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After 9 years, United Way beats goal

A focus on connecting better with donors has helped the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County exceed its annual fundraising goal for the first time in nine years, agency officials said Monday.

The United Way's 2011 campaign raised $13.57 million in pledges, surpassing the agency's $13.5 million goal and increasing the amount raised by 2 percent compared with the 2010 campaign.

"It's a reflection by the community of understanding the needs and the recognition that it's together that we'll improve and have a stronger Western New York and Buffalo," said Dennis W. Elsenbeck, regional executive of National Grid and the 2011 United Way campaign chairman.

Agency officials attributed the increase to a number of factors, including roughly 4,400 meetings that staff and volunteers had with corporate and community leaders to explain the United Way's work.

"Going out and talking face to face with individuals, corporate leaders, donors and the like gives us more of an opportunity to talk about our value proposition," said United Way President Michael Weiner. "That has meant so much to us in terms of getting greater credibility and greater understanding and appreciation for our mission."

The announcement Monday marked the first time since the agency's 2002 campaign that it met its annual fundraising goal.

It was also the second consecutive year that pledged donations increased compared with the previous year. Prior to that, the agency had experienced a 10-year decline in donations.

The United Way campaign helps nonprofit agencies that provide health and human services throughout Erie County, and Weiner said the staff has focused on getting out to explain that work.

"Our customer relations work with donors has improved dramatically to the point where we're more transparent," Weiner said. "We're more accountable."

Weiner said the fact that 68 companies ran new campaigns or gave corporate gifts for the first time also helped increase pledges.

This year, corporate and foundation giving increased by $108,586 -- a 4 percent increase. Donations made through the United Way Tocqueville Society, which comprises donors who contribute $10,000 or more, also increased.

The United Way of Buffalo & Erie County also has explored new ways to boost donations as a slow economic recovery and high unemployment rates impacted workplace giving.

Last year, the agency started its first checkout scanning campaign at local stores as part of the annual fundraising. Donations through that program increased 33 percent to $177,000 this year, according to the agency.

"Even though the economy has been hard on everybody, I think everyone understands that means there is an increased need in the community," said Theresa Jackson, consumer affairs manager for Wegmans Food Markets, which ran a four-week United Way checkout campaign last fall. "So we saw our employees really work to raise awareness for the work that the United Way does and the need that's out there, and we saw our customers respond."