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The Chronicle of Philanthropy, April 19, 2001

Divided in Support of Scouts United Ways struggle to balance donors' interests in bias debate


Many United Ways across the country have found themselves on the spot following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Boy Scouts of America's right to reject homosexual leaders.

In cities and towns nationwide, donors, civic leaders, elected officials, and others have called on United Ways to take some kind of action, such as withholding funds from the Boy Scouts in protest of its policies toward gays or reaffirming their support of local Scout councils.

The issue has put many United Ways at ground zero for local debates on gay rights, charity independence, and what it means to be a community-run and -financed organization.

In some places, resolutions have been easily achieved. But in other communities, bitter divisions have emerged.

In many cases, reaching a decision has meant maneuvering through a minefield of competing interests as each United Way tries to balance its own antidiscrimination policies against its desires to limit the damage to Boy Scout programs and the young men they serve.

The stakes are high. United Ways account for roughly 35 percent of Boy Scout private donations over all, based on 1996 information, the most recent data available. And United Ways are not alone in their reviews of Boy Scout giving: Corporations, schools, religious groups, individuals, and parents have also been placed in the position of deciding whether to continue to support a highly esteemed organization that excludes gay members.

"There is no question this Supreme Court ruling has created a situation that is complex and painful for everybody around the country, and that certainly does include United Ways," says Elinor J. Ferdon, chairwoman-elect of the United Way of America's board of governors.

Greg Shields, national spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, says his organization is frustrated that some United Ways have shied away from continued support. "We don't force our beliefs on anyone; we simply ask that our values be respected and tolerated," he says. "It's ironic in our pluralistic society that some who champion individualism, tolerance, and diversity don't practice these principles themselves."

Variety of Actions

A survey by The Chronicle of the nation's 400 largest United Ways found that at least 50 have taken steps to create, revise, or newly apply their antidiscrimination policies in recent months. Among the actions taken:

  • At least 25 United Ways -- in places as varied as Allegan, Mich.; Bloomington, Ind.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- have decided to drop local Boy Scout organizations from their rosters of United Way member agencies, meaning that the groups will no longer receive money from the United Ways' general or unrestricted funds. All or almost all of those United Ways continue to permit donors to earmark their money for the Boy Scouts.
  • An additional eight United Ways plan to limit their Boy Scout donations to Learning for Life, a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts that operates in schools and is not bound by the Scouts' policy on gays.
  • At least seven United Ways are changing their pledge forms to allow donors who give to a United Way's general fund to specifically prohibit their money from being used to support the Boy Scouts.
  • A few United Ways have passed new or strengthened existing antidiscrimination policies to include sexual orientation as a criterion, but those groups say they do not plan to make charities' support of the policies a condition for receiving donations. The United Way of Bay County, in Bay City, Mich., says its board has asked local Boy Scout leaders "to pursue policies that are consistent with your mission to prepare young boys to be principled, educated, tolerant adults of tomorrow" and not to make decisions about whom they hire or serve based on sexual orientation.

"We ask the Lake Huron Council to send this message to their national organization on our behalf," says a spokesman for the United Way. "We would like, and truly believe, the national Boy Scout organization will ultimately change their policy."

Several other United Ways have revised their antidiscrimination policies or plan to beef up enforcement, but it is too early to tell what impact that move will have. For example, at the United Way of Central Iowa, in Des Moines, the local Boy Scouts and other member charities have until the beginning of next month to decide whether to sign the United Way's new antidiscrimination policy.

At many United Ways, however, unequivocal support for the Scouts is just as strong and heartfelt. At least 27 United Way boards have taken a formal stand in recent months to ensure future allocations to the Boy Scouts. And many others say local support for the Boy Scouts and its policies runs so strong that no formal review has been necessary.

For example, in response to questions from The Chronicle, the United Way in Jackson, Mich., wrote: "Our community is a very conservative one.

The values that the Boy Scouts reflect are considered by most in our area to be morally correct. Ultimately, we decided that we are a vehicle for the public to contribute to the charity/issue of their choice. As such, we are obligated to offer options in funding, and are not responsible for deciding the moral correctness of their gifts."

The United Way of McHenry County, in McHenry, Ill., says that responses to a letter it sent to its donors after the Supreme Court decision stating that it would continue financing the Boy Scouts "ran 20 to 1 in favor of the Boy Scouts." John O'Hagan, head of the United Way, says the letter also "sparked a 20-percent surge in giving" from donors who did not contribute through a workplace campaign, including many donors who had not given in the past year or more. Mr. O'Hagan says that, although some donors also decided to withhold donations because of the decision, he believes those losses "were modest."

Many other United Ways are planning to take up the issue during meetings scheduled through June. Some 1,400 United Ways raise money for charitable causes around the country.

'I Owe Scouting'

Pressure on United Ways to take a stand on the Boy Scouts has come from a variety of sources.

Scouting for All, a charity in Petaluma, Calif., that was cofounded by Eagle Scout Steven Cozza, 16, organizes efforts to persuade the Boy Scouts to rescind its policy on gays. The charity specifically encourages scouts and others to ask United Ways and corporations throughout the nation to withdraw support from the Scouts, and provides suggested form letters on its Web site.

"It's an educational process for many United Ways," says Scott Cozza, Steven's father, who is president of Scouting for All and a former scoutmaster. "It takes time, because United Ways have to change not only their attitudes but their behaviors. If we educate them with a compassionate heart and in a loving way, things will begin to happen. In fact, long story short: It is happening."

