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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications, Published October 14 2012

Grand Forks United Way reaches goal, breaks fundraising record

GRAND FORKS – United Way here reached its goal of $1,003,000 in last fall’s campaign and broke a fundraising record, President Pat Berger announced earlier this year.

Just last month, she said this fall’s campaign goal is $1,025,000 to be allocated next year to nearly 40 agencies such as the Salvation Army and the Community Violence Intervention Center.

But it appears United Way of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Area isn’t keeping up with the increases seen in United Way campaigns in the Fargo and Bismarck areas, even accounting for population differences. By one measure, United Way giving in Grand Forks is less than what it was 10 years ago.

Berger has compared per-capita giving at the larger United Ways in North Dakota in the past, as a way of pushing for more giving in Grand Forks, which historically has had lower numbers.

Below inflation

In last year’s campaign, United Way of Cass-Clay in Fargo raised just more than $5 million and the group is aiming at $5.1 million this fall, says President Sherri Thomsen.

Missouri Slope Areawide United Way in Bismarck raised a record $1.57 million last year and is stepping out, admittedly ambitiously, to raise a nice round $2 million this year, says Executive Director Jena Gullo.

The Grand Forks metro population was 98,500, according to the 2010 Census. The Fargo metro had 208,800 and the Bismarck metro 108,800.

Over the past decade, per-capita giving to United Way in Fargo and Bismarck has outstripped inflation, rising 41 percent and 36 percent, respectively. The same hasn’t happened in Grand Forks, where per-capita giving rose 21 percent.

Inflation was about 27 percent over that period, according to the federal Consumer Price Index.

Per-capita giving to United Way of Cass-Clay went from about $17 in 2001 to about $24 in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, the 2001 figure would be about $22 in 2011 dollars.

In Bismarck, per-capita giving to United Way went from $10.56 in 2001 to $14.39 in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, the 2001 figure would be $13.41 in 2011 dollars.

In Grand Forks, per-capital giving to United Way went from $8.41 in 2001 to $10.15 in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, the 2001 figure would be $10.68 in 2011 dollars.

(A note about the Grand Forks figures: United Way said in 2002 that it raised $1.07 million in the 2001 campaign. Berger said last week that that total included about $180,000 in federal block grants the city gave to United Way to administer; the city stopped the practice in 2008. Without the federal grant, money raised locally in 2001 was about $820,000.)

Could be worse

Berger hasn’t crunched the numbers exactly as the Herald has but knows the general disparity exists.

But she said there are other measurements to take into account, too. While Fargo and Bismarck have shown more growth than Grand Forks of late, a wider perspective shows the local United Way has done well during a difficult decade regionally and nationally, she said.

And it could be worse.

In Austin, Texas, this summer, for example, the local United Way announced a slashing of allocations by a full third and cuts in staffing after donations dropped off 17 percent from the previous year.

Grand Forks, last year’s total of $1 million raised by the United Way was nearly 4 percent above the previous year’s campaign, Berger said. “If you look at United Ways around us, that year we were considered one of the highlights because our campaign had not taken some of the huge hits that others had.”

Last year across North Dakota, United Ways averaged an increase of 0.9 percent over the previous year, and across Minnesota, only 0.6 percent, Berger said. Nationally, it was even less: an average increase of 0.3 percent.

Fargo’s higher pay

Grand Forks’ economy often pales in comparison to Fargo’s bigger and faster-growing character. This can mean even more when it comes to United Way’s corporate-focused giving structure that includes employee giving programs and straight corporate gifts.

“You have to look at some of the major companies that are down there,” Berger said. “Microsoft alone – you have got a lot of higher- paying jobs down in Fargo, than you seem to have up here in Grand Forks.”

The Fargo United Way has a cadre of individuals who donate $10,000 or more each every year, Berger said; she had one once, in 1998.

Sherri Thomsen, president of United Way in Fargo said the relatively vibrant economy and population increases in the community are major reasons for increases.

“We have over 600 corporate sponsors,” she said.

The Grand Forks United Way’s corporate sponsors total closer to 100.

But she thinks there’s more to it, as the campaigns have outstripped the population growth.

“We have been able to tell the story of the needs of our community,” she said. “The campaign goal is not just a sales job, it’s looking at community needs and what the residents care about most.”

The most agreement on community needs has focused on early childhood education, so that is where her agency is concentrating, Thomsen said.

Berger said it’s similar in Grand Forks.

A big hit with donors has been the new Imagination Library program, which puts a book in the mail every month for a child, from infancy to nearly kindergarten age.

It’s aimed at one of the needs everyone agrees on, Berger said. “If you have never given to United Way before, would you at least sponsor a child at $25 a year?”

“We just enrolled our 1,000th kid,” Berger said. She would like to see 3,000 enrolled, she said.

Oil boom impact

Wade Mann, president of the United Way board in Bismarck, said the oil boom hasn’t impacted giving to United Way as much as one might think.

“A lot of the oil companies are not headquartered or located in Bismarck,” he said, so their giving tends to be done in other cities. But there’s no doubt that indirectly, the oil boom has helped, he said.

However, Gullo, the executive director, said the needs created by the boom seem to hit faster than the overall increase in wealth.

“We see a lot of new people moving into town and having a difficult time affording their rent,” she said. “I know my own rent has gone up. So the demand on social services is just increasing dramatically.”

That’s why she and the board decided to be “aggressive,” Gullo said, and raise their campaign goal by nearly a third from what they raised last year, to $2 million.

Berger said Grand Forks is seeing positive effects of the oil economy, too.

Steffes Corp. of Dickinson, which opened a production plant just west of Grand Forks in the past year, has been an active United Way donor.

“They invited us out there this year to do an employee campaign,” Berger said.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that the local United Way’s record campaign last year meant that a record $773,247 was handed out to about 35 agencies this year, up about $10,000 in total allocations from the previous year, Berger said.

That’s less than the total raised because United Way subtracts administrative costs and “shrinkage,” or pledges that don’t come in.

Berger’s staff has not gotten much in raises nor have they attended national conferences the past four years, saving money that goes toward allocations, she said.

“I would say we have a very responsible board trying to get as much money as possible out into the community,” she said.

Dave Willprecht, Grand Forks area campaign chairman, said aiming for a 2.5 percent increase this fall is a good sign, and he’s hoping to keep the momentum of breaking the million-dollar mark.

Berger and her staff do a great job, he said.

The United Way style of putting together volunteers from the business community with the staff and all the helping agencies funded through United Way, make for a good mix, said Willprecht, who works for Bremer Bank.

“I think Grand Forks is a very giving community,” he said.

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Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald