TAMPA — In an unprecedented appeal, the United Way of Tampa Bay pleaded Tuesday for $1.3 million to support needy families in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
The agency's annual workplace fundraising drive is falling short of its $23 million goal, so the United Way of Tampa Bay launched a "Bridge the Gap" campaign hoping the public steps in.
"We've never done anything like this," said Douglas Arnold, the organization's vice president for marketing and communications.
The United Way of Tampa Bay supports 68 social service agencies swamped by requests from the newly unemployed, as well as those struggling with cutbacks in work hours, shaky credit and foreclosures.
"We're running into people who say, 'I've never asked for help before, and now I need help,' " said Duggan Cooley, president and chief executive of Clearwater-based Religious Community Services.
At the RCS Food Bank near downtown Clearwater, demand for food assistance in January was up 24 percent compared with January 2008.
The United Way of Tampa Bay's fundraising goal for this year is the same as what it raised last year. But contributions have lagged as workplaces have shrunk or, in some cases, closed.
Retailers, car dealers and financial institutions have struggled to give at previous levels, said Diana Baker, president and CEO of the United Way of Tampa Bay.
The annual campaign typically involves 800 to 900 participating workplaces in Pinellas and Hillsborough.
With unemployment rising, Arnold said the agency expects this year's needs to exceed 2008's and to continue growing into 2010.
He cited Smithfield Foods' recent announcement that it will close its Plant City pork-processing plant, eliminating 760 jobs, as the latest in a string of corporate contractions that will fuel demand for aid.
Over the past year, the United Way of Tampa Bay has cut its staff to 48 positions from 56 by laying off six people and eliminating two open positions.
If the agency can't cover the shortfall, it could look at further staff cutbacks or reductions in allocations to nonprofit groups.
"We're looking at all options," Baker said.
It wouldn't be the first time the United Way of Tampa Bay has cut support to local programs.
In 2003, after economic turmoil brought on by the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency said it had fallen short of its fundraising goal and cut funding to scores of local charities by an average of 23 percent.
Tuesday's appeal to the public was not coordinated through the United Way's national office, but it's not unique.
"Many local United Ways have started special initiatives to help meet increasing needs, particularly in basic needs for families in crisis," Sally Fabens, director of public relations for the United Way of America, wrote in an e-mail to the Times.
Nationwide, preliminary estimates from surveys show that 82 percent of the charity's largest chapters anticipate higher rates of uncollectible pledges, partly because of rising unemployment.
Locally, nonprofit groups say United Way support plays a key role in their operations.
In Pinellas County, the Family Service Centers provide a variety of counseling and family support programs. The nonprofit gets about 10 percent of its $5.3 million annual budget from the United Way.
"It's a significant amount of money that we rely on," said Mary Jo Monahan, the organization's president and CEO.
In Tampa, the MacDonald Training Center used its United Way grant last year to start a program employing clients with disabilities to package and ship every Sun Pass automatic toll device in the state.
That, in turn, generated revenue that helped fill in the gap left by three years of cutbacks from the state.
Without that program, "we would have had to make massive cutbacks in services," president and CEO Jim Freyvogel said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 269-5311.