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UNITED WAY NEARLY 30% SHORT OF ITS ANNUAL GOAL

The clock is ticking, and with only one week left, the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County has reached just 72 percent of its annual fund-drive goal.

As the campaign tries to overcome some of the fund-raising obstacles generated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it has raised about $14.2 million of its $19.8 million goal.

"From all the projections we have, we believe we're going to be coming in on track, but it's been a bit slower," said Craig J. Thrall, director of communications for the local United Way.

The terrorist attacks forced United Way officials to step back from their annual campaign for about 10 days last month. But that wasn't the only effect.

"Our sense is there certainly are people who gave to tragedy relief efforts, and that's all they could handle," Thrall said. "We've seen that to a small degree."

The United Way has worked hard to educate the public about the need to give to the local fund-raising arm, to take care of the home front, in addition to the national front.

For example, local agencies that receive significant funding from the United Way -- such as the Red Cross, Crisis Services, the Life Transitions Center and Central Referral Services -- were already in place and ready to help people when the terrorist attacks hit.

To help educate the public and answer workers' questions, about 30 loaned executives from local agencies work full time out of a United Way "war room," making about five presentations each in local workplaces on a daily basis.

United Way officials also have had to fight a long-term trend, in their donors' increasing insistence on giving to specific agencies, rather than to the United Way Community Care Fund, which funds about 200 programs in 100 local agencies. In 1990, United Way donors gave about 65 percent of their donations to the Community Care Fund; last year, they gave only about 35 percent to that fund.

"That restricts our ability to meet the greatest need," Thrall said. "We take care of the little agency that may only have a staff of two or three and doesn't have a marketing department, but they do great work and provide services that aren't duplicated."

United Way officials understand that some people may want to target their gifts to specific agencies, but they also ask donors to look at the global needs of the whole community.

In order to get that point across, the loaned executives in their presentations often play the Community Care Game. Hypothetical donors are allotted $100 and asked to consider 12 scenarios, such as an inner-city group trying to start an after-school program, a mother and child fleeing from domestic abuse and a homeless man who hasn't eaten in two days.

All worthy causes, but the game player may choose only one agency with his or her $100 gift. Players realize what a tough choice that is.

"When you give to the Community Care Fund, you're helping all 12 of those agencies, and you don't have to make that decision," Thrall said.

The United Way raised about $19.4 million last year in its annual fund drive.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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