Tom Eblen

Times are also hard for local charities

The United Way pledge card showed up in my office mailbox this week.

I'm a big fan of United Way of the Bluegrass, the organization where some of Central Kentucky's best people come together to help others. United Way supports 95 non-profit groups and 251 programs that make this a better place to live.

Like a lot of people, I don't expect to get a raise next year. I might not be able to give more to United Way, but I also know I can't afford to give less.

Charities dread hard economic times such as these; needs rise and contributions often fall. Kathy Plomin, the United Way of the Bluegrass' president, is keeping her fingers crossed.

One of United Way's big efforts is the 2-1-1 telephone hotline, where people in the region call operators around the clock to be referred to an organization that can help them with specific needs. Call volume has tripled this past year, with most people needing help with things such as housing, utility bills and food.

"What we're finding is that people who never needed services before are calling for them," Plomin said.

So far, United Way contributions are holding up. The organization has received pledges of $5 million toward its $8 million goal for the year. The big problem will be "pledge loss," she said.

Employees at 1,800 companies in the region contribute to United Way through payroll deduction. But as employees are laid off, or leave work and are not replaced, pledges go unmet.

Normally, United Way budgets pledge loss at 7 percent. "This year, I think we're going to have to budget in double-digits for pledge loss," she said. "And there are some companies we're not even going to because they're having such a hard time."

United Way hopes to offset pledge loss by recruiting more companies. More than 40 have been added to the system this year. The organization also has conducted several phone-athons among lapsed donors, raising tens of thousands of dollars.

"You have two schools of thought: Some people are afraid, because of the economy, to put themselves out there with donations," Plomin said. "But some others are just caring more, and giving more, than they normally do."

Other non-profits also are cautiously optimistic about contributions amid rising demand for their services.

"People are still generous," said Kim Livesay, community relations director at the Hope Center shelter. "It looks like we're going to make it through the holidays, but who knows about January."

The Hope Center is coming off its biggest year ever for private donations, which account for more than 25 percent of funding. Its shelter and recovery programs get an additional 6.6 percent of funding from the United Way, with most of the rest coming from federal, state and local governments.

One organization already seeing a drop in contributions is The Salvation Army. The annual Angel Tree campaign is trying to provide gifts for 5,000 children — 1,000 more than last Christmas. But it is still seeking sponsors for more than 500 of those children before the campaign ends Sunday.

More severe is the "kettle campaign" — those bundled-up bell-ringers you see outside of stores with red kettles on tripods. With a dozen days to go, the Salvation Army is $157,000 short of its $350,000 goal, Major Debra Ashcraft said.

The Salvation Army's William Booth Society, its annual major donor campaign, is coming up soon. "We've heard back from a couple of those folks who've said they just really can't give at the level they've given before as a result of the economy," she said.

"We're in a very generous community," Ashcraft said. "But the need has never been greater. We don't think that the giving is keeping up with the extra demand."

It's something worth thinking about as you pass those bell-ringers, look at your own United Way pledge card or see people in need on the streets.

"In my lifetime, I don't think we've seen anything like this," Plomin said of the economic downturn. "Everybody's kind of wondering what's going to happen."