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United Way misstated pledges

During their fundraising campaigns, United Way officials acknowledge they have sometimes double counted contributions and overstated the amount of money raised for charities in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Doug Weber, president and CEO of the United Way of Tampa Bay since January, said no money was misused and no one was trying to deceive anyone. Nonetheless, he and board members said they have changed procedures to prevent it from happening again.

"We're an independent organization. We're accountable to the community," Weber said.

The issue has cropped up with United Way organizations across the country. A New York Times article Tuesday said double counting had occurred in New York, Chicago and elsewhere.

Weber gave a local example involving Eckerd drugstores. He said employee contributions from around the country traditionally have been sent to corporate headquarters in Largo. That money _ as much as $1.6-million _ was then counted by the Pinellas County United Way as part of its overall collections.

But that was misleading, because the Pinellas United Way then sent most of that money back to United Way organizations across the country, close to the communities where employees contributed it, in keeping with those employees' wishes. In effect, that overstated Pinellas County's overall contributions.

Weber said another $400,000 to $450,000 had been counted twice between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties because of companies that do business on both sides of Tampa Bay.

Counting contributions twice would overstate the amount raised for United Way organizations. That's significant because the agencies frequently tout their low administrative costs. If total contributions are inflated, administrative costs seem smaller in comparison.

Tampa Bay companies whose employees contribute to the United Way said they believe in the organization and intend to keep the money flowing.

But some also would like an explanation.

"It certainly makes me want to have a little more information on them, but I really have a lot of faith in them," said Tim Leal, controller of Tampa Bay Trane, who ran the United Way fundraising campaign for his company.

While he thinks the organization could have been "a little more pro-active" in stopping the double counting practices, "it's still the best charity here to have a group of employees donate to."

United Way officials say they discovered the double counting after the separate United Way organizations in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties voted in May 2001 to combine into one agency. While merging the databases of the two organizations, the duplications turned up, Weber said. The staff and board then agreed to change procedures.

Marty Petty, executive vice president of the St. Petersburg Times and a United Way board member, said she strongly believes "our local United Way is the most effective way to raise badly needed dollars for our community."

Nonetheless, she added, "I think that it's important, particularly in these times of even greater need in the community, that if there are issues, they get aired."

The Times has pledged $100,000 over four years to the United Way under a matching plan for new corporate gifts.

"I was surprised that they were counting the money in that way," said Brian Deming, president of Tribridge Inc., a business and technology consulting company. He said he learned of it through his work as a member of the United Way's "campaign cabinet" of volunteer fundraisers.

But Deming said the United Way also has been good about publicizing the exact figures it gives to local social service agencies. So people do get a clear idea of how their dollars are helping local charities, he said.

Weber said the United Way of Tampa Bay, which covers only Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, gives 88 cents of every dollar collected to the nonprofit organizations it supports.

He said the money that was double counted is a relatively small percentage of the United Way's overall budget.

This year the United Way is about 62 percent of the way toward achieving its fundraising goal of $25.5-million. Last year, the fundraising goal was higher, $28-million. The double counting is one reason last year's number was higher.