Good year for United Way

Surprisingly, the economy has not hurt the charitable organization’s fundraising

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

Like so many other charitable organizations around the world, the United Way of Southern Nevada relies heavily on contributions from businesses and their employees. So it would come as little surprise to hear it had struggled in the recent economy.

But that hasn’t been the case. At the midpoint of its annual fundraising campaign, the local United Way is on track to reach its $13 million goal, CEO Cass Palmer said. (In addition to its own campaign, the organization also manages about $23 million in grants for Southern Nevada, money that’s also tracking well.)

There are good reasons why, according to Palmer and Bob Welling, vice president of resource development.

One is the nonprofit’s location in a former bank on West Flamingo Road. While the United Way has had a presence in Las Vegas for 57 years, it jumped around an array of buildings that weren’t always suited to its mission and were rarely so centrally located.

“After a 50-year search, we found the right home,” Palmer said. “It fits us aesthetically and geographically. It fits our mission and size.”

Another plus is an energized leadership team. Six of the eight senior executives are relatively new — including Palmer and Welling, who assumed their positions over the past couple years — and all have come from the private sector. Palmer has a background in human resource management; Welling is from the hotel industry.

“So we get a diversity of ideas,” Palmer said, and as a result, the management team has “contentious, healthy discussions about what we do.”

A re-branding also helped. The United Way has been a recognizable name for some time, but the public didn’t always know what it did. So the agency started telling its story better. It also became more accountable to contributors.

“Donors are becoming more sophisticated and want to know where their dollars are going,” Palmer said. “So we’ve spent more time outlining programs and educating donors about that.”

The organization now has around 30,000 individual contributors, and the average donor gives about $10 out of each paycheck.

“That $10 is a lot of money to them,” Palmer said. “But they’ve been rock solid the past few years.”

Before the economy tightened, people often donated to the United Way because it felt like the right thing to do, Palmer said. That has changed as well.

During the depths of the recession, “people said they were giving because they might need our services someday,” he said. “In the past year or so, people are giving because they want to give back.”