Contributions to the Grand Forks United Way have fallen 22 percent since 2013, including a 23 percent decline from 2016 to 2017, the most recent year figures are readily available.
According to the organization's 990 tax forms, giving in 2013 was $980,035. Although the organization saw a slight increase from 2015 to 2016, the trend has continued, with a recent low of $760,342 in 2017.
Nonprofits are required to file a 990 tax form with the Internal Revenue Service on a yearly basis. The financial report is available to the public for all nonprofit organizations.
For comparison, the United Way in Fargo saw a small decrease in contributions and grants from 2016 to 2017, according to the organization's 990 forms. That number dropped by less than half of a percent for the United Way of Cass-Clay, or by about $12,000. The organization, from 2013 to 2017, increased its contributions and grants by nearly 3 percent from 2013 to 2017.
The Souris Valley United Way in Minot saw an increase of more than 10 percent in that time period, but a 26 percent decrease in contributions from 2016 to 2017. Giving to the United Way in Minot in 2016 was $1,019,185 and dropped to $751,666 in 2017.
The Missouri Slope Area United Way in Bismarck had an increase of 5.58 percent from 2015 to 2016, the most recent financial data available.
Anne Cohen, a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota and head of the nonprofit management program in the Carlson School of Business, said donations can fluctuate year over year, but given there were not major issues with the economy in 2017, the significant drop in dollars in Grand Forks is puzzling.
"Sometimes times are just tough, you could have a major supporter drop off radar for whatever reason, or something. But when you have a drop like that you need to look at what you should be doing differently," Cohen said. "Is it something we did? Something we're not doing correctly? Or is it something that is out of our control? Who should we be bringing into our circle to figure this out?"
The Grand Forks United Way has been in the local spotlight after the board of directors fired the organization's longtime president and CEO. Pat Berger, the former head of the United Way, is considering a civil suit against the United Way and possibly individual board members involved in the decision to terminate her.
Her attorney, David Thompson, said Berger has still not come to a decision on whether she wants to pursue civil litigation.
According to Berger and Thompson the firing was the result of criticism by the Herald in a column by Publisher Korrie Wenzel. Wenzel used a comment Berger made on Facebook about the merging of WDAZ-TV in Grand Forks and WDAY in Fargo as a point in his Dec. 6 column, "Still here, reporting the news."
The board of directors cited performance issues as the reason for firing Berger, saying they believed the organization was not well led. This, Thompson says, is an after-the-fact attempt to cover up the fact that Berger's firing was a "retaliatory response" for the Facebook comments she made.
Cohen said nonprofit organizations need strategic leadership just as much, and sometimes more, than their for-profit counterparts.
"Nonprofits need management and leadership professionals that are just as qualified and talented than their for-profit peers," Cohen said. "Good nonprofit leadership needs to be strategic. There should be a focus on outreach and stewardship."
The role of the board of directors of a nonprofit is an important one, Cohen said.
"You've got to take a really strong look at governance. Taking a look at the folks on the board, are they evaluating programs, do they have good relationship with the leadership and employees? The governance function is an important piece."
Cohen said leaders of nonprofits must be strategic and diplomatic in their actions. Also, Cohen said leaders must innovative, highly transparent with the public and be highly ethical.
"It's a tough role, a very strategic and outwardly facing public role. It is not for the faint of heart," Cohen said.
The Grand Forks United Way gave $274,200 in poverty grants to various organizations in 2017, according to the organization's annual report. The United Way gave to more than 20 groups, including the YMCA, Community Violence Intervention Center (CVIC) and the Northlands Rescue Mission.
The United Way's goal, stated on its website, is to make sure Grand Forks has the lowest poverty rate among the four major cities in North Dakota by 2023.
Shaun Havis, vice president of resource development for the United Way, said this is the third campaign the United Way has conducted with a focus on poverty.
The United Way also gave nearly $50,000 in "community impact grants" in 2017, according to documents found on the organization's website.
In addition to partnering with local nonprofit organizations to fight poverty in the Grand Forks community, the United Way also coordinates several other programs. Examples of that programming include Toys for Tots, which distributes toys to children; Undies Sundays, which donates new underwear, socks, diapers and personal care items to children and adults in need; Imagination Library, which gives books to children in need; Familywize, which provides families with discount prescription drug cards; and Wheels for Work, which allows community members to donate their used cars to those in need.
Havis said the Grand Forks United Way does the bulk of its fundraising in a "traditional" campaign. The United Way works with employers, who then pass out donation forms to employees and other individuals.
"We're your traditional United Way," Havis said.
About 75 percent of funds that come into the United Way come from this type of fundraising. Havis said the majority of United Ways around the country fundraise using the same "campaign" method.
However, experts say this may not be the most effective way to reach donors. Cohen said people's ways of giving have changed and nonprofits need to follow suit.
"Individuals want to see the impact of their dollars," Cohen said. "There has been shift on the donor side, it's not passive anymore. People are not just giving for sake of giving."
In general, according to Cohen, individuals make up about 70 percent of giving and corporations make up about 5 percent.
"Fundraising is more relationships-based. If you're handing out forms and working through corporations you need to make sure the people on the corporate side are being thanked and that they understand the impact of their giving," Cohen said. "And it is really hard to do in corporate context. It makes it tough to manage those relationships with an individual giver."
Relying mainly on corporations and their individual employees for donations makes the most sense with organizations that have "natural synergies," Cohen said, like Habitat for Humanity and the Home Depot.
At a national level, Havis said, the organization is looking at ways to reach more members of a community.
"They are trying to keep up with technology and work with new programs because workplace campaigns are not always the most accessible," Havis said. "They're looking at ways to run the campaign differently."
Locally, Havis said, the United Way is also looking to reach more members of the Grand Forks community.
Havis said the organization has looked at doing things like hosting signature events to reach out to individuals not in the workplace campaign and marketing in ways that will reach as many people as possible.
Havis said participating in Giving Hearts Day for the first time this year was a new opportunity for the organization. On Valentine's Day the United Way raised funds for its local sponsorship of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.
The hope is to receive additional funds for the Imagination Library, so the United Way can put more donations from the campaign toward poverty and community improvement grants.
"We know there's others in community that are not being reached. In a good year we're only reaching a third of the population in Grand Forks," Havis said. "We'd like to reach everyone we can."