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin businessman is doing all he can to promote continued support of the Boy Scouts in his city. In January, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee formed a committee to study all sides of the controversy and report to its board in June.

Richard L. Blomquist, chief executive officer of Associates for Health Care, a for-profit company in Brookfield, Wis., that donated $6,000 to the Milwaukee United Way last year, is worried that the United Way could eventually decide to withhold some or all of the more than $650,000 that it currently provides each year to the Scouts' Milwaukee County Council. The council relies on that money for a quarter of its budget.

If the Milwaukee United Way cuts off funds to the Scouts, Mr. Blomquist says his company will stop donating to the United Way. In the meantime, he has mailed letters to 100 area business executives asking them to contact the United Way to support the continued financing of the Scouts.

Mr. Blomquist emphasizes that his company does not allow discrimination of any kind and that he has no prejudice against gay people. But he says the United Way would be wrong to say goodbye to the Scouts, which he says should not be punished for setting its own criteria for leadership.

For Mr. Blomquist, the matter is laden with loyalty. He joined the Scouts after his parents divorced when he was 10 years old, and he credits the organization with helping him during a troubled time.

"I owe Scouting," he says. "They were there for me, so I feel it's important that I be there for them."

Scouts Not Panicked

Nobody on any side of the debate wants to destroy the Boy Scouts, says the man who argued the case against the Scouts' policy at the Supreme Court. Evan Wolfson, of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, says the Scouts could avoid all the controversy by simply changing its policy on gays.

He says the United Ways that have already decided to cut off money to the Boy Scouts mark "just the beginning" of the total number that may ultimately take such action to make their point. While such steps are painful for the Boy Scouts, Mr. Wolfson says, the overall debate over the Scouts' policy is healthy for the country.

"Because scouting is so much a part of American life, non-gay people are finally really getting to see what antigay discrimination looks like up close," he says. "Fair-minded Americans who are not gay are reacting against that discrimination, and that's really great."

The Boy Scouts of America itself is not panicked about the number of United Ways that have cut off money to Scout councils, says Mr. Shields, the group's national spokesman. He says that United Ways that are taking such action represent "a very small percentage" of the total.

While the Scouts are worried about the serious financial problems faced by those Scout councils that will suffer a cutoff or reduction in United Way funds, "the vast majority of United Ways are sticking with us," says Mr. Shields. "In fact, they are supporting us quite vociferously and quite strongly."

A Loss of $150,000

One council that is feeling the loss of United Way money is the Connecticut Yankee Council, in Milford, which expects to lose at least $150,000 -- or 8 percent -- of its annual budget as 9 of its 14 United Way supporters withdraw funds because of the Scouts' policy on gays.

Although those United Ways still allow donors to designate the Yankee Council as the recipient of their gifts, the Scouts group expects a big shortfall in United Way dollars, most of which had been used for programs in urban areas, says Douglas L. Krofina, the council's scout executive.

"United Ways have every right, even though I don't agree with them, to do with their philanthropy and their giving as they so choose," says Mr. Krofina. "But they are missing the point of the Supreme Court decision: that we have a constitutional right to set our standards of values and beliefs and to assemble with people who share the same values and beliefs, even though it may not be politically correct for a portion of the population."

Many Connecticut residents who learned about the plight of the Yankee Council through news accounts have responded by mailing the council checks "for $50, $100, even $500, saying that they are upset with the way the United Way is treating the Boy Scouts," says Mr. Krofina.

But that's not enough money to ease the crisis, he says, especially because the council also will lose at least $100,000 from major corporations -- such as Pitney Bowes -- that have withdrawn support in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

"The funding person from one company came to me and said, 'Until the national organization changes its policy, you will not get any more money from us,'" says Mr. Krofina. "I said, 'You have every right to do that, but remember, if you have any intention of ever influencing the national organization in changing its policy, this action by you will sever that chance.'"

To try to avoid budget cuts, the Yankee Council is making an emergency appeal for contributions, asking parents, Scout leaders, and executive board members for help as well as starting a "friends of scouting" group to hunt for funds. Says Mr. Krofina: "We have a lot of people looking, but to make up that amount of money -- that's tough."

Difficult to Win

Just how much of a difference the debate over the Scouts will make to the nation's United Ways is unclear.

In some cities, United Way officials have strived to find middle ground between people on opposing sides of the issue. In Orlando, Fla., for example, the United Way backed off of a plan to cut off all donations to the Boy Scouts and instead adopted a plan that gives the Scouts their own spot on the donor pledge form for earmarked gifts.

The United Way of Jackson County, in Medford, Ore., has come up with a different approach, cutting the local Boy Scouts' funds by 15 percent this year, from $40,962 to $34,818, as a way to encourage the local Scout council "to engage in the national debate regarding their policy" on gays.

"A lot of United Ways have made all-or-nothing decisions on defunding the Scouts, but we wanted to allow the integrity of both organizations to stand," says Dee Anne Everson, executive director of the United Way.

Many United Ways in cities that are bitterly divided on the Boy Scouts issue share the view that no matter what response they choose, even if they do nothing, they will upset some people.

Jill Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, which starting this year is requiring all the charities it supports to comply with its antidiscrimination policy, says she has tried to emphasize throughout the debate "that many people depend on the network of United Way-supported programs and services."

She adds: "Hopefully, those taking a strong stance on either side of this issue will appreciate the positive impact the collective United Way system makes in each community."




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