The list of donors to United Way of Pierce County’s 2006 campaign includes many familiar names, but the real story is not found among those usual suspects of philanthropic giving.
The true heroes of the record- setting campaign, which raised $13.7 million, are the people who gave for the first time and smaller donors who stretched to give more. Without them, the campaign would have fallen millions short of its potential to better the lives of Pierce County’s neediest.
The resounding success of this year’s campaign is due in large part to people recognizing a good deal. That’s exactly what campaign chairman Craig Ueland offered donors. The CEO of Tacoma’s Russell Investment Group issued a challenge, pledging $250,000 to United Way provided the community matched his money.
It was such a great idea, others joined him. Ueland’s company threw in $250,000, George and Dion Russell added another $250,000 and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation promised $1 million.
The $1.75 million match fund wasn’t easy money. Ueland’s challenge specified that the community would have to take its giving up a notch. The key was new money — either from new donors or increased donations from existing donors. And the money couldn’t be earmarked for specific organizations; it had to be designated for United Way’s community solutions fund, which targets the county’s most pressing needs as determined by a broad group of volunteers.
For the donors who met those narrow parameters, Ueland’s challenge offered an unprecedented opportunity: to double their money. Donors whose employers match United Way pledges could quadruple their contributions.
Pierce County donors responded, flooding United Way with $2 million in new dollars. Almost 130 businesses saw total employee and company gifts increase by 20 percent or more. The agency’s Tocqueville Society — people who give $10,000 or more per year to United Way — increased from 32 members to 77 in 2006. That’s more growth than it saw in the previous 12 years combined.
Giving to the community solutions fund was up 18 percent. But more impressive — and important to United Way’s long-term ability to support this community’s social service safety net — is growth in the number of individual donors to the community solutions fund. That base grew by 2,100 people.
Those are donors who, once they get a taste of helping meet the basic human needs of their neighbors, likely will continue giving. Ueland has said that the hardest gift he ever gave United Way was not the biggest; it was the first. Pierce County’s poor and vulnerable stand to benefit immensely if his community challenge has the same staying power.