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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why I no longer support the United Way

I wrote this originally about 10 years ago. Nothing has changed in the meantime.

I used to be a strong supporter of the United Way. It made sense to write one check or have a small amount deducted from my salary every pay period to be distributed among a group of agencies. I was always surprised and disappointed to hear from the small but vocal minority who refused to participate because some of the money went to an organization of which they did not approve. But after several years of reflection, I have come to a similar conclusion, albeit for other reasons. They are three: the nature of institutional decay, the need for individual responsibility, and a desire to avoid homogeneity and the “team mentality.”

All institutions whether they are created originally by volunteers or are more formally established, go through stages or life cycles. Initially, the officers and members are enthusiastic and dedicated to the mission of the organization. Later, as the original staff burn-out or retire, the responsibility for maintenance of the mission is inherited by “professionals.” These well meaning individuals bring a subtle shift to the goals of the institution. Now the continuance of the organization, particularly its growth and increase in staff (which bring visibility and prestige to the managers), becomes utmost in importance. Often the original mission of the organization takes second place. In the case of United Way, we now see a national organization, funded lavishly by local groups that are required to subsidize a large staff with mammoth salaries, buildings, private aircraft, etc. Such excesses lead inevitably to the scandals such as we have seen in recent years.

Secondly, the United Way insidiously -- although not deliberately -- takes away the individual’s responsibility to support agencies in which he or she believes. A group of “community leaders,” not elected (hence not representative), decide how the funds will be dispersed. The agencies then have to appeal not to the loyalty of individual supporters, nor to the populations they are to help, but rather to a group of people who may have a completely different agenda from those expected to donate the money to support the agencies. This has a circularly devastating effect on the way managers are hired. No longer does an agency hire someone who can best provide support to the population its mission addresses, but rather on how well the manager can get money from the unelected board that distributes money. I suggest the skills required to do each job are vastly different.

Similarly, the process removes the individual’s responsibility to become party to the process of helping one’s fellow man. It has become so easy to have that little amount deducted, to turn over the job (and it is a task) of deciding which organizations to support to someone else. The collectivization of charity has artfully removed individuals from the process that should require us to investigate and decide ourselves. We have essentially created a mini government without representation that disperses our money without our input.

Finally, I object to the “team-mentality” that pervades the whole United Way campaign. The notion that companies and institutions compete against one another for the highest percentage of contributors offends my sense of individuality. There is often huge pressure placed on individuals (fortunately this is not true at HCC) to “join the team” irrespective of the philosophy or individual reasoning of the person. Society places too much emphasis on conformity as it is. The attitude is “trust us with your money.” “Let us make the decisions for you.” I think it’s time to return the decision-making to yourself. Don’t join the team arbitrarily. Support your community by participating in it. Investigate groups that ask for money. Do your own research. And then give generously to those causes you believe to be important. Do not abrogate your responsibility.

I urge you support of charities and worthwhile organizations. There are many that do an excellent job and are worthy of your time and money.
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