Dan Gillmor

Why I Withdrew My United Way Donation and Donated Directly

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.