ST. PETERSBURG — With the economy taking a toll on charity donations, Mayor Bill Foster is turning to a new source to raise money for a scholarship program started by his predecessor: his employees.
In the past month, Foster has sent donation cards to all city employees that ask them to contribute to the Doorways Scholarship Program, which provides prepaid college scholarships to low-income sixth-graders who maintain their grades and stay drug- and crime-free. It asks them to pay by a payroll deduction plan, a one-time contribution, by check or by credit card.
For every $2,900 that "the mayor raises," the card points out, the Pinellas Education Foundation will match. Then, Florida will match that total gift with another $5,800, for a total of $11,600.
"Our goal is 100 percent of the City of St. Petersburg's employees supporting the Mayor's Mentors and More Doorways Scholarship Program!" the card states.
Since taking office in January 2010, Foster has fallen behind the philanthropic pace set by his predecessor, Rick Baker.
In his nine years in office, Baker made the scholarship program a centerpiece of his administration. He held mayoral balls to raise money, and rich philanthropists, such as John Galbraith, made hefty contributions. He handed out more than 100 scholarships each year.
Foster, by comparison, has managed to raise money for 52 scholarships, according to Lori Matway, the city's administrator of school resources and internships.
One reason for the falloff, Matway said, was that a rich philanthropist died last year. The philanthropist wished to remain anonymous.
The economy also is to blame, she said.
"People who were giving aren't giving now," she said. "So we're all struggling for that same dollar."
Matway said it was her idea to pass out the cards to employees, a move that Baker didn't do when he was mayor. The card is similar to the one given for the United Way campaign. Matway said she stressed there is no mandatory requirement to give. However, the card doesn't make that clear.
Employee responses are entered into a database. Those who don't give get a "z" by their name. They have until May to respond.
She acknowledged that some employees complained about feeling pressured to give, but added that they didn't complain to her directly. In response to media inquiries about complaints, she sent an e-mail to supervisors clarifying that only those making contributions needed to sign the cards, but she still wanted all cards returned. Each card has an employee's name on it.
Foster said the scholarship program is a good one because it helps meet a need that is so great.
Those who don't give should have no fear of reprisals, Foster said.
"I have no way of checking who gives what," he said. "I don't care. It's their business. The reason we did it this way is that they're accustomed to getting the same card from United Way. I wanted this to be identified with that. If employees talk to their supervisor, they know it's not mandatory."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.