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Raising the temperature for United Way

A couple weeks back, Kathye Beck, the United Way of Columbia County’s executive director, brought to our attention the increasing difficulty she is having meeting fundraising goals. Her outreach raised our awareness about United Way of Columbia County and how it differs from other nonprofits operating in Columbia County, and we believe it’s important to share that information as much as our media presence will allow.

We doubt we’re the only ones who only vaguely understood how United Way of Columbia County’s provides services to the community. While there are some directly supported events, such as the current “Stuff the Bus” school supply drive for students in Columbia County school districts, or events such as the St. Helens Children’s Fair in fall, much of the agency’s support and outreach efforts occur out of the limelight.

Unlike other nonprofits, which typically have very focused missions, United Way of Columbia County perhaps most importantly provides the support services that allow other nonprofits operating in Columbia County, or that service Columbia County residents, to be more effective.

For example, Beck explained that government grants received by agencies, such as the nonprofit Community Action Team Inc., or CAT, which provides social support services in Columbia, Clatsop and Tillamook counties, often do not allow for spending on items such as air conditioning or floor carpeting. Yet, air conditioning can be a vitally important feature for the very elderly during an exceptionally hot summer, as we have experienced this year. Likewise, carpeting in a home for someone who routinely experiences seizures is far from being a luxury; it’s a necessity.

United Way of Columbia County is able to meet those needs.

Similarly, Beck explained that there is no funding available through CAT to pay water bills, though that is a function allowed by United Way of Columbia County dollars.

In other respects, United Way of Columbia County is able to help subsidize out-of-county operations that offer services otherwise not available in Columbia County. One example, as Beck pointed out, is Chehalem Youth and Family Services, located in Newberg. There are no 24-hour in-house care services for endangered youth in Columbia County, Beck explained. When such need arises, the contributions from United Way of Columbia County to Chehalem Youth and Family Services —a figure Beck said is about $2,000 annually — ensures an immediate safe place for local, endangered youth.

The bottom line is that United Way dollars are not restricted in the same way as government grant dollars. They can be directed to fill a local need, and United Way of Columbia County staff members work with local social service providers to identify those needs and satisfy them as much as resources allow.

Unfortunately, however, funding for United Way of Columbia County is on the wane. Beck reported that the agency has seen declines of $50,000 annually over the past two years.

United Way of Columbia County is prohibited from fundraising outside of the county in which it serves. It can’t, for example, make a plea to the Intel Corp. semiconductor research and manufacturing center in Hillsboro to donate to its cause, though employees at the Intel plant can direct charitable payroll deductions to United Way of Columbia County.

On top of the prohibition against fundraising outside the county has been the shutdown of large, local manufacturing plants — the most obvious example being the Boise Inc. mill in St. Helens — that have been mainstays for United Way of Columbia County fundraising endeavors.

Also, as the effects of the Great Recession started to really hit home in 2008, one of the first thing people cut out of their budget was charitable giving, Beck explained. While some of that giving is coming back, it hasn’t rebounded as quickly as giving to other charities has.

Beck said she is hopeful fundraising is improving this year. We share her hope. But with 70 to 80 percent of the workforce commuting out of the county, such improvements can be tricky to gauge or anticipate. With some companies, for example, charitable payroll deductions first filter through the company’s national headquarters prior to being distributed to the employee-determined charitable agency.

“It can be — and this is not a professional word — ‘wonky’ at times,” Beck said.

For employees who lives in Columbia County and work out of the county, it is necessary to specify that any donation to United Way needs to be directed to United Way of Columbia County, otherwise it will flow to the county in which the employer is located. To add even more confusion, the United Way member serving Multnomah County is named “Columbia-Willamette United Way.”

To learn more about the United Way of Columbia County, please visit the nonprofit’s website at www.unitedwayofcolumbiacounty.com