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Allegheny County United Way collections back on the upswing

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Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Marlee Spangler, an employee with EQT, looks at a book before inscribing it at an event for United Way, where it celebrated its annual 2015 workplace campaign on Thursday, June 16, 2016 at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown. The books were inscribed by the hundreds of attendees and will be donated to various programs and organizations throughout the city to promote reading throughout the summer and beyond.

The United Way of Allegheny County raised $34.79 million in workplace contributions in 2015, setting its highest annual total in a decade, officials said Thursday.

The local United Way achieved its best fundraising year since 2005 — and sixth straight year-over-year increase — in spite of shrinking donations from some longtime corporate givers; it took in about $900,000 less than in previous years, for instance, across three steel companies.

“Given the challenges, I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Bob Nelkin, CEO of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, shortly after unveiling the fundraising total during a ballroom luncheon of more than 500 funders and supporters at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown. The United Way of Allegheny County merged with the United Way of Westmoreland County in late 2015; the $34.79 million fundraising total reflects only Allegheny County’s results.

Fledgling philanthropists proved essential to boosting the bottom line: The number of donors 35 and younger spiked by 105 percent, from 1,927 to 3,949, and donations from that age group climbed by 59 percent, up to $552,000, United Way records show.

“For the first time, we’re showing a huge increase in millennial giving,” said Nelkin. He attributed the success in attracting younger donors to the “Next Gen” committee formed about three years ago.

That committee plans events and service projects that appeal to younger adults, such as a recent “Books and Brews” networking function and a Saturday spent making over a school library.

“The next generation thinks about philanthropy differently than older generations do,” Nelkin said. “There’s a lot of work around volunteerism and giving time and talent.”

Most United Way donations come via payroll deduction, with more than 700 employers participating in Allegheny County. Donors may give to United Way priorities or designate a charity of their choice.

About four years ago, in a strategic move to grow volunteers as well as donations earmarked for United Way-driven initiatives, the group changed its call to action — from “Give to United Way” to “Give, advocate and volunteer through the United Way,” Nelkin said.

“Funding is step one,” said Jack Barbour, United Way board chair and executive chairman at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, “but it takes our entire community — corporate leaders, caring volunteers and high-performing agencies — stepping up, partnering with us and working hands-on in our community to make an impact.”

United Way initiatives include regional efforts to improve lives of children, families, the elderly, veterans and individuals with disabilities.

The umbrella nonprofit and its supporters partner with schools to run programs such as Be a Middle School Mentor, fitUnited and Be There, a citywide plan to improve school attendance through positive reinforcement from adults and peers. Forty-five of 49 Pittsburgh Public Schools have reported less absenteeism since implementing it, United Way officials said.

“It’s basically a whole bunch of students helping each other out to get to school,” Jhenae Youngblood of the West End told the luncheon audience. She said that Be There got her back on track after she became a teen mom and missed school to care for her sick infant.

Since July 1, 2015, more than 9,000 volunteers of all ages contributed 120,000 hours on United Way projects, including by providing free preparation of almost 10,000 tax returns and helping 5,000 seniors do tasks such as shopping for groceries, shoveling snow and making medical appointments.

The local United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council and its 2,000 members raised $9 million, or about one-fourth of the campaign total.

The nation’s 1,400 United Way groups combine to form the largest charity in the U.S. by donations. United Way Worldwide — which includes the chapters in 40 countries — brought in more than $5 billion in 2015.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or [email protected].

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