CINCINNATI -- United Way of Greater Cincinnati ended its tumultuous 2018 fundraising campaign Wednesday with $50,315,000 in projected pledges.
The total was even lower than the $52 million United Way had predicted for this year’s campaign, capping what interim CEO Ross Meyer has called a “heartbreaking” time for the organization he now leads and the community it serves.
The turmoil started Oct. 29, when an email became public that former CEO Michael Johnson had sent to United Way’s board of directors. Johnson, the organization’s first black CEO, wrote that he had been the victim of “subtle threats” and a “hostile work environment” created by former United Way board chair Julia Poston.
United Way announced that day that Johnson was on leave. By Oct. 31, Johnson and the organization announced he would be stepping down on friendly terms. On Nov. 2, Poston resigned from her position on United Way’s board after an outcry from the organization’s staff.
The dispute is far bigger than office politics.
The more than 140 nonprofit organizations that get money from United Way serve roughly 300,000 people across the region each year.
And black leaders have called on United Way and other prominent nonprofits and businesses to turn the controversy into an opportunity to discuss the region’s racial divide.
Meyer addressed these past few painful weeks during a campaign finale event Wednesday at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine.
“By now, you probably know about our recent leadership changes. My promise is this: United Way commits to partnering with others in the community to address issues of equity and inclusion. We promise to look inward as well as outward,” Meyer said in his opening remarks. “We’ll continue to engage in tough conversations and act on what we learn. We’re dedicated to playing a significant role in that journey, and I ask all of you to please do the same.”
Raising dollars, seeing hope
Even before the Johnson’s email became public, United Way of Greater Cincinnati knew this year’s campaign would be difficult.
The organization warned the local nonprofits that get United Way funding that they should expect cuts of as much as 20 percent in their 2019 allocations.
Johnson predicted in an Oct. 23 interview with WCPO that this year’s campaign would yield about $52 million in projected pledges -- or $10 million less than the organization raised in 2015. He said United Way organizations across the country are experiencing declines, too, for a variety of reasons. The campaign total ultimately came in even lower.
Here in the Tri-State, many of the region’s largest companies have fewer local employees, which has resulted in less money for United Way.
Others have been purchased by outside owners who don’t have the same interest in the region’s charitable efforts, Johnson said.
United Way of Greater Cincinnati is working on ways to adapt to the changing fundraising landscape, just as it is looking to heal from the difficulties of the past few weeks.
There likely will be more pain in the short term. Johnson had said in his email to the board that United Way might have to eliminate a dozen of its roughly 125 jobs because of the funding shortfall. Some employees are worried the number of jobs cut could be higher.
Meyer said Wednesday that United Way will “raise every dollar we can for this community” until Dec. 31 and “won’t stop until we do.”
“Our total tonight is such an amazing start,” he said. “It proves why we are one of the most generous communities in the country. Greater Cincinnati cares. That is clear.”
In his closing remarks, Meyer thanked United Way’s staff and stressed that they all will be working hard to continue to serve the community as the organization has for more than a century.
“Our work continues,” he said. “United Way is committed to helping children and families who are struggling. With more than 100 years in the game, plus fresh, new innovation, I am confident we can help children and families move on a path out of poverty. We can help make a difference for those who need it most. As we look to the future, despite all of our challenges, I see hope.”
More information about United Way of Greater Cincinnati and how to contribute is available online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.