The United Way of Greater Rochester’s annual fundraising campaign is off to a very fast start.

The agency on Tuesday announced it has been promised the largest challenge grant in its history, a $500,000 gift from the ESL Federal Credit Union Charitable Foundation that is five times larger than any such grant it has received.

The one-time “Bridge to the Future Challenge Grant” is meant to “encourage new and increased gifts from local companies and leadership-level donors to United Way of Greater Rochester’s 2012 Campaign,” according to a news release. The grant will support the Community Fund portion of the campaign, though the gifts the grant will match do not need to be made specifically to the Community Fund.

The gift is also the largest philanthropic gift in ESL’s history.

“To ensure Greater Rochester remains a productive, vital place to live, work and raise a family, today’s challenging environment needs those who are able, to step forward and pledge their support,” said ESL president and CEO, Dave Fiedler.

It comes on the heels of another challenge grant promised by Constellation Brands Community Fund Challenge that matches any new and increased individual gifts specifically made to the Community Fund, up to $100,000.

Rob Sands, president and CEO of Constellation Brands, is the 2012 fundraising campaign chair.

“We are honored and humbled by ESL’s commitment through their charitable foundation to inspire a new generation of leadership and giving,” said Peter Carpino, president of United Way of Greater Rochester. “It is my hope that other organizations and community leaders join this effort to continue providing critical services to more than 500,000 local people in need through the Community Fund this year.”

Carpino on Feb. 29 announced the 2012 fundraising goal of $25.5 million, which was a decrease from the $28 million goal in 2011, which was exceeded by $100,000.

It was the lowest goal since 1985 and reflected concerns about local economic conditions such as the Chapter 11 restructuring of Eastman Kodak Co. and the uncertainty regarding Windstream Corp.’s commitment to Rochester after its acquisition of PAETEC.

Traditionally, Rochester’s United Way campaigns have ranked well nationwide in per capita giving. Local campaign goals increased throughout the 1980s before dipping for a few years in the mid-1990s and then increasing again until 2000. The goal in 1980 was about $19 million, and $17.8 million was raised. The campaign reached its peak in 2000, when $41 million was set as a goal — surpassed by about $2,500.

Aside from a few positive fluctuations, the goals and giving rates have declined since then, both locally and across the country.

Still, Rochester has fared well.

For the 2009-10 year, Rochester’s campaign was second in the nation in per capita giving out of 32 campaigns with totals above $25 million, according to the local United Way office. Overall in that year, Rochester’s campaign was 21st out of 1,240 United Ways around the country in per capita giving.

In 2004-05, Rochester had the eighth-highest per capita giving among United Ways nationwide.

Kodak was a major player in that, having contributed $140 million to the United Way over the past 30 years through employee, former employee and retiree contributions, with an additional $70 million in corporate contributions.

United Way last year announced allocations of $17.8 million to about 80 local programs from the Community Fund; more than 500,000 people are assisted by the money raised in the annual campaign.

For more on grants and grant writing, visit Grant Pros.


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