LUMBERTON — Robeson County has been battered by two hurricanes in less than two years, and fundraising at the United Way of Robeson County also has taken a substantial hit.
Local United Way leaders are seeking a way forward for the one-year shortfall and for the long-term in a challenging new era of fundraising. The venerable agency, which met its campaign goals from 2015 through 2017, is $300,000 short of its 2018 goal of $750,000.
United Way raises money help to local nonprofits and educational institutions. Under its umbrella are programs for temporary relief and solutions to systemic poverty through literacy, youth programs, scholarships and drug addiction intervention.
Despite its long history, United Way administrators are not certain that the public understands what the agency does or its current dilemma. Its mission has evolved during the past 10 years, and it has responded to two hurricanes with significant disaster relief.
“The very last thing we want to do is cut funding for our 16 agencies,” United Way Executive Director Latricia Freeman said. “We’re cutting everything possible internally.”
The much larger United Way of Charlotte cut funding to its partner agencies by 25 percent this year after several years of declines in fundraising. For rich and poor communities alike, fundraising is increasingly challenging in a changing environment.
Speaking of environment, two hurricanes have pushed United Way of Robeson’s resources beyond its limits.
“The disaster that was Hurricane Florence played a big role in our situation,” Freeman said. “When disasters hit, we do what we always do — address the most pressing needs first.”
Florence hit during the United Way’s prime fundraising season, and several companies that the United Way depends on could not run campaigns. Providing hurricane relief also drained resources from the United Way staff.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, United Way representatives spent two weeks in the county Emergency Operations Center recruiting and deploying volunteers. It sent 500 volunteers to work, and that program continues.
From its location in the former Kimbrell’s building in downtown Lumberton, the agency handed out an estimated $1 million in emergency aid, including water, food, diapers, cleaning supplies and clothing.
The United Way received an estimated $1 million in grants and donations for disaster relief. It hired case managers to help individuals and small businesses navigate the federal grant and loan programs.
“We sent case managers to the factories, so we could reach more people, and workers would not miss any more work than possible,” Freeman said. “We also reached out to very small businesses, who are often overlooked for disaster aid.”
In general, giving to United Ways nationwide has declined since the 2008 recession, officials said. The loss of industry in Robeson County has also been an issue. Technology is partly to blame.
Besides the changes in corporate giving, donors have a wider array of options, including GoFundMe and other online giving sites. After major disasters, donors give via a text message.
As a case in point, state employees are no longer subject to person-to-person pleas from charitable organizations. Instead, the receive a booklet with hundreds of choices, including the United Way. The State Employees Combined Campaign takes 10 percent of donations.
“When donors can look at a computer screen with so many choices, they don’t see that we are the agency that provides critical help to their local community,” Freeman said.
Freeman and Resource Specialist JoAnne Branch worry that potential donors do not understand the United Way’s mission.
“What we do is more complex than people realize,” Branch said.
A decade ago, United Way agencies nationwide changed course from supporting safety net programs to supporting programs with broader community impact, programs that transform lives and communities.
United Way of Robeson County continues to support food pantries and soup kitchens, but it is moving toward supporting programs like 4-H, Family Drug Treatment Court, Partnership for Children, Healthy Start and Communities in Schools. One example is the scholarship program at Robeson Community College, which helps students stay in school through their final semesters.
While this long-term strategy shift is strategically important, the United Way faces a more immediate issue. It is scrambling to build a short-term financial bridge that includes launching late employee campaigns, seeking help from county government and municipalities, and soliciting corporate gifts.
There also will be a major fundraising event in the fall. A second Lipsync Battle is planned at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Givens Performing Arts Center.
“We’ve made internal budget cuts, and seven of our 11 staff positions are now paid for by external grants,” Freeman said. “We’re asking our partners to tell us what a cut of 25 percent would mean to their programs.”
A 25 percent cut would be “devastating” for 4-H programs in Robeson County, according to Shea Ann DeJarnette, program director.
“We served nearly 7,000 children last year, and our goal is to serve 1,000 more this year,” DeJarnette said. “Funding to 4-H is an investment in a child’s future. Think about this: 100 percent of the youth who are active in Robeson County 4-H graduate from high school.”
The United Way does not anticipate cutting out any agency, and it is not in danger of closing its doors, Freeman said.
“Right now, we need community support,” she said. “We value our partnerships, and we are an efficient and effective agency.
“It’s important for everyone in Robeson County to see what we do and to see if they can help us. I can’t imagine a Robeson County without a healthy United Way.”
The United Way of Robeson County’s partners are: American Red Cross, Boy Scouts, Communities in Schools, Foster Children’s Fund, Healthy Start, Partnership for Children, Rape Crisis Center, 4-H, Southeastern Family Violence Center, Southeastern Hospice House, Southeastern Behavioral Health Paramedic Partners, Church and Community Center, Family Drug Treatment Court, RCC Foundation and Lumberton Christian Care Center.
One special United Way program is the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which gives books to all Robeson County children from birth to age 5.
Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]