Charities should exist only as long as they serve a legitimate public purpose and do so with accountability, integrity and openness.
United Way of Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties no longer deserves the support of the businesses, nonprofits and citizens of North Central Washington because of an ongoing lack of transparency and accountability. Instead, we should find a more effective replacement for United Way. The good news is that that’s a pretty low bar.
Some United Ways, like the operation in Grant County, are still working effectively and deserve to remain.
The financial debacle at United Way of Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties a few years ago should have led to a new sense of openness by the United Way, and local leaders had been assured this would happen. Unfortunately, the organization has failed to engage nonprofits effectively, communicate with donors in a timely and forthright manner and provide financial transparency. It’s the same old, same old.
Several nonprofit directors have told me that the communication from the United Way office has been virtually nonexistent after being promised repeatedly that things would be different under the leadership of Executive Director Charity Bergman.
Earlier this year, United Way disclosed that due to financial troubles they would be funding only four nonprofits to the tune of $60,000 for 2018-19. According to sources on the board, the payroll for United Way is in excess of $150,000, which means that funds from donors are going to salaries rather than nonprofits in need.
Recently, Bergman told The Wenatchee World that the nonprofit hopes to raise $300,000 in the current year. The $60,000 in expected community grants amounts to just 20 percent of the total amount raised. This is unacceptable.
Remember, more than a dozen key nonprofits are no longer getting funded by the United Way because of lack of funding.
To get a better picture of what originally happened to the United Way, I looked at the 990 statements from 2013-2016.
The numbers were revealing.
Salaries doubled from $131,000 to $260,000 and grants given to local agencies dropped from $298,000 to $225,000. Revenues generated, which included grants as well as contributions, ranged from $572,000 in 2013 to 909,000 in 2015, before dipping to $760,000 in 2016.
Increasing your revenue while reducing the amount of funds available to member agencies is a red flag, particularly when salaries are escalating. That happened before Bergman took over as executive director.
Bergman has said publicly that United Way is regrouping and building for the future. I cannot see any legitimate evidence that suggests United Way of Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties is building the foundation of a successful organization. If you’re going to rebuild trust and confidence, the first thing you must do is over-communicate and provide full transparency and accountability. There has been no evidence of that. It has been making enemies in the community rather than friends.
Key donors, such as Chelan County PUD and Confluence Health have been asking tough questions of the United Way in seeking to determine the viability of the organization and whether it is worth supporting financially.
The end of United Way wouldn’t end our support of these nonprofits. We just have to find a better mechanism, which shouldn’t be difficult.
The Community Foundation of North Central Washington stepped in to fill the financial gap last year when funds from United Way to its partner agencies fell short. There is no organization in the region with more credibility than the Community Foundation and we need an organization with those attributes to help us assist our social service agencies.
In the meantime, we can all help the existing and former United Way agencies by making direct contributions to assist them.
The United Way of Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties is no longer salvageable. It has outlived its usefulness and abused the public trust. I would like to see a state audit of the United Way’s dealings and whether the organization met its fiduciary responsibilities.
Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-665-1162.