During the years when I’ve been an employee of large enterprises, as I am now, I’ve tended to make a donation through the United Way’s annual campaign. I’ve always targeted the donation, however, specifying what nonprofit organization I wanted my money to help.

I usually aim it at something the United Way finds politically difficult to help directly, such as Planned Parenthood. My logic: I figured the umbrella group’s other recipients would do okay with the default selection by most folks.

This year, I’m sorry to say, the Valley of the Sun United Way (VSUW) in metropolitan Phoenix refused my directed gift, which I’d attempted to donate through Arizona State University, my employer.

At the end of many conversations, emails and research, VSUW said it wouldn’t pass along the money to the ACLU Foundation of Arizona. The reason? It wasn’t, in the opinion of VSUW, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization providing “health and human services” — the baseline requirement for a targeted donation. Instead, the VSUW told me, based on an employee’s check of the ACLU website, the ACLU is:

more of an advocacy group than a health and human legal aid organization. ACLU’s mission is more about protecting Constitutional rights and more about issues as opposed to serving individual people in need. The work is more driven by the issue or position than the need of the individual.

The VSUW contrasted this with an agency it does consider worthy under their guidelines:

Community Legal Services of Arizona, also known as The William E. Morris Institute for Justice qualifies as a “health and human service” agency.

The William E. Morris Institute for Justice is a private non-profit agency established in 1996 to provide services to the legal services community, to other community-based agency advocates, and to select low-income clients in Arizona. In 1997, the Institute added an attorney who provides Legal-Services-Corporation precluded legal representation to low-income clients on a variety of issues. The Institute conducts research, advocacy and training activities to enhance legal services provided to low-income households in Arizona.

If they’re right about Community Legal Services — definitely a worthy organization — they’re mistaken about the ACLU. I went beyond website PR and looked at the ACLU-Arizona IRS reporting forms, which to be fair I had to ask for from the organization.

The advocacy part of the ACLU operation is in the 501(c)(4) arm. The 501(c)(3) report clearly shows that the organization provides human services though legal representation and public education. I told this to the United Way and sent along the forms.

The United Way’s response: No again. They didn’t address the specifics beyond insisting that the ACLU did not, under their rules, qualify. (I probably hurt my case by asking if this was a political question more than anything else, given Arizona’s right-wing leanings. They furiously denied this had anything to do with it.)

So I’ve withdrawn my donation, which was a generous one, giving instead directly to the ACLU and (as I’ve already done) to one of the organizations the United Way does approve of. At this point, however, I’m not inclined to do anything with the United Way, or at least this branch of it.

Postscript: By the way, the Arizona ACLU was basically useless during this process. The organization made no attempt to intervene, as far as I can tell, with either the university or United Way. And afterward, when I suggested the ACLU work with ASU and UW to fix this problem so it could become a designated beneficiary for gifts, the response was essentially, “Hmmm, interesting idea.” I’ve seen no sign whatever that anyone bothered to pursue this. Who loses? The people who need the ACLU’s services the most. I hope the AZ ACLU’s legal services aren’t as dysfunctional as the fundraising.

14 thoughts on “Why I Withdrew My United Way Donation and Donated Directly

  1. The United Way is great for people who want to give back, but don’t have the time or inclination to research where they want their money to go.

    While the United Way is an invaluable source of funding for many agencies, they do charge a hefty 10-15% administrative fee.

    If you really want to help an organization, give directly. More of your money will fund the program you support.

    • I work for a college and whenever I see the local United Way reps at on-campus events, they just sit back and disengage from their surroundings. They don’t make an effort to talk to the students, they just sit there with a clipboard on the table in front of them and signs with flashy logos and college-looking objects like megaphones and pom-poms. Every time I get the UW letter at work (which is quarterly, and which HR savvily suggests-but-doesn’t-state-directly must be returned by every employee) I have that mental image of the UW reps sitting there on their smartphones while the world goes on around them.

  2. I agree with Mr. Smith. Give DIRECTLY to the organization whose mission you support and you will make the biggest impact possible with your donation.

  3. I am dreading the upcoming paperwork I will be required to sign at my employer. I am forced to donate to United Way. If I don’t I have to sign paperwork that I’m refusing to donate. Then – guess what – I’m not a “team player” . I know some of the people on a board for UW and they are not people I respect.

  4. United Way contributions are usually extorted from employees via the “not a team player” comment from supervisors who in turn are judged by their ability to “persuade” others to contribute. Then they are treated a dinner at your expense and get attaboys on their performance reviews.

  5. This is good to know. I will continue giving to United Way. I wouldnt want a penny of my money going to the ACLU! I will be certain to do my homework regarding any donations I make that may possibly go to ACLU, or any similar organizations who’s sole mission is to undermine the rights of the law abiding working class citizens.

    • The ACLU defends the Bill of Rights — that is, the rights of law-abiding working class citizens. Sad that you don’t understand this.

  6. Sad that you don’t understand the Constitution defends us from the ACLU. Please know that I have the right to not give to near terrorist groups that stick their nose into business that isn’t theirs.

  7. Then educate me, oh wise one. In the United States, the Constitution, among other things, gives the powers to the people. The ACLU does its best to take it away from the will of the people and grant it to the “grievance” of themselves or of someone who might have a grievance. They do this through the sheer outspending and shaming of whatever they don’t like. That, oh wise one, is near terrorism.

    I’m waiting.

    • The Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution. The ACLU defends the Bill of Rights. And the Constitution doesn’t give anyone else the right to take away those liberties. You’re either trolling or ignorant of basic concepts of liberty.

  8. Don’t know if it is to late to come on here but as it is the season of the annual united way drive I was searching under the question whether I could give to the United way but force an exclusion of money to a particular charity with which I disagree. From your article it is obvious you and I disagree politically, but the underlying points are still universal. 1. The problem with donating to conglomerate charities (maybe wrong term, but I mean those that then distribute to a lot if other charities) is maybe also one of their strengths. One stop shop. You can give and it is distributed to a lot of others. Generally a good thing. But, not if you disagree with one or more of the recipients. That is what I am contending with. 2. In hindsight, you were right and should have just donated directly to the individual charity of your choice rather than seeking an employer match. I too have worked for large companies (banks), and work for a smaller one now, but I believe they still have an employer match program. Giving to the individual charity satisfied your personal desire. Disagreeing with an established, albeit in your view (possibly in a universal view) contradictory, company policy on the match would not have diminished your desire to contribute, though it cut the combined amount in half. You were always able to donate directly, you just couldn’t leverage your domain with the employer’s match.

  9. I used to donate to United Way and support their missions, until I did my co-op and volunteered for them for 6 months 2 years ago. I found out people didn’t have much work except for going to meetings all day for show. They do force people to donate even for unpaid intern like me for their internal campaign (saying they expect 100% participation). Yes the employees compensation is huge! Thats open information everyone can check through the revenue agency. Their admin fee is a lot higher than 20% as apart from public donations the government gives them tons of money through funding programs too! When their underfunded agencies’ CEO (being the direct service provider) earns a lot less than UW’s managers, something is wrong.

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