First reported 7/2/2010 4:41 p.m.

One of the biggest and oldest local charitable organizations is consolidating with three of its sister groups, an effort to meet the financial promises it has made to local social service agencies.

The deep recession, and specifically, the failure last fall of Park National Bank, the most generous local donor, forced the United Way of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park to merge with other regional branches of the organization, creating the United Way of DuPage/West Cook. The merger was announced and took effect last Thursday, July 1.

The change will allow the organizations streamline their operations – particularly fundraising.

With only two full-time staffers in the Oak Park office, the agency may have been locally based, but it was stretched paper-thin. Barbara Watkins, former president of the local United Way’s board, said it was simply too difficult for the agency to get things done.

“Our initial feeling was against it, but as we really went through the process with an open mind, we really, the conclusion was almost inevitable that we couldn’t keep going the way we were,” said Watkins, who will join the new United Way’s board. “The cost of raising the funds we were raising was too high.”

For many decades, the local organization was known as the Community Chest. When it joined forces with the United Way several years ago, one promise was that any money raised in Oak Park, River Forest or Forest Park would stay there. That promise is no longer in place.

Several local non-profits which have received funding from the local agency over many years aren’t so sure being under a larger umbrella will help them.

“I understand why they’re consolidating, but I feel we’re going to lose a lot, locally,” said Elizabeth Lippitt, executive director of the Children’s Clinic in Oak Park, which will receive $41,866 from United Way of DuPage/West Cook this year. That money is a combination of funds the clinic was set to receive from two separate United Way groups in the merger.

“I really felt the reviewers who came in and looked at the agency really knew who you were, because they were from the community,” Lippitt said. “Being grouped in with all these other agencies from these other communities, it’ll be harder to get funding.”

The consolidated United Way will merge the operations of the organization’s Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park branch, the Leyden-Proviso branch, the West Suburban branch, and the DuPage Area branch.

Christine Lewis, head of the new United Way of DuPage/West Cook, said the agency always tries to focus donations back in the area they come from, but money is often simply pushed to the area of greatest need.

“So much of our work crosses over – we’re always targeting areas of special need,” Lewis said. “Within each year, funding is going to shift.”

Park National Bank’s demise last fall was particularly devastating to the local branch’s coffers. Losing the bank’s considerable charitable donations – both its corporate gifts and its considerable employee giving campaign – left United Way in trouble, and the Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park branch would not have been able to meet its obligations this year without help, Lewis said.

However, the larger DuPage branch will fill that gap with funds from its reserves, according to Lewis.

The new organization will feature 10 full-time staffers, with several devoted only to fundraising. Its offices will be in Oak Brook, where the DuPage office’s branch is now.

The organization’s Oak Park office space will be shuttered soon as well, though Watkins said there’s no time frame for that yet.

“The physical location shouldn’t be the determinant for our success,” Lewis said. “It’s more important for us to be out there face to face.”

Dan Kill, president of Thrive Counseling in Oak Park, said that though Thrive will still get the $62,980 from the new United Way branch it had been promised by the Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park branch, the future is murkier.

“I think it’s a loss for the communities that the United Way of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park focused on. They had a much better idea of the local needs – they didn’t get lost with so many others,” said Kill.

However, he added, he understands the motive. “It’s clear that United Way monies are really focused on needs that are larger than any one community.”

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