United Way Eliminates Deficit 2 Years Early


United Way of Ventura County has eliminated its nearly $1-million deficit much earlier than expected and recently completed a successful pledge drive that will allow it to meet all of its commitments this year, officials said Wednesday.

Even though United Way fell $200,000 short of its goal of raising $5.5 million in its most recent drive, its 55 member agencies will not receive any less financial aid than they were promised.

Last year, United Way came up $500,000 short and had to pull back on its commitments to local charities by about 30%.

That shortfall, combined with a mounting deficit, resulted in United Way ending the 1996-97 fiscal year $973,655 in the red. The agency had come up with a three-year plan to eliminate the deficit, but high turnover in its staff and other cutbacks allowed it to get rid of the deficit in one year.

The agency's financial recovery took "blood, sweat and tears," President Sheryl Wiley Solomon said.

The staff dropped from 18 to 12. Those who remained at the Camarillo office moved to smaller quarters and took on additional responsibilities.

Staffing is at a bare-bones level, Wiley Solomon said. "If I had to run a campaign tomorrow, I couldn't do that."

In fact, United Way's 1999 campaign is two months away. The agency expects to set a fund-raising goal at its kickoff Sept. 18. Wiley Solomon said the bar will almost certainly not be set any higher than it was this year, when $5.5 million was the goal and $5,351,733 was raised.

And for the second year, United Way will conduct its campaign over 90 days, instead of over nine months. The longer period was partly how United Way got into the red; it was giving out money to local charities before it had collected it. Now the agency makes sure that it has collected its pledges before making its allocations.

In its most recent campaign, United Way lost $233,000 in pledges because of downsizing at some of its 500 corporate contributors, and the agency expects to lose even more donations in its next drive.

Three oil companies, whose employees contribute about $22,000 annually, have already told the agency that they are leaving the county within the year, Wiley Solomon said.

To compensate, United Way will focus its fund-raising on small- and medium-size businesses, which are traditionally more reluctant to give to the agency.

Ventura County's per-capita gift--the dollar value of pledges that United Way collects divided by the area's population--is only $6.12, well below the national average for similar areas, which is $15.50.

Wiley Solomon said she will personally cultivate more major donors--those who give $10,000 or more.

"We know we have the resources here," she said. "The question is how are we going to get those individuals with high net worth to contribute to the community through the United Way?"

Showing the direct results that contributions to United Way have on the community is part of the pitch, Wiley Solomon said. The local agency contributes about $2 million annually to groups that include youth organizations, senior citizens groups and substance-abuse programs.

When United Way unexpectedly cut its allocation by $56,000 last year, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme had to cut two positions and mount its own fund-raising campaign. This year, Boys & Girls Club board President Russ Goodman said, funding was still lower--but more certain.

"It's never easy to do with less money, but it's easier when you can plan for it," he said.

The Ventura County Red Cross chapter would also like more funding from United Way, said Ann Sobel, Red Cross executive director. But the relief organization has been able to continue operating with a roughly $175,000 United Way allocation that is little more than two-thirds what it was two years ago.

With United Way's recent turnaround, Sobel said, more money for her group may be just a pledge drive away.

"Knowing United Way is a viable organization, to us, is more important right now than the cut that we've received over the last few years," she said.

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