This story by Marsha Keefer was originally published on the Beaver County Times
A “body blow” is how Mike Rubino, executive director of United Way of Beaver County, likened the impact of COVID-19 on its 2020-21 campaign, which means its 17 partner agencies and other charities in the county could see anywhere from a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction in support.
The current campaign, which launched in September, will be especially challenging because countless fundraising events have been canceled and many donors — both corporate and individual — have reduced or eliminated giving, he said.
Not only will agencies like the YMCA, Meals on Wheels, Lifesteps, Women’s Center of Beaver County and Big Brothers Big Sisters suffer, but so will individuals who rely on services these nonprofits provide such as food and energy assistance, emergency shelter, counseling, skills training, and programs for the physically and mentally challenged.
The pandemic hit when the United Way was coming off a record year.
For the first time in 18 years, the 2019-20 campaign raised more than $1 million — well over its $850,000 goal — and a record 73 charities received funds.
“Everything was going gangbusters, everything was hitting on all cylinders and people were doing things like never before,” Rubino said. “The economy was great. It was just going fantastically and then COVID hit and we then had to kick into a different mode. The general campaign came to a standstill.”
United Way had to cancel its June dinner that would have celebrated its best year ever and recognized major donors. About 350 people usually attend. But the event also would have raised over $15,000 from sponsors that Rubino said counted as “kick-off money” for the 2020-21 campaign.
“We lost the $15,000 of net revenue that would have started the coffers for the next campaign,” he said.
Over the summer, two golf outings hosted by United Way benefactors were canceled resulting in the loss of an additional $50,000 in fundraising, said Rubino.
And then last month, the annual breakfast to launch the current campaign was canceled resulting in another loss of about $15,000 in sponsorships.
“We lost that money, not to mention the opportunity to get people fired up,” he said, for the current campaign.
In total, Rubino said the 2020-21 campaign — which runs through May 31 — is “$80,000 in the hole right off the bat.”
If COVID hadn’t happened, he said the goal likely would have been raised to $900,000, but was lowered to $800,000, “which is going to be tough.”
Things got even worse.
Many local businesses lost revenue or have gone out of business during the pandemic. Many employees lost jobs.
Companies that supported United Way in the past or whose employees donated through payroll deductions either won’t be able to guarantee those gifts this year or will do so at a much-reduced level.
“Look at how many people are not working in Beaver County that would have signed up (through payroll deduction) for next year, but aren’t going to be there. We’re anticipating at least a 10 to 20 percent reduction in employee contributions,” Rubino said.
Many companies also held internal fundraisers — things like chili cook-offs, baked good sales, cornhole tournaments — where employees paid entry fees that were donated to United Way.
“All those special events are not happening,” Rubino said.
Last year, Lincoln Learning Solutions hosted a car cruise to benefit United Way and planned a second this year. That had to be canceled.
The Bobcat Players, a local theater troupe, shared profits from one night’s performance that raised $1,200 last year, but can’t this year.
“All these little events big and small — not just for us but for a lot of the nonprofits — had to be canceled,” Rubino said.
“We’ve identified almost $300,000 of money we either won’t get or are at high risk of losing,” he said. “So that’s already $300,000 we’re definitely in the hole compared to last year. Then you add to that all the charities in Beaver County and our partner agencies had to cancel almost all their fundraisers so it’s almost become a double whammy. They’re losing the money that they raise and then potentially, if we don’t get our campaign between now and next May moving, potentially they’ll lose a percentage of what we give them in their monthly budget to run the United Way programs.”
Early in the campaign, Rubino would meet with businesses and organizations to talk about the campaign and how United Way’s partner agencies help the community.
“By this time last year, I would have done 30 talks in person in groups from as small as five to as big as 300 at Eaton Corporation. Nobody wants to do those, obviously. No groups are allowed to get together that big in size. They don’t want outsiders there and I totally understand it,” he said.
United Way and many companies are re-imagining how to run campaigns and most are doing so digitally via video conferencing.
“United Way has to come up with ways to give them digital things they can put on their Zoom meeting,” Rubino said.
With the help of Lincoln Learning Solutions and Ryno Production Inc., two videos have been created and posted on United Way’s website at www.UnitedWayBeaver.org. that not only discuss the current campaign but feature testimonials from clients helped through United Way.
The website also introduces what Rubino calls “a new donation experience,” underwritten by an anonymous benefactor.
People can now support United Way three ways: one-time gift; monthly gift; or round-up purchases to the next dollar by linking a debit or credit card.
“We’re hoping to get a lot of people to do the round-up donation,” said Rubino.
Here’s how it works: Each time you make a purchase using a banking card, United Way gets the change up to the next dollar.
For example, if you buy a cup of coffee for $1.59, United Way receives 41 cents rounded up to $2. If you buy a pair of shoes that cost $29.99, United Way gets a penny rounded up to $30.
The donor can limit how much a month he wants to round up when he registers, Rubino said.
The company working with Rubino on the new program estimated United Way will receive from $10 to $14 a month from the average person who rounds up using a credit or debit card.
“Our goal is to get 500 Beaver Countians to link a card out of 161,000,” he said. “We just want to get 500 people to link a card and that would generate between $50,000 and $60,000 for us just in coins.”
The anonymous benefactor also is underwriting a six-month digital marketing plan.
And there are creative ideas like virtual golf outings — at least three are in the works — to generate money. Two will be hosted by benefactors; one by the United Way.
Rubino likened them to a “scratch-off game you’d play on PA Lottery.” Each of the 18 holes has four blocks. Players click on one and “that’s the score for the hole.” Players also can compete for prizes.
Each time one plays a round of golf he’s asked to make a donation to United Way.
“Anybody can play,” he said — even people who don’t know how to golf or have never played.
In the midst of all the unknowns because of COVID-19, Rubino said he still must figure out a budget as to how much the partner agencies can count on from United Way.
Some receive 1 percent of their overall budget to support programs; most receive between 10 and 20 percent, Rubino said.
“We’re saying we’re hoping, but we can’t promise,” he said. “We may have to cut your gift by 20 to 30 percent.”
In an op-ed column he wrote that appeared in The Times Sept. 13, Rubino said 36 percent of Beaver County residents “struggle to achieve the basic cost of living,” a percentage that “grew overnight” once the pandemic hit.
And that’s why he’s asking people to “dig deeper and help a local charity in any way possible” through dollars, time or talent.
“We’re just starting our seventh decade of raising funds because we’re trying to ease the pain for as many charities as possible,” Rubino said.
“These agencies need to continue to deliver the services for people day in and day out. Let’s not forget moving forward if there’s anything you can do, please help.”
HOW TO DONATE
To donate to the 2020-2021 United Way campaign, visit the website at www.UnitedWayBeaver.org. There, you can opt to make a one-time gift; monthly gift; or round-up purchases to the next dollar by linking a debit or credit card.
You can also write a check to United Way of Beaver County and mail it to 3582 Brodhead Road, Unit 205, Monaca, PA 15061.
Or call the office at 724-774-3210 where staff can take a credit card number over the phone.
Mike Rubino, executive director, reminds people who live in Beaver County but work in Allegheny and surrounding counties and participate in their company’s United Way payroll deduction to remember to designate donations back to Beaver County.
And anyone who needs help — feeding a family, avoiding eviction, keeping utilities on, joining the workforce or caring for an elderly relative, for example —– should dial 211, a United Way-sponsored hotline.