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Rules banning food giveaways frustrate some CFC campaigns

Nov. 2, 2012 - 09:12AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

Early in this fall’s Combined Federal Campaign charity drive, local CFC leaders in some areas are grappling with a new and daunting reality: foodless fundraising.

This spring, the Office of Personnel Management banned campaigns from spending donors’ contributions on the lunches, snacks and soft drinks traditionally used to entice federal employees and campaign volunteers to show up for events. Without that inducement, many are staying away, some officials said.

The Seattle-area campaign’s annual kickoff, for example, usually draws 2,500 to 3,000 attendees. The turnout last month was 300, said Tim Smith, manager of the King County CFC, who attributed the plunge to the campaign’s inability to provide the usual lunch of hotdogs and potato chips.

“It’s certainly frustrating for some of us,” he said.

It is a similar story at the California Gold Coast CFC, which spans several counties north of Los Angeles. In September, the campaign held three lunchtime kickoffs on local military installations, each of which normally attracts more than 300 people to learn about the work done by participating charities. This year, however, attendees had to buy their burgers, and participation at all three events was below 100, said Terri Belkin, who runs the campaign.

“We were very impacted,” Belkin said, adding that she’s also concerned about the potential effect on pledges.

“If you can’t get them out for a kickoff, I’m not sure what kind of response we’ll get,” she said.

At the Onslow County CFC in eastern North Carolina, pledges are so far down about 80 percent in comparison with last year, according to Executive Director Alicia Hill. Although a slow start may play a role, the food ban has hurt outreach to Marines serving at Camp Lejeune and a nearby air station, Hill said.

“It’s partially to blame for sure,” she said.

OPM’s culinary crackdown came in response to an inspector general’s audit that found the Washington, D.C.-area CFC had racked up almost $1.1 million in questionable expenses between 2007 and 2009, including more than $102,000 spent on meals for employees and volunteers. Although local campaigns had previously been allowed to spend donor contributions on food for campaign-related events, OPM Director John Berry said the prohibition was needed to “ensure the continuing integrity and confidence in the CFC,” according to a March 28 memo posted on the agency’s website.

Berry has given no sign of reconsidering that policy. Keith Willingham, the OPM official who oversees the national campaign, was not available for an interview last week, but a spokeswoman said the agency hasn’t been told of any issues with CFC events because of the ban.

Providing a free lunch or some other modest giveaway is a standard fundraising tool. Doing without it has been a “major adjustment,” said Scott Jackson, CEO of Global Impact, which manages the National Capital Area CFC. Following the audit, the organization zeroed out its food and beverage budget, even ending bottled water service for its staff.

But the overall impact on the CFC has so far been minor, Jackson said, with pledges running $1 million ahead of the same time last year. In scheduling events, Global Impact now seeks to end them by early afternoon. Also, it is making more use of webinars and other options for getting the word out so employees don’t have to leave their buildings.

The campaign’s first major event of the 2012 pledge drive — a kickoff and charity fair in September that targeted CFC workers — drew more than 500 people, Jackson said. Although a slight dropoff from last year, it was less of a decrease than officials had feared.

Nor are all CFC managers opposed to the ban. “Overall, I think that’s a good thing to do,” said Xavier “Lew” Lewis, director of the Heart of Alabama CFC. “Even if you try to be a total perfect steward, there’s going to be a group of people opposed to the use of any dollars for kickoffs” and similar events.

Still, some CFCs have had to improvise. Among other stopgaps, the Cleveland-based North Coast Ohio CFC used a donated bushel of apples to make a Brown Betty for a recent breakfast, said Director Carol McClain. Attendance — which she pegged at more than 150 — was higher than last year, a pleasant surprise that McClain attributed to renewed enthusiasm among Cleveland-area employees.

But like several CFC managers contacted by Federal Times, she questioned whether the new OPM policy is overkill. Her campaign’s food budget was only about $1,200, she said. “I don’t think it’s fair that they just cut it off all of a sudden,” she said.

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