- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

The economic downturn and an ongoing mismanagement scandal at the local chapter of the United Way are taking a toll on charitable donations in the area, representatives of service organizations say.

Monica Testa, spokeswoman for the Capital Area Food Bank, said monetary donations are running about 10 percent behind last year.

"Last year we were seeing some of the big granters and donors redirecting their funds to the September 11 charities," she said. "Now we're losing individual donors middle to upper-middle class."

Ms. Testa blames the technology industry collapse, a downturn in the stock market and an all-around struggling economy for the decrease in donations.

The food bank works with 800 social-service agencies in the greater Washington area.

Other local charitable organizations and nonprofit foundations, according to a report released yesterday by the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, are scaling back grants, reducing staff and cutting costs to deal with the economic downturn.

The mismanagement scandal at the United Way of the National Capital Area isn't helping, either.

The local chapter, which is under investigation by a federal grand jury looking into accusations of misuse of funds at the organization, has been abandoned by several corporate partners in recent months, including Lockheed Martin, Marriott and DynCorp.

The United Way's problems have trickled down to organizations such as the food bank, which saw its United Way grant cut from $300,000 last year to $25,000 this year, Ms. Testa said.

But the demand for food isn't falling like the donations are, she said. "Even with the fund raising down, we're still getting new agencies," she said. "[Agencies] are already coming to us to say they have an increase in need."

Christel Nichols, executive director for the House of Ruth, which provides services such as housing and assistance in developing skills for independent livelihood for homeless families, said it's not clear how hard the United Way scandal will hit local charities, because it's a pretty fresh occurrence that may not have its most drastic impact until later.

She said the concerns about a general slowdown in funding has the group, which still plans to host its annual Thanksgiving dinner for its clients, watching expenses very carefully.

Other organizations said the problems aren't affecting Thanksgiving donations and plans.

Sharon Gang, deputy director for the mayor's office of communications, said the city will provide 30 turkey dinners to families this Thanksgiving, a number on par with what it has offered in years past.

Kristin Lane, associate director of development at Central Union Mission, said the 118-year-old group doled out 362 turkeys Monday through Thursday, and will probably hand out about 140 more before the holiday ends. That will match last year's total.

The group will also provide a noon Thanksgiving dinner Wednesday for its clients senior citizens, low-income families and single parents.

Edible donations remain high, Miss Lane said, because of the group's long-standing relationship with grocery stores and its reputation for integrity. The agency receives food donations from Safeway Inc., Giant Brands Inc. and Amtrak, and most monetary donations come from individual donors, churches and corporations.

"We've been here for 118 years, and we're able to feed the people," she said.

The Rev. Charles Green, pastoral administrator for St. Augustine Catholic Church, said that in his seven years at the parish the number of Thanksgiving baskets the group distributes has consistently increased, reaching 350 last year.

This year, he said, will be no exception.

"We have regular donors who come through for us each year," he said, adding that he hopes that those contributions will give the church the means to "help everyone who comes through our door."

An additional concern for Catholic charities is whether donors will shy away because the sex scandals that have plagued the church. Father Green said the national scandals haven't affected his local congregation.

"Our people here, we're not caught up in that at all, because we have so much respect for [parish priests]," he said.

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