Uphill pull for charities

The United Way is asking you to dig deeper into your pocket this year than ever before.

The United Way is asking you to dig deeper into your pocket this year than ever before.

Year after year, the United Way of Central Alberta strives to support its member agencies and the remarkable variety of good works those agencies do in the community.

And each year, the demand for financial support grows.

Some of that is driven by simple economics: inflation drives up the cost of charitable purchases and services as much as it does for businesses and households.

Some of it is driven by the growing diversity of services available, and needed, in our community as our population increases, matures and diversifies. The umbrella organization says its 33 member agencies will serve one in three Central Albertans in the next year.

Some growth in need is a reflection of the growing failure of governments to provide basic services. Charitable groups have necessarily stepped into the void.

Some of the push for greater donations has likely been driven by potential: in the past decade, as the regional economy thrived, the opportunity to raise funds for worthy causes was very strong.

But in the course of one year, things can change very dramatically.

It is now a difficult climate in which to ask people for more money: unemployment in Central Alberta is at its highest level in years, at 7.9 per cent last month, according to Alberta Employment and Immigration. In Alberta, only the northwest region had a higher jobless rate in August, at 8.3 per cent.

Many of those who remain employed have either had their wages frozen or rolled back. Some workers have been asked by their employers to reduce their hours — effectively cutting their incomes. Workers whose income is dependent on commission sales have also been particularly hard hit.

And businesses, big and small, have curtailed their budgets in a variety of areas, including that portion set aside for charitable causes.

Yet the United Way launched a campaign last week that asks for $2,103,103 from Central Albertans. That’s a five per cent increase from the $2 million raised in the fall of 2008.

Celebrity entrepreneur Brett Wilson told the United Way kickoff luncheon last week that charitable work is “an opportunity, not an obligation,” but sometimes it’s difficult to see the opportunity through the challenges.

Just a day before Wilson spoke, new Red Deer Chamber of Commerce president Dom Mancuso warned that more economic hardship may lay ahead for businesses — and therefore for the average person. “Really as a business owner we could be 12 months away” from recovery, he warned.

Into that chasm of uncertainty steps the United Way, and all the groups that rely on it, and all the individuals who rely on those groups.

No doubt the task of meeting the ambitious goal will be difficult. Likely it will be met at the last minute; this community always seems to find a way to answer the most critical needs.

But it’s important to be aware of how great the sacrifice will be for many people who give this year. And how difficult it will be for some people to simply say no, because they can barely make ends meet.

A cause as worthy as the United Way shouldn’t be denied, but it will take a particularly united movement to find a way this year.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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