United Way needs honest critique

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We have always been a friend of United Way.

We support the agency in its longstanding mission to provide a safety net for those among us who need the most help and are most likely to be overlooked.

Nonetheless, the time has come for an honest critique of how United Way has struggled in recent years. Fundraising is down and expenses are up. Not all of the trouble could have been avoided. There have been changes, for instance, in how companies and individuals do their giving, and that has resulted in United Way getting a smaller slice of the nonprofit pie.

In our opinion, there are other matters that fall squarely on the shoulders of longtime United Way Executive Director Sherry Stevens and the two boards to which she reports.

Part of the financial challenge came about when Northwest Montana United Way stepped up and made a deal to purchase 100,643 square feet of Gateway Community Center three years ago. That $2.4 million purchase seemed like a good idea at the time, given that more than $1 million has been poured into the former mall building in volunteer elbow grease and donated materials. But it seems to have hamstrung the agency’s cash flow because making the loan payments essentially depends on nonprofit organizations filling the center and paying rent to sustain the loan payments. It was also surprising, if not alarming, to learn the property taxes have been paid late the last two years.

In addition to reporting to the board of United Way, Stevens now also reports to the board of Westside Center for Community Change, the entity created to hold the building’s finances separate from those of the charitable agency.

Questions have been raised about the ability of the Westside CCC to handle the maintenance on the building and its parking lots, which are shared with a TTech call center that occupies space leased from the Flathead County Economic Development Authority.

Westside CCC collects rent and fees from United Way and other tenants in order to make mortgage payments on the community center. Currently, there are 18 nonprofits and one for-profit business in the center, with potential to have as many as 25 nonprofits.

Complicating the financial worries for United Way is the lawsuit from an independent investor who put up $600,000 in the form of a money market account to be used as security for the mortgage, and quite frankly, made the purchase happen. That money was supposed to be released, with interest, after two years, but it now appears the money remains frozen as collateral, and that United Way apparently cannot afford to pay the interest or return the loan at this time. It was also disappointing to learn United Way and Westside CCC didn’t respond to the lawsuit. Even if they believe there was no wrong-doing, there’s still an obligation to respond.

So where does United Way go from here?

We believe it’s time for the United Way board to thoroughly assess the services it is providing and demand transparency in all of the agency’s dealings. While it’s laudable the agency in some way supports 114 nonprofits, that may be too big of a burden given the current fundraising climate. United Way agencies in several other Montana cities have pared down their focus to a single community need. Missoula, for example, is putting its money into a 10-year plan to end homelessness in that city. Perhaps that’s a more reasonable approach here in the Flathead.

United Way soon will launch its annual donor campaign, along with a more low-key capital campaign to address the building maintenance and mortgage. If both boards and Stevens can step up with complete transparency, we believe there’s still an opportunity for those campaigns to be successful.

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