Oliver Borden purchases cookies from Girl Scouts at Safeway on March 14, 2013. Because the local Girl Scouts do not currently have a lead position filled,
Oliver Borden purchases cookies from Girl Scouts at Safeway on March 14, 2013. Because the local Girl Scouts do not currently have a lead position filled, the San Juan United Way issued a recommendation to withhold funding for the scouts. (The Daily Times file photo)
FARMINGTON — Frustration and concern over funding shortfalls prompted a special meeting of the San Juan United Way board of directors on Thursday.

While the local United Way reported that general charitable giving was up, donor gifts to specific nonprofit groups ones that are not necessarily located in the county had also increased.

The United Way allows donors to direct money to certain organizations. Called designated donations, the increasingly popular donation stream leaves less in the pool of funds available for United Way's 18 partner agencies.

As a result, this past year, the local United Way saw a 22 percent drop in funding to its partner agencies.

The funding that went to the partner agencies serves a total of 48 programs that fall into four core community service designations: 45 percent go to youth issues, 25 percent to emergency care, 20 percent to family support and 10 percent to care for the elderly and disabled.

Programs include Meals on Wheels, hospice care, child sexual assault counseling and Red Cross disaster services.

The United Way's fiscal year ended on March 31. Earlier this month, the organization sent award letters that detailed the lower funding amounts.

On April 16, representatives for the partner agencies wrote a letter of complaint to the local United Way board, expressing their collective disappointment in the shortfall. The letter also asked for a review of the process by which allocations are awarded.

In a letter dated April 23, the United Way's current board president, Nicole Hitchcock, and the past president, Scott Michlin, acknowledged the agency directors' concerns and scheduled a meeting to review the process.

One issue that had some partner agency directors frustrated was public perception.

"If the United Way had a flagship fundraising season, then why were certain costs to the community member going up?" asked Farmington Boys and Girls Club President Benedikte Whitman during Thursday's meeting.

The Farmington Boys and Girls Club serves more than 1,800 children in San Juan County. Last year, the nonprofit received $124,800 in allocated funds from the local United Way. This year, the group is scheduled to receive $85,950, which is about a 31 percent decrease from the previous year.

"I kind of feel judged by the panel's 30-minute visit to my club," Whitman said. "And I don't have enough besides two written comments and the fund allocation amount to try to figure out why."

Several other directors at the meeting raised concerns over the efficacy of the United Way's criteria or lack of an objective set of criteria for the allocation process.

Before the United Way decides on how funding will be awarded, agency directors submit mid- and end-of-year reports and provide a presentation to the panel during a site visit. The panels, which are made up of donors and community members and are overseen by a member of the United Way's board, visit an agency's location to evaluate its work.

"These panels are made up of very caring individuals who deliberate thoughtfully over each agency's efforts," Hitchcock said. "They base their allocation decision on a variety of critical questions, like whether they feel donor money is honored by being spent wisely and is the community being best served. They take their work very seriously."

Board member John Elchert, who is also the publisher of The Daily Times, also tried to dispel the notion that funding was not fairly awarded.

"It's people making decisions the best way they could," Elchert said. "Put another 10 groups together, and you'll get 10 different allocations."

But not all the agencies were convinced.

"It seems like it's politics or preferential treatment," said Charles Kromer, executive director for the Kirtland Youth Association. "I'd like to know what the criteria is for the funding. It smacks of politics when one youth group sees an increase and my group is cut."

The Kirtland Youth Association saw its allocation funding decrease about 29 percent, falling from $47,000 last year to $33,550 this year.

Hitchcock tried to reassure the gathered directors that members of the board take an active role in ensuring against favoritism or politics.

She and Michlin said that the board will look into the allocation review process and determine if changes are needed to better explain to agencies how funding decisions are made.

"We certainly can look into how these decisions are made," Michlin said. "We've been doing it the same way for 50 years, but maybe it's time we adjust and clarify further how we do things. Educating everyone is the key in this, for all of us and the community."

In certain cases, the board also has the ability to change a panel's funding decision. One such case was with the local Girl Scouts.

"We have panels visit various sites around the county," said Linda Mickey, executive director for the local United Way. "When they visited the Girl Scouts, they discovered that there was no lead person or director."

Without a lead position filled, the volunteer panel of donors issued a recommendation to withhold funding for the scouts.

"They (the Girl Scouts) have been told that they can receive pro-rated funding when a director position is filled," Mickey said.

Last year, the Girl Scouts were allocated $15,500 and also received a little more than $5,000 in designations.

The United Way's revised annual budget allocation award letter will be sent in the next 30 days, Mickey said.

James Fenton can be reached at jfenton@daily-times.com; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt.