TAMPA — Andy Kramer hopes to turn around a three-year trend when he goes before a United Way of Tampa Bay committee today.
Since 2007, United Way funding to the American Cancer Society in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties has dropped more than 80 percent.
Last year, the society absorbed the latest round of cuts without reducing services at the Hope Lodge, which provides free lodging to patients coming to Tampa for extended periods of cancer treatment. But it had to lay off employees.
"You can always rob Peter to pay Paul, but at the end of the day something's got to give," says Kramer, the society's area executive director for Hillsborough.
Welcome to a hard reality for some local charities. In a major shift, the United Way of Tampa Bay is focusing its support where it aims to have the most impact: helping children and poor families. But giving more to those programs means others get less.
Moreover, this change in philosophy comes as the recession hits charitable giving across the board. With donations down, the United Way of Tampa Bay's total allocations dropped 28 percent from its 2006-07 fiscal year to 2009-10.
For some charities, the new priorities translate to even bigger cuts.
The American Heart Association saw its local United Way funding drop from $570,500 to $72,500 in a single year. With the writing on the wall, it withdrew its request for any funds last year. Since 2006, the Centre for Women has lost nearly two-thirds of its funding for a program to help seniors.
"These are tough decisions," says United Way of Tampa Bay senior vice president Emery Ivery.
They are driven by data and shaped by several years of conversations with corporate donors and local agencies, United Way executives say.
After those discussions, the local organization wrote a four-part "impact agenda." Two main long-range goals are boosting high school graduation rates and helping struggling families become self-sufficient.
"There's not a business that doesn't want a more educated work force," says Diana Baker, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Tampa Bay.
The other two parts of the agenda consist of supporting organizations that provide a safety net to those in need and working with groups in two targeted neighborhoods — Sulphur Springs in Tampa and North Greenwood in Clearwater.
United Way Worldwide began moving toward an impact approach about nine years ago. Now it focuses on programs that promote education, financial stability and healthy behaviors.
More than 80 percent of United Way's local chapters have moved in that direction, too. Research shows an impact agenda not only addresses community problems, but helps the United Way raise money, said Sal Fabens, the director of public relations for United Way Worldwide. Donors want to see their money at work.
"Resources are finite," Fabens said. "We want to make deeper impacts on issues that are critical. In the past we tried to be all things to all people, and I think we realized that we can't have as big of an impact that way."
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Phasing in the new agenda has brought some of the most far-reaching changes in the 80-plus years of the United Way of Tampa Bay.
Throughout, however, Kramer and other nonprofit executives generally say their relationship with the United Way has remained good.
"That's not a bad idea to have strategic planning and really determine how to get the most bang out of the buck," said Bruce Inverso, the American Heart Association's senior vice president of health strategies for the southeastern United States.
But the cuts have forced agencies to redouble their fundraising and make sure their own focus is on what matters most to them.
When it comes to making allocations, United Way executives say they support specific programs, not agencies. As they've introduced the changes, agencies have seen funding grow for some programs even as it dwindled for others.
If an agency's programs don't line up with the new priorities, the United Way works with the agency to see if it has another program that matches the impact agenda.
The United Way also considers whether organizations get state or federal money, though nonprofit executives say they are beset by funding cuts on all sides even as demand for their services rises.
United Way executives say they understand what agencies are going through. United Way Tampa Bay, which spends 14 percent of its funds on administration, has cut its staff from 63 to 45 employees during the recession.
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While cutting back elsewhere, the United Way has invested more in programs that align with its goals.
One program, Ways to Work, has seen its funding more than double since 2007. It provides low- or no-interest auto loans to low-income adults who need a car for work, but only after they go through a program to teach them how to manage their money and budget for things like repairs.
"That has been shown to link to higher income, parent involvement in schools and a number of other areas that are connected to achieving financial stability," Ivery said. Plus the program boasts a 95 percent repayment rate.
Child care that helps working parents hold on to their jobs also has gotten a boost, but United Way administrators want more than just babysitting.
So it has supported a summer care initiative offered by nine agencies on both sides of Tampa Bay.
The program offers free child care from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next to low-income families. Children in the program also do academic work to help them retain what they learned in school the year before and are prepared for the coming school year. Plus, their parents are required to take courses in financial literacy.
It helped, said Carmen Rodriguez, 30, whose three children attended the summer care program at the Harbordale YMCA in St. Petersburg. She appreciated the counseling on avoiding credit card debt, and her kids loved the program.
Ultimately, the goal of such programs is to equip families so they might not need help in a couple of years, said Brian Deming, a co-founder of the Tribridge information technology and business consulting firm and vice chairman of the United Way of Tampa Bay's board.
"It's trying to break that cycle and not just keep providing the same services to the same people," he said.