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Challenge for United Way 

Between the Lines

Throughout the city, dozens of nonprofits have suffered in varying degrees for the past few weeks, since the day they received The Letter.

They knew The Letter was coming, with the news of what their 2012 grants would be from Pikes Peak United Way to help them provide "safety net services" for disadvantaged, disabled and otherwise underprivileged residents of El Paso County.

They also knew the allocations from United Way wouldn't be as much as they had received the past two years. Months ago, United Way's leadership decided to broaden its Community Fund recipients, targeting an effort called "Success by 6" aimed at helping preschool children learn to read and be ready for public education.

Because United Way wanted to embrace Success by 6, it had informed those "safety net" nonprofits to expect a reduction, generally assumed to be in the range of 25 percent. Despite budgeting accordingly, though, some agencies took a much deeper hit — while being told in The Letter that their programs were as legitimate as ever.

Some examples: Partners in Housing, total of its programs cut from $94,000 to $33,226; Early Intervention Program, The Resource Exchange, from $81,255 to $34,943; Triple Play Youth Development, Boys & Girls Club, $150,000 to $25,479; Foster Care Services, Lutheran Family Services, from $30,000 to $16,617; Children's Nutrition Initiative, Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, from $55,000 to $39,736; Residential Healthcare, Cheyenne Village, from $115,000 to $45,318; Case Management, Silver Key Senior Services, from $27,000 to $10,594; STAR Program, LULAC National Education Service Center, from $22,552 to $3,420.

(For the sake of transparency, I must disclose here that I'm the current board president of Cheyenne Village, which provides housing and services for adults with disabilities. I also have been a longtime supporter of United Way, here and elsewhere, helping with fund allocations for campaigns in Texas and Florida.)

Yes, this has been a big blow to Cheyenne Village, a totally local organization started by parents in 1971. But this is a bigger issue than just one nonprofit enduring a difficult stretch with tight resources.

Lots of other nonprofits are feeling a little (or a lot) betrayed by United Way, and they're asking questions.

They're wondering why United Way gave no warning that the "safety net" agencies as a whole would be cut more than 50 percent, from $2 million a year in 2010 and 2011 to $990,000 in 2012. They're wondering why the local United Way spent more than $300,000 buying a building adjacent to its office and turning it into a parking lot.

They don't understand why the United Way decided to keep $750,000 in reserves for tough times, when current circumstances qualify as truly difficult. They'd like a better explanation why the local United Way would cut so deeply into the heart of its primary beneficiaries for decades, applying new standards in the final analysis that weren't publicized previously. And they're skeptical as to why United Way leaped so totally into Success by 6 with limited money instead of developing that funding stream in phases.

To me, and to many others with years of United Way support and involvement, Pikes Peak United Way made some questionable moves in the past year: stretching itself too thin, eroding its commitment to help partner agencies, losing sight of long-established priorities as it embraced a new cause, spending so much to create that parking lot, refusing to use reserve funds to help make it through a tough year, and worst of all, treading dangerously toward losing its relevancy to the community as a whole.

Actually, it's not too late to do something about it. With grants due to be funded this month, Pikes Peak United Way could — make that should — decide to dip into its reserve funds and replenish some of the more drastic cuts, so that no deserving program takes a cut of more than 25 to 33 percent.

It will take strong leadership, and humility, for Pikes Peak United Way to admit the error of its ways and do something about it, by rectifying a potentially damaging misstep.

There's still a chance for United Way to take the right path. Its future credibility could depend on it.

routon@csindy.com

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