Manassas Journal Messenger | Organizations suffer after scrutiny of United Way

When the director of the Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center donates money to one of her pet charities, a no-kill cat shelter, she scrutinizes how her money will be used.

She looks “with the same sort of wary eyes” that people view her through when they ask about donating to the homeless prevention shelter, said Gayle Sanders. “I’m not about writing checks and just sending them off.”

Now more than ever, donors are careful where they give money in light of recent mishandlings of money by the United Way of the National Capital Area, said Sanders.

“We have groups come in that ask questions that are very different from what they used to be,” she said. “They are much more pointed and I don’t mind that.”

She works for Volunteers of America, a non-profit contracted by Prince William County. It supports families and single adults who need a place to stay, counseling or who just need a hot meal or clothes.

Even though the Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center doesn’t depend on the United Way of the National Capital Area, mistrust has seeped into the minds of potential donors.

This year, like many other area agencies, the center is feeling the financial crunch of donor’s skepticism and lack of confidence.

Their lack of confidence has been founded in past news reports and a recent UWNCA audit and subsequent charges against its former executive vice president for misusing up to $1.6 million.

On Tuesday the UWNCA released an audit performed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP that said the agency’s former vice president used up to $1.6 million in United Way money for personal use.

Oral Suer’s unauthorized payments included about 28 years worth of unused sick and vacation leave and personal expenses, according to the audit. The forensic accounting investigation also found that up to $210,000 of Suer’s expenses were for personal use.

In 1989, Suer made a $9,000 campaign pledge, only to be reimbursed by UWNCA, according to the audit.

The UWNCA funds organizations in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Prince William counties, Alexandria and the District of Columbia.

Each area has its own community services grants for which participating nonprofit partners can apply.

This year, Prince William County non profits received hundreds of thousands of dollars less than in previous years.

The three county Boys and Girls Clubs were short by $80,000 and Securing Emergency Resources through Volunteer Efforts, an organization that provides a homeless shelter and teaches life skills development and job training, saw almost $130,000 less than usual.

“Not donating does not hurt the United Way,” said Lindy Garnette, executive director of SERVE. “It’s the end users that get hurt. It’s our clients and other people’s clients.

“We certainly understand if people feel that way,” Garnette continued. “We would encourage them to donate directly to the organizations or an organization of their choice.”

UWNCA has a new director, Charles W. Anderson, and its board of directors have filed suit against Suer. It has also stopped payment to a former executive accused of receiving more unauthorized payments.

William Couper, chair of the UWNCA board of directors, wrote on its Web site that “Any wrongs will be righted. Unethical behavior will not be tolerated. Resources will not be misused.”

The UWNCA posted a copy of its audit at

The United Way and local agencies would like to move on.

“We’re encouraging people to give what they can,” said Garnette. “We’re confident that we provide services that meet people’s needs and that people want to be a part of that. We’ll weather this.”

Prince William County supervisors gave county organizations who suffered the United Way funding loss a one-time donation from its carryover cash.

The county ended fiscal year 2003 with an extra $13 million and gave $600,000 of that to a coalition of human services, a group of 16 organizations that were left high and dry by a lack of United Way donations.

Garnette said the coalition has asked the City of Manassas to provide some money, too.

“The county board of supervisors and city council are really to be commended on their action. They have saved a lot of services,” she said. “I know they have take some heat but they are really to be commended.”

Vinny Borello, area executive director for the Clubs, agreed wholeheartedly.

“Either you’re going to support us and give the kids a positive place to go … or you’re going to beef up your police department,” he said. “You’re going to spend your money either way.”

The county’s three Boys and Girls Clubs operate on a $1.9 million budget and serve about 6,000 kids.

The clubs are completely dependent on fund-raisers, memberships and an annual allocation from the county, totaling $89,000.

The three clubs would have been short close to $80,000 without the county’s additional donation of $70,555, bringing its total contribution to the Clubs to $159,555.

“It balanced us out. We ended up the year even. It’s wonderful to do that,” said Borello.

But the clubs and other agencies might not be in the clear next year. The county supervisors assured them that donations like this one would not become a habit.

“The real crunch is going to be next year because the county funding did go that far. We made a commitment that we wouldn’t come back,” said Garnette. “The real test is if this year’s campaign fails as miserably as last year’s, we’re really going to be up the creek.”

Borello’s confidence in the United Way is strong and he said a new Boys and Girls Club is under construction in Manassas.

“We’re not all sitting on millions of dollars in surplus and saying don’t worry about. It affects us,” he said. “We’re most at risk because we’re in the middle of building a … $2.7 million clubhouse.”

“It’s all of our hopes that everything turns out for United Way,” said Borello who praised the Prince William County United Way’s efforts.

Veronica Roth, executive director of Benedictine Aid and Relief for Neighbors, a transitional home for women and their children, agreed.

“We’ve been very pleased by the United Way office here in Prince William,” she said. Regarding financial misappropriations in the regional office, Roth was dismayed.

“It’s bound to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Roth said. “I just hope that people understand that community needs don’t go away.”

In 2002, 329 homeless people lived in the greater Prince William County area. This year the number jumped to 515.

“I’m concerned across the board with the difficulty in the economy and the increased need that we see in our clients,” said Roth. “I’d hate to see people’s confidence in charitable organizations drop.”

This was BARN’s first year for receiving a United Way grant of $18,000 and it wasn’t part of the coalition for human services.

Sanders, director at the Hilda Barg Homeless Prevention Center, said her program isn’t one that receives United Way funds annually, but it did receive extra money from the county.

The county supervisors gave $5,000 to a program at the Homeless Prevention Center, the first time a government entity has funded it.

“I’m very grateful because men’s transitional [program] is always a little in the red every year,” said Sanders. The program helps single men recover from substance abuse and get back on their feet with 12-step meetings and volunteer work. “This year it’s only $5,000, but that’s what we needed.”

Staff writer Lillian Kafka can be reached at (703) 878-8091.

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