across much of the country as, for the first time in at least 20 years, the United Way of America reported a drop in its annual campaign. The estimated $3.04 billion given to local United Way campaigns in 1992 represents 4.1 percent less than the 1991 total.

The United Way allocates the money raised in its workplace-centered campaign to non-profit social service groups and hospitals.

Jewish social service groups — including boards of family and children’s services, vocational programs, old-age homes and community centers — are among those beneficiaries, receiving more than $50 million nationwide each year.

The decline in the United Way’s campaign, which follows two years in which the campaign increases did not match inflation, is attributed largely to the economy.

Also cited as playing a role is possible donor backlash at the scandal surrounding former United Way National President William Aramony, who was forced to retire after charges of financial extravagance and mismanagement were leveled against him.

“Jewish agencies aren’t the only ones hurt and affected” by the downturn in the campaign, said Claire Austin, a spokesperson for United Way. “Many agencies, particularly smaller ones, are really hurt by being cut.”

But of more concern is that while these cuts are more severe than in the past, they continue a trend of fewer and fewer United Way dollars being allocated to Jewish institutions.

According to a study by the Council of Jewish Federations, even as United Way receipts went up more than 6 percent from 1989 to 1991, the amount allocated to Jewish federations and their affiliated agencies fell.

The percentage of the United Way campaign received by 77 federations reporting for the study dropped from 2.89 percent to 2.69 percent over those two years.

MOVE TOWARD DESIGNATED GIVING

This trend is being attributed to a move toward designated giving by United Way campaigns, which allows donors to target their money to higher profile organizations. The move away from federations is also attributed to the entry of newer philanthropies at the allocations table.

All this comes as the Jewish agencies on the receiving end of the United Way campaign fear being shortchanged by a Jewish community increasingly placing issues of religious identity and assimilation ahead of the social welfare concerns addressed by these institutions.

And while federation officials deny that they are targeting their social welfare services for cuts, it is clear that with federation campaigns basically stagnant, the Jewish community is unable to make up any gaps in United Way funding.

“Because of the impact of the recession on our campaign, and cutbacks in government funding, agencies will for the most part have to reduce their services to the most needy” by the amount of the United Way cutbacks, said Stephen Solender, executive vice president of New York’s UJA-Federation.

UJA-Federation and its agencies last year received about $4.7 million from the United Way.

In the New York area, regional United Ways have announced across-the-board cuts ranging from 8 percent to 25 percent, including 17 percent for New York City.

“One-fifth of the dollars those agencies were counting on won’t be available this year,” said Solender.

New York’s Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services was counting on $580,000 from the United Way. It is now expecting only four-fifths that amount this year.

Therefore, said Paul Levine, the board’s associate executive vice president, the agency is considering trimming its volunteer programs.

These include programs that escort people through New York’s anarchic family court system and run a hot line for battered women.

THIS MONEY ‘MAKES THE DIFFERENCE’

While the sum may seem small compared to a $70 million total budget, “this kind of philanthropic money makes the difference in providing more than the basic services, anything that the government doesn’t consider a valid service to reimburse, or too sectarian,” said Levine.

In Los Angeles, similarly, the Jewish Family Service has over three years seen its United Way grant slashed from $705,000 to $320,000. Each dollar cut, said Executive Director Sandra King, cuts the amount of counseling available for those in need.

In theory, the central “federated” campaigns of the United Way and the Jewish federations were designed to eliminate the need for charities to compete with each other for donors.

With the failure of the central campaigns to meet the needs, however, this concept is breaking down and agencies like the Los Angeles Jewish Family Service are increasing their efforts to raise funds independently.

Jewish organizations are also falling particular victim to a United Way effort to reverse the decline of its campaign. The effort, known as designated giving, allows United Way donors to designate the beneficiary of their choice.

Jewish boards of family and children’s services “are not agencies people think of when it comes to designated giving,” said Bert Goldberg, executive vice president of the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies.

“Designated giving goes to organizations with a higher visibility,” such as the Red Cross, he said.

Within the Jewish community, designated giving is being closely watched because it is being touted by some as a solution to the stagnant returns of federation campaigns.

At the New York federation, where some version of donor designation is being considered, Solender saw “a warning in all this for all of us, because they have permitted designated giving to become a very important part of their campaign, and it has definitely hurt their central fund.

“We’ll have to be very careful in how we introduce donor choice into our campaign,” Solender said.

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