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Salvation Army cuts ties with United Way

Funding down, it will go it alone

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / August 28, 2010

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A simmering battle between two leading nonprofit organizations erupted publicly yesterday when the Salvation Army of Massachusetts abruptly severed ties with United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, ending a 70-year relationship.

Salvation Army officials said years of funding cuts by United Way, an umbrella group that gives money to dozens of charity efforts across the state, led to the decision to end its affiliation.

United Way’s direct grant to the Salvation Army was slated to drop to $171,000 next year, a 54 percent decrease from three years earlier and a major slide from the $1 million awarded to the group in 1990, according to the Salvation Army, a social services group with a Christian evangelical mission.

The decreases coincided with a 2007 decision by United Way to redirect millions of dollars it had sent to traditional charities, spending the funds instead on new programs.

“Every year for the last three years I have communicated with the United Way saying our allocation is going down and I’m very much concerned about that,’’ said Major William Bode, a commander in the Salvation Army’s Massachusetts division. “Our advisory board and board of directors had to look at that and say, ‘What is happening with the relationship?’ ’’

After meeting United Way president Michael K. Durkin for lunch Thursday to discuss a break up, Bode informed United Way of its final decision yesterday in an e-mail.

Durkin said he felt blindsided by the move. The Salvation Army is one of United Way’s top beneficiaries in total annual funding.

“Our partnership is too strong to end on an e-mail,’’ he said in an interview. “I don’t know if [Bode] owes the United Way, but I do know that he owes more to the community than that.’’

Durkin said Bode told him nine months ago that the Salvation Army would need additional funding. Durkin said he applauded the work of the agency and increased its allocation for next year by 18 percent.

He said the agency also recently finished a three-year review of the Salvation Army’s programs and decided to offer it annual increases for the next three years.

The Salvation Army, an international group known for collecting donations using bell-ringers and red kettles during the yuletide season, operates shelters, food programs, and a host of services to benefit the poor.

Durkin said he hopes to repair the relationship with the nonprofit, adding, “We feel strongly that they are an important part of this community.’’

Repairing the rift will take some work: The sides can’t even agree on basic funding numbers. The Salvation Army contends that United Way has been cutting back on its commitment.

In addition to direct awards from United Way, the Salvation Army receives other allocations, including donations made to United Way that are earmarked for the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army says that United Way was offering a total of $368,000 for next year. United Way, however, says the nonprofit was slated to get $420,000.

According to United Way’s tax filings reviewed by the Globe, United Way’s overall contributions to the Salvation Army of Massachusetts went up to $633,647 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, from $478,000 the previous year.

The most recent tax filings were not available, making it difficult to verify a pattern.

Bode said these recent contributions pale in comparison to awards made two decades ago that topped $1 million — and that is why he is ending the affiliation.

To raise more money, Bode said the Salvation Army will now begin its own workplace donation program, urging businesses to offer payroll deductions for employees to give to the nonprofit.

It had not been allowed to undertake such fund-raising while affiliated with United Way, which has mastered this strategy.

“It’s been a strain on us to fund-raise,’’ Bode said. “We’re praying and hoping that because we’re going out to all these companies, the general public will respond and help.’’

The Salvation Army issued a press release announcing its split from United Way and asking donors to contribute directly to the agency, even providing a phone number and website. Boston public relations firm O’Neill and Associates helped publicize the rift. Salvation Army officials declined to disclose how much it spent to retain the firm.

Durkin criticized the move.

“Rather than communicate directly with a partner of 70 years, they’re retaining someone to advise them how to spin a story,’’ he said. “You just wonder about the sincerity.’’

It is not the first time Bode has been at the center of a tussle with United Way. In 2004, as regional leader for the Salvation Army of Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, Bode severed a 107-year relationship with United Way of Bucks County in Pennsylvania. In a press release, the group said United Way had cut its funding by $37,765 and that the Salvation Army would undertake raising the money independently.

Beth Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.