Charities tied tight to economy

Steel mill, recession affected donations

As the economy goes, so often go donations to charities.

Before Northwestern Steel and Wire closed in 2001, United Way of Whiteside County was poised to reach its longtime goal of $900,000 in pledges during its annual campaign, according to the group.

That never happened.

In the past 6 years, the group has collected from $766,150 to $824,857, according to its tax forms. The recent recession, though, appeared not to have had a big effect on donations.

For United Way of Lee County, donations took a dive during the economic slump. In 2007, it collected $481,781. As the economy soured, pledges plunged each year after that until 2011 – to a low of $363,963. 

This time around, the Lee County campaign is 85 percent toward its $406,000 goal, hoping to reach that amount in time for its annual celebration in late January.

Susan Hohlen, Lee County’s executive director, is optimistic.

“The past couple of years, we didn’t make the goal,” she said. “This year, we are on track to meet it.”

Whiteside County’s United Way hopes to get $730,000 in this year’s campaign, which will end with a luncheon in March. It is at 92 percent.

The advantage of United Way is that it specializes in fundraising.

“We want the agencies to deliver programs and not spend so much time doing fundraising,” said Russell Siefken Jr., executive director for United Way of Whiteside County for the past 20 years. 

According to its 2011 tax return, Lee County’s group invested 89 percent of its donations to programs, with the rest going toward management and general expenses. For Whiteside County, 85 percent went into programs in 2011, with the remaining portion for other expenses.

Over the years, the groups’ boards have kept their donation portfolios about the same. Traditionally, United Way of Lee County’s top beneficiary is Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, which provides such services as substance abuse counseling. It got $62,425 in 2011.

For Whiteside County, YWCA and YMCA are typically the top recipients, getting $84,000 and $73,000, respectively, in 2011. Lutheran Social Services was third at $68,516.

During their campaigns, both United Way groups ask their recipients to refrain from holding major fundraisers, so as not compete with the overall campaign.

“It’s getting harder and harder to keep them from doing things,” Hohlen said. “More of them want to hold fundraisers during the blackout time. We’ve allowed more of those [recently] than we generally have.”

Giving United

Here's how much the Lee and Whiteside County United Way chapters have collected in donations over the years:

Listed from 2007 to 2012:

Lee County: $481,781; $434,439; $430,059; $400,754; $363,963; $395,917

Whiteside County: $786,171; $784,091; $782,046; $824,857; $766,150; $767,095

For more information

United Way of Whiteside County is at 502 First Ave. in Sterling. Call 815-625-7973 or visit

United Way of Lee County is at 101 W. First St. in Dixon. Call 815-284-3339 or visit