• Vt. United Way giving reveals split economy
    By Kevin O’Connor
    STAFF WRITER | December 09,2012
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    Vermont’s United Way fundraisers usually can judge the state of the economy by who’s giving what. This year, however, the jury is hung.

    “People are still a bit hesitant to give and are holding on to their income until they are assured the economy is on the upswing,” United Way of Lamoille County executive director Dawn Archbold says.

    Then again, one contributor who pledged $3,500 last year just upped her promise to $4,000.

    “We have received significant increases from our largest donors and are starting to pick up some new ones,” Archbold says, “and that has really helped even things out.”

    The sentiment is echoed at United Way offices statewide. On one hand, fundraisers are finding small donors still struggling to maintain totals that haven’t risen since the start of the recession in 2008. On the other, a growing group of big contributors is giving more, allowing regional campaigns to bridge their money gaps and, in some cases, inch up their goals for the first time in years.

    The United Way of Chittenden County, the largest of nine Vermont offices, is working to raise $3.85 million — up $100,000 from what it collected last year.

    “In our region, the economy seems to have improved,” says Martha Maksym, the Chittenden County office’s executive director.

    That’s good news — especially as the government is considering funding cuts to balance its own budget.

    “The potential decrease of federal and state support for programs and services is making the role of philanthropy more critical,” Maksym says.

    Just north, the Franklin-Grand Isle United Way saw annual collections of nearly $600,000 drop some 20 percent in 2009 and 2010. Recent upticks in giving are allowing it to increase its year-to-year goal 5 percent to $525,000. But with St. Albans set to lose a 165-worker battery factory, fundraising in the two northwestern counties remains a challenge.

    “With Energizer pulling out, there will be an impact,” says Sally Bortz, executive director of the Franklin-Grand Isle office. “But overall, giving is going up instead of down and each year seems to feel on a stronger, more solid footing.”

    The United Way of Windham County is aiming to collect $500,000 — the same amount as last year. Local headlines offer equal parts headache and hope, from recent layoffs at the Brattleboro Retreat, the town’s largest employer, to an expansion at the nearby Commonwealth Dairy, adding as many as 34 jobs to a current workforce of 110.

    “Everyday there is an equal amount of bad news and good news — it’s a roller coaster,” says Windham County executive director Carmen Derby. “It is hard to tell where we will be at the end of the campaign.”

    The United Way of Addison County wants to match its 2011 goal of $700,000.

    “We are seeing mixed signs this year,” Addison County executive director Kate McGowan says. “Some donors are increasing their gifts but others are holding steady and a few significant payroll campaigns continue to decline.”

    The Addison County office is hoping contributors who gave $90,000 last year for Tropical Storm Irene recovery will funnel a similar amount this year into its general account. It’s also asking people to try to increase their annual pledges to 125 percent to mark the 125th anniversary of the United Way’s founding.

    The Green Mountain United Way that serves Caledonia, Essex, Orange, Orleans and Washington counties hopes to repeat last year’s $600,000 take. While business giving so far is up, revenue from an annual residential mailing is down.

    “I’m encouraged that more businesses are sounding positive,” Green Mountain executive director Nancy Zorn says, “but I think last year’s floods hurt many people and are still fresh in their minds.”

    The Granite United Way — a New Hampshire-based office with an Upper Valley Region branch that serves Vermont’s Windsor County — is again aiming to reap $1 million.

    “We have encountered reluctance from a few companies to host workplace campaigns if they have experienced or expect layoffs,” Upper Valley interim vice president Suzanne Stofflet says. “On the other hand, we have added about a half dozen new workplace campaigns. It feels as if the economy is improving to me, but we’ll know more after this.”

    The United Way of Rutland County, working to match last year’s $565,000, is stressing the importance of every contribution no matter the size.

    “The economy certainly continues to impact donations while the need in the community continues to grow,” Rutland County executive director Traci Moore says. “At a time when available resources have been stretched further than ever before, we are fortunate that our donors continue to do what they can.”

    The same is said statewide.

    “The last few years have been a challenge for all the agencies and programs we fund — each is generally being asked to do more with less resources,” McGowan says in Addison County. “We are grateful to those who, despite experiencing economic loss or uncertainty, continue to give either at their traditional or at decreased levels.”

    In Lamoille County, Archbold’s office is pushing forward on its $170,000 goal, even if it isn’t publicizing the figure.

    “We’re trying to focus more on the difference we make in people’s lives rather than on a dollar amount,” she says. “After the past several years, we want to focus on the positive. We fully understand and appreciate that people give to the best of their ability, so we treat all donations the same.”


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