It's never easy for United Way of Central Indiana-raising money seldom is.
But this year, organizers went into the annual fund-raising drive with an additional challenge: replacing $1.5 million in one-time donations that helped get the 2004 campaign to its $36.6 million goal.
Their task is complicated by the fact that this year's effort started just as the philanthropic response to Hurricane Katrina kicked into high gear. Americans have given nearly $1 billion to disaster relief already, and the impact on local charities remains to be seen.
Campaign Chairman Steve Walker, the admittedly optimistic president of local research firm Walker Information, sees an opportunity rather than a barrier.
The American Red Cross and Salvation Army-organizations getting many of the donations-both are United Way agencies, after all, and they swung into action long before the post-Katrina contributions started rolling in.
"I think there's a natural tie-in here that I'm hopeful people keep in mind," Walker said. "[Relief organizations] deployed before the hurricane even hit. They were prepared already; they had resources already. ... That's exactly why we need to have an infrastructure in place."
And as evacuees from the hurricane-ravaged region make their way north, that health-and-human-service infrastructure may be tested even more. Officials say more than 2,000 displaced residents could settle here at least temporarily, and local United Way agencies stand ready to help.
"The needs in the community haven't changed," Walker said. "This is the world in which we live-we have to deal with the everyday issues and, at times, extraordinary circumstances."
Still, finding the money to do that has gotten more difficult as corporate mergers, downsizing and relocations weakened United Way of Central Indiana's support base.
This time around, though, the agency is hoping a fresh approach will help it attract legions of new donors and sway previous contributors to give even more.
For the first time, staff and volunteers have gone through sales training, giving them the tools they need to make their case to the hundreds of companies-and thousands of employees-who contribute each year.
UWCI also has reorganized its workers into two teams: one that works to cultivate relationships with companies already running campaigns, and one that works to drum up new business.
Last year, 163 companies participated for the first time or made their first corporate gift, generating $414,774 toward the $36.6 million total. Officials hope to do even better in 2005.
"We were missing a lot," admitted local United Way CEO Ellen Annala.
New campaigns are an important piece of the puzzle, but they can take years to reach their full potential. So growing existing efforts is another focus this year.
Walker, the consummate researcher, crunched the numbers: If the 15 most-successful campaigns improve their results an average 5 percent, they will bring in an additional $950,000. If the rest of the top 50 each raised another $25,000 or so, they would contribute an extra $875,000. And if their efforts motivate others, all the better.
"There is so much potential," said Walker, who has agreed to a two-year stint as campaign chairman. "We're laying a foundation, not making it up with a one-time deal. These are the fundamentals that will pay dividends going forward."
Still, the strategy for doing that isn't simple-in fact, it varies from campaign to campaign. Companies with high participation rates but low per-employee giving may take one approach, for example, while those with high giving but low participation try another.
And what works with one campaign may be applied to another, something that hasn't always happened in the past, Walker said.
Early results are encouraging. When the 2005 fund-raising season officially kicked off Sept. 7, commitments from the 135 "pacesetter" campaigns already amounted to about 10 percent of the $36.6 million goal.
Enterprise Rent A Car's Indiana Group was one of those who raced to an early finish in hopes others would follow. Its pace was indeed impressive-participation accelerated from about 60 percent in the past to close to 90 percent this year, and total donations revved up from $62,000 to $112,000.
Group Vice President Mark Mitchell said the campaign got a boost from UWCI Way staff who helped Enterprise employees understand what they can do to help the community.
"It's very satisfying to be able to give back," he said.
UWCI has a deceptively simple mission-to mobilize people in our community to care for one another-but what it actually does is far more complicated than raising money and doling it out.
Its staff and volunteers regularly assess community needs and set funding priorities. They maintain a constant line of communications with other agencies to make sure important issues are being addressed. And they run programs of their own, including a training center for other notfor-profits.
Therein lies the problem.
"It's hard to tell that story," said Nancy Frick, immediate past president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals' central Indiana chapter. "Other agencies are so single-focused that everyone understands and knows what they do. United Way is raising money for many organizations. ... That's a challenge."
Still, she said the organization is taking the right tack, trying to appeal to individual donors rather than counting on help from corporations. Eli Lilly and Co., Well-Point Inc. and the Indiana Pacers made major gifts at the end of last year's campaign to get it to goal.
"You can't rely on foundations and corporations to continually fill in the gap," Frick said. "It comes down to making the case. Are you making the case well, so donors understand where their money is going?"
Annala hopes so. That's why UWCI staff works closely with workplace campaign coordinators, making sure employees are well-educated about the agency's efforts. Whenever possible, "torchbearers" visit companies to share how United Way helped them.
"People truly give with their heads and their hearts," Annala said. "We provide information so they know what we do, but they also have to feel good about it. Torchbearers tell their stories. That, probably more than anything, puts a face on the United Way. We're not just this big thing they don't understand. We're changing lives."
Walker has visited more than 45 local CEOs since March, stumping for United Way of Central Indiana. He said he hasn't found one yet who didn't think the community could do more at campaign time.
"This is really about people in the community who want to make a difference," he said. "If you drive around the city, you see the needs. This is about the community taking care of its own."
And if there's a bright side to the recent challenges, it's that United Way has been forced to step up its efforts in a way that may give it staying power. But the hard work will never end, Annala said.
"We don't take anything for granted. Thirty years ago, we probably did. Today, we don't," she said. "We've got to earn the right to be here every year."
United Way of Central Indiana Chairman-elect John Neighbours helps spruce up the Hawthorne Community Center as part of United Way's Sept. 7 campaign kick-off. Sneakers the Clown was on hand for a United Way rally at Eli Lilly and Co. this month. The company and its employees contributed $8 million to the local campaign last year